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Memo from the Euro-Desk: In Czech with some Finns

Jan Marek sent the puck to the net and the  Finns back home. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images
Jan Marek sent the puck to the net and the Finns back home. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

Over the course of the next day or two, I will be completing my series of European hockey cultural exchanges. These posts were originally written while on the road, and now that I have recovered from both jet lag and the reminder that Kingston Ontario does not compare to Europe in the slightest, I now feel able to get back to writing. This is an edited version of my original story, because what went down that day was too convoluted to be published in such a forum. Try as I might, Hunter S. Thompson I am not, so my travel/sports journalism cannot be produced in the same vein.  This first story is from last Thursday while in Prague, with two Finns I met at the hostel the night before. More after the jump...

It's Wednesday night, the 19th of May and I am in Prague. I had spent much of the afternoon at the Prague beerfest, a giant tent party celebrating the thing that Czechs love more than all others, beer. I was traveling alone at this point in my journey but had made friends with another traveler and she convinced me that going to beerfest with her was a good idea. So I did, thinking to myself, well, I'll spare you all the details-this is a pg rated site. We had a wonderful time, though by this point I learned about the inevitable boyfriend that she neglected to mention before getting me drunk, much to my disappointment, but we returned to the hostel to find the other people in her dorm room still up and drinking too. Her dorm was much bigger than mine, featuring seven other people; three Canadian girls, two Americans, and most interestingly, two Finns. So, being the good journalist that I am not, I decided to engage these Finns to discover how much they love our game. And love it they do. Antto is from a little town he assumed I had never heard of, Imatra, birth place of former Oiler Jussi Markkanen while his buddy Vesa is from Helsinki. At this point, we proceeded to drink really awful vodka and talk Finnish and international hockey and philosophy for the next few hours until it was time to pass out. Derek's hetero-man-crush, one Teemu Hartikainen, as well as half-Finn MP(S) were major topics, as well as why the NHL is an inferior system to the Euro leagues, mostly due to the smaller ice and that teams that suck aren't relegated. I was a bit offended by that last remark, but in all honesty, maybe the Oilers should be relegated to OKC for a year.


The next day the Finns and I decided to do something that seemed very Finnish--we journeyed away from Prague to a little town called Kutna Hora to see a place called the Bone Cathedral. I can't remember the story about it, but it seemed really cool at the time, and trust the black-metal listening Finns to drag me to a church filled with skulls. Yes, that stereotype actually rings true--these guys listen to some seriously heavy stuff. They say it helps fight away the winter blues to play really aggressive music. 

Bone Cathedral (Click for Full-Size)

We Left the bone cathedral and returned to Prague in time to catch the game, the Czech/Finn game to be precise.  On our way back from Kutna Hora, we were in a train car with an old Czech man, probably in his early 60s who was very into the game and a huge Jagr fan. He said he wished Jaromir Jagr would leave Russia and come to the Oilers, like many others, specifically to play with Ales Hemsky, particularly because he was born in Hemsky's hometown and wants to see a local win Stanley and bring it back to Pardubice. He also very pleasantly wished the Finns a painless loss in the upcoming match. I have always had a soft spot for the Finns and the Slovaks, always playing second fiddle to their more popular neighbors, so I was feeling pretty great about my decision to fly enemy colors on Czech turf. Then something hit me--it was Thursday and I was supposed to be in Germany covering the Canada Russia match live. I had pulled the ultimate travelers mistake and spaced on the dates. Staying an extra day in Poland threw off my travel plans something fierce, and I actually forgot what day of the week it was. So I have clearly failed, and am now forced to publicly admit that I am a really bad travel correspondent. But I digress...

We got off the train and wandered off to a sports bar in the belly of the beast with the stated goal of becoming the enemies of the state in the heart of their home.The game itself was nothing special, a defensive battle between two teams with very strong goalies and proven systems. It was also a rematch of the Olympic QF match from earlier in the year, despite completely different rosters for both, the Czechs were clearly out for revenge. When the Finns scored first, early in the game off a wicked wrist shot from Petri Kontiola, showing incredible patience on a partial break to wait for Tomas Vokun to go down early. The three of us started cheering and shouting madly while the entire bar turned around to see who was defacing their team and country. For a split second, I feared for my life, but then I remembered that my travel mates are Finns--they have military training.

The Finns nursed the lead until early in the third and ultimately lost in the shootout, but there was something really rewarding about watching an international game with non-Canadians while abroad, something that not every serious fan gets the opportunity to experience but really should. It is a different world, with fight songs and cheers that don't involve cursing the other team, and most importantly with beer that is as good as it was cheap; there is truly nothing like drinking a Pilsner lager that was actually brewed in Pilsn, where the kind of beer was born, and paying less than $2/pint on top of it! There is a sense in over here that European sports fans aren't as passionate about hockey as Canadians are, but both the Czechs and Finns are as knowledgeable and intense as it gets, knowing their leagues, the top prospects, and the styles of play that both nations are famous for.  The Finns were gracious in defeat as the Czechs were in victory, allowing a couple Czechs to buy us beers to cry into. It was a nice touch, almost making up for my missing the chance to see the Canadians get slaughtered by the Russians. In hindsight, I think my spacing on the date was a blessing in disguise.

Up next, my final travel piece: Legendary Sports rivalries-Celtics/Rangers vs. Oilers/Flames