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Amid early tumult, teams begin world juniors quest for history, normalcy

EDMONTON — When it comes to pulling off this 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship, the money quote from Bob Nicholson was spoken last week:

“Get ‘em here and we’ll make them as safe as possible, get this tournament going,” the IIHF vice president said a week ago, as COVID-19 tore through the various teams and IIHF executive offices in Zurich.

Well, they’re here. And despite a ridiculous travel day for the European teams on Sunday, at least one country — Finland — feels ready to make history in Edmonton.

“I believe it is very important to play the world juniors, especially because of the Christmastime,” began Kimmo Oikarinen, the general manager of Team Finland. “All the hockey people in the world are waiting for this tournament, and all the teams want to play — that was the first discussion we had, starting last spring. Everybody wants to play.”

The teams are quarantining until Friday, when they will each hold their first practices in Edmonton. Between a 24-hour travel day on Sunday, and COVID cases on many of the teams during their training camps, it’s been a rocky start.

“For sure, we’ve had some problems in the beginning. But now we are in the bubble, and after quarantine I believe Hockey Canada can make a great, great event. Everybody will be happy after the tournament,” said Oikarinen, who presided over the Finnish team that won gold in Vancouver-Victoria two years ago. “What I said to my players was, it is great to be part of history. We have never done this before at the IIHF level. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that you can go through, and it’s going to be worth it.”

Finland’s Oskari Laaksonen, from left to right, Valtteri Puustinen, Jesse Ylonen and Anton Lundell celebrate a goal during the gold-medal game at the 2019 world juniors. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

With no fans in the building revenues are going to be tight. It appears the IIHF got ahead of this by trying to save some money on transportation, resulting in hellish travel days for six of the European teams on their way to Canada.

“How can I say? That was pretty amazing,” began Oikarinen. “We started in Helsinki. We said earlier (to the IIHF) that the aircraft is not a big as it should be. When we were at the airport we got a picture from inside the aircraft. They were loading equipment bags inside the cabin. It’s quite a big risk.”

Finland, Russia and Sweden met in Helsinki and flew together on an IIHF charter. The Czechs, Slovaks and Austrians also shared a plane, while Germany, the Swiss, Germans, and IIHF staff flew together out of Zurich.

The IIHF sent planes that were too small for three travelling parties and their equipment, a situation that should have easily been predicted. The Finns had already alerted the IIHF of the pending issue, and when Oikarinen saw the pictures of equipment being loaded into the seating area of the plane, he called a meeting with Igor Larionov of Russia and a Swedish team leader.

“I said, ‘I think this is a big risk to put players (on the plane) if there is equipment in the cabin. We contacted the IIHF.”

The solution was to leave gear in Helsinki, and bring it on a later plane. Still, what can normally be about a 12-hour trip from Helsinki to Edmonton turned into a 27-hour door-to-door odyssey. The small plane had to stop twice. Once in Reykjavik, and again in Goose Bay.

The other charter was also too small, resulting in delays and stops for fuel.

“The Slovaks, Austrians and Czechs, they had the same problem. They arrived at like 3 o’clock in the morning on Monday here,” Oikarinen said. “It was such a long trip, all the stress of coming here. Honestly, the plane was so small I was scared coming over the ocean. It took so, so long. Normally it’s a 10-hour flight. Now, it’s a 20-hour flight.”

Alas, all are here, accounted for, and ready to give the world some hockey normalcy, with a World Junior Championship set to begin on Christmas Day. And with some early adversity, some missing players on a few of the rosters, and a tone of the unexpected hanging over the tournament, perhaps this 2021 world juniors is the perfect place for these plucky Finns.

“I agree with what you say,” the Finnish GM said. “We are probably not the most talented, and have never been the most talented team. What we believe is that we need to be strong together. They have to be in the game, work for each other.

“And we have a chance to beat anybody.”

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