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Martti Lahtinen’s Bucket List - 100 Days in Finland, Part 4

Before Martti’s 100 days in Finland trip, he had visited Finland in a very Canadian incarnation - as a member of an oldtimers hockey team. His Finnish background gave him a certain status on the team, and led to some unexpected results. Here, as he prepares for his 100-day trip, he recalls that eventful trip. Hilde Huus

Back to the place I'd been before

by Martti Lahtinen

I've traveled this route before, and its happenstance is connected to a lifelong pursuit of hockey: an endless road trip, as it were. It was the fall of 2001, and a grizzled gang of Ottawa-area pucksters sixty-plus years of age had entered a team in The World Cup of Hockey, an international oldtimers tournament which had tapped Helsinki 2002 as next host city in its lineup of rotating venues.What a coincidence! I'd scored a trifecta, a natural hat-trick. First, I was old enough, in my sixtieth year. Second, I played recreational hockey five days a week. Third, I was Finnish-born. I got the call to play; I answered.

The team – Les Boys – its promised notoriety borrowed from a classic French-Canadian film, invaded Helsinki in April. We were four dozen in all, our entourage swollen by a number of players who brought their wives, as well as the tourist-agency officials who organized the junket.

Visually, we were hot, hot, hot. Not only did the Canadian team sport the loud, canary yellow Les Boys jersey knock-offs (albeit with their winged-wheel crest replaced by a beer stein topped with a foamy head of brew), we were haberdasheringly bedecked in personalized long-sleeved red polo shirts underneath black fleece outerwear with 'CANADA' in eye-catching white capital letters stitched on the back.

Les Boys (et Les Girls) were guests of Her Excellency Adèle Dion (front row, right), Ambassador to Finland, at the Canadian Embassy in Helsinki in April 2002

Some joker once posited that if you dressed classy, you played classy. In Les Boys case, not so much. At week's end, after checking Plus-60 category standings, the Ottawa-area beer-league ragtag crew had one win against five losses. Meanwhile, we found consolation in our having been recognized – distaff cheerleader support crew included – as the best-dressed squad in the tournament.

Another distinction: One hundred and fifty-five – that's 155 – oldtimers teams competed in The World Cup of Hockey in 2002. There was but one team from Canada: Les Boys. The night before our first game, the group gathered in the Hotel Presidentti lounge to vote on the team captain. After the balloting, Les Boys counted six assistants to back the landslide winner: Martti Lahtinen. Accepting the recognition graciously begged for a nod toward the practical: “I know why you guys picked me to be captain,” I said. “I'm the only guy here who can talk to the Finnish referees when we get a shitty penalty call.” Followed by: “Thanks for 'the C.' But six assistants? You don't think I can do the job?”

As things evolved that week, I cannot help but think how big a deal it was: a native-born Finn captaining the only team from Canada in the tournament. The press from a hockey-mad country jumped all over it. “Martti Lahtinen plays hockey six hours a week,” screamed a sports-page headline in the Helsingin Sanomat, the national daily with a circulation of 500,000. “Canadian oldtimers hockey contingent has a Finnish-born captain,” it added.

The rest of the piece, as was the case in two smaller papers, fleshed out the story which was written on the basis of my interview with three Finnish reporters. I struggled with my native tongue, given that it had never developed scholastically and I only used it when I telephoned my Sudbury-based parents each Sunday. Embarrassment aside, I yakked on, filling the vocabulary holes with English equivalents when necessary.

Two days after the April 18, 2002 issue of the Helsingin Sanomat circulated about the land, cousin Kari whom I had met during a summer's stay in Finland in 1966 – 36 years previous – drove with his wife Etti from Savonlinna to watch Les Boys play. The same day, the hotel room telephone rang, connecting me with Uncle Urpo, who was living in Tornio, near the northern Finnish-Swedish border, and who had seen the Finnish captain story in the paper. A thirty-six year reunion! Because of hockey. Who would have thunk it.

As it turned out, I did employ the Les Boys captaincy to advantage. Our scheduled final game was against The Superstars, a Tampere-based collection of ex-National team Olympians, who never lost oldtimer World Cup tournaments in their age group. The Superstars were leading 7-0 at halftime in our game. It was awful; we were totally outclassed. There was no mercy flag option in the tourney rules. Furthermore, I had heard from hockey circles that European teams love to beat Canadians – at all levels of play – because it was a huge coup, the hockey equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. One can only reason that we were, and still remain, THE ultimate hockey-playing country in the world. Personally, I'm very OK with that perception; I've always felt Canada needed to find an identity, apart from being like the freaking Americans.

Back to the game, with our beleaguered Les Boys sucking wind at the bench down seven-zip, I targeted the Superstars captain and said: “Hei Teuvo, eikö se ole aika panna jarrut päälle!” (Translation: Hey Teuvo, isn't it time to put the brakes on!) “Okay Martti,” he said – with a wink.

Les Boys lost the game, 7-1, after somehow – astoundingly – winning the second half, 1-0. No one in the arena could explain how the deadly Superstars snipers either missed the net or fired pucks that always hit the goaltender square-on. I say the Canadians were the beneficiaries of “puck luck.” (Finnish translation: “kiekko karma.”)

Meanwhile, looking back, I can say this: the Les Boys road trip in 2002 was, in effect, a home game. Whenever I go back, it always is.

Les Boys, with Finnish-born captain Martti Lahtinen, competed in the Plus-60 division at the 2002 Oldtimers World Cup of Hockey in Helsinki.

It was this unexpected trip to Finland that really got Martti thinking that he needed to work on his Finnish. His interviews with the Finnish media left him feeling undressed - deficient in his own first language. He decided he needed a serious kickstart to improve it and signed up for weekly lessons on his return. And he decided to start visiting his home country every two years. He has done both - improving his Finnish comprehension to university level and speaking it so well that his fellow Finns can’t tell he hasn’t lived there his whole life. “What part of Finland are you from?” they often ask. “The west Quebec part,”, he answers. His “100 Days in Finland” took him one step further, immersing him in his native culture as if he had never left. Would it help him conquer the final frontier - Finnish verb conjugations? Watch for the final instalment of “Martti Lahtinen’s Bucket List” series in the March issue (unless I can persuade him to write a few more). Hilde

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