Hurricanes enjoy Finland

Staff writerOctober 7, 2010 

Tuomo Ruutu suggested seeing Suomenlinna Sea Fortress but insisted on taking in a sauna.

Joni Pitkanen agreed on the sauna and said another must was to sample some native food: reindeer.

As for Jussi Jokinen, he's no travel guide. He said he's just happy to be playing hockey in his home country.

The Carolina Hurricanes open the season today in Helsinki, Finland, as part of the 2010 NHL Premiere. For the Canes' three native Finns, it means a chance to take the ice before the homefolks while also serving as hosts a few days for their teammates and coaches.

"Now they will know how it feels for us, to go so far away to play hockey," Pitkanen said, smiling. "A lot of the players had never been to Finland, so it will be a good experience for them."

Ruutu believes a sauna should be a part of the experience and got some razzing about insisting his teammates go to Sauna Island. To some, that sounded like a Finnish version of Jersey Shore, causing coach Paul Maurice to quip later Tuesday, "I hear it was a great team event, but I don't want too many details."

But the team went Tuesday, and Ruutu said a good time was had by all. Ruutu, who has a home in Helsinki, said saunas are big part of Finnish culture, something akin to relaxing at a corner coffee shop in the U.S.

"The guys thought I was I crazy, but it's part of our life," the forward said. "It's a big part of growing up. Every Sunday as a family we'd get together, go to the sauna and have a family dinner.

"Every wood-burning sauna has a different smell. It's like people and their wines. To me it's about the smell and atmosphere."

Sauna Island is located in a group of 300 islands off the coast of Helsinki. The Fortress is one of Helsinki's landmarks, built on a group of the islands in the mid-18th century to offer the Finnish capital protection.

Then there's Hartwall Arena, which doesn't have nearly as much history - it opened in 1997 - but is the setting for the NHL Premiere and the Canes' back-to-back games against the Minnesota Wild. That's what excites Jokinen, a native of Kalajoki, Finland.

"It's awesome to play in your home country and to have people there who had a big influence in me being a National Hockey league player and are able to watch me play in an NHL game," Jokinen said.

Trades brought the Finns together. Jokinen, 27, resurrected his career after the Tampa Bay Lightning sent him to the Canes in February 2009. He became a folk hero for Carolina in the 2009 playoffs and scored a career-high 30 goals last season.

"He seems more determined this year than ever before," Maurice said. "He's in better shape than every before. He's faster.

"Jussi is capable of scoring 40, and he could have a good season and score 20. The numbers won't tell you if he's had a great year for us. He does so much."

Ruutu came to Carolina in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks in February 2008, and Pitkanen, 26, was dealt to the Canes in July 2008.

Ruutu, 27, is one of the fan favorites at the RBC Center, with Canes fans screaming 'R-uuuuu!!" whenever he lays out a big hit.

"He bangs, he competes, he fights hard," Maurice said. "He's a banger. How we play depends a lot on how he's moving."

And Pitkanen? "He's a horse and can log a lot of minutes," Maurice said.

Ruutu said having fellow Finns on the team can be reassuring and comforting.

"I would lie to you if I said it didn't mean anything," Ruutu said. "It's nice to speak your own language sometimes. You get homesick sometimes, and it's nice to speak Finnish and talk of things back home."

Pitkanen, a defenseman from Oulu, and Jokinen have been good friends since their early teens, playing junior hockey together.

There was disappointment for the Finns last season. The Canes had an early 14-game winless streak and missed the playoffs. While Pitkanen and Ruutu were on Finland's Olympic team in the 2010 Vancouver Games and won bronze medals, Jokinen was not chosen for the team.

Ruutu also had a nagging shoulder injury that slowed him much of the season and required surgery.

"I'm really proud of where I'm from, and it's nice the guys are able to come to your home country and see where you're from," Ruutu said. "It's nice to start the season in Finland, but to be honest it's so nice to just start. It feels like forever."

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