The Blue Jackets’ trip to Finland is officially back on.
After two planned games against the Colorado Avalanche last season in Helsinki were postponed by the pandemic, it was announced Thursday that both teams will play Nov. 4-5 next season in Tampere’s Nokia Arena.
“I haven’t talked to anyone (back home) about it, but I’m sure everyone is going to be excited to get to see me play,” said forward Patrik Laine, who’s from Tampere. “It’s been a couple of tough years with COVID and all that, so it will be fun for everyone over there, for the fans and everyone else, to watch me play and just watch NHL hockey overall.”
Laine, one of two Finnish players on the Jackets’ roster, attached a significant qualifier to most of his comments about the trip. He’s a pending restricted free agent without a contract extension for next season, so there’s a chance he might not be with the Blue Jackets. The same applies to goalie Joonas Korpisalo, a pending unrestricted free agent.
“It was exciting to hear the news and hopefully I’m still here,” Laine said after taking team photos on the ice at Nationwide Arena. That’s the next step (agreeing to an extension), but it should be a lot of fun. … It’s different here, for North American guys. They get to play in their hometowns, usually, but for Europeans it’s pretty rare that we get that opportunity. So, yeah, it’s pretty sweet. ”
According to Laine, the Blue Jackets will spend roughly five days in Helsinki before heading to Tampere to play back-to-back games against the Avalanche. Helsinki, which is closer to Korpisalo’s hometown of Pori, is where the teams were supposed to play earlier this season, before the NHL postponed all international games for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moving the games to Tampere puts them in Laine’s hometown at a new arena that just opened in December. It also harkens special memories for Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who was born in that city, earned a marketing degree from the University of Tampere in 2000 and played professionally for both Liiga teams based there, Tappara and Ilves.
“I’m looking forward to showing a little bit of Finland to our team, our staff and our players, so it’s going to be exciting,” Kekalainen said. “I’ve spent some of the best years of my life in that city, so it’s great to go back with our team and show these guys what that’s all about.”
A new addition to Tampere is Nokia Arena, which has a capacity of 13,455 and was just completed in December. It will also be a venue used for the upcoming 2022 IIHF men’s world championships, which will be held May 13-29 in Helsinki and Tampere.
Laine, who’s currently out with an undisclosed upper-body injury, isn’t sure whether he’ll join the Finnish team vying for a world championship in the same year a Finnish contingent won gold at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Corpisis hasn’t played since Mar. 22 and is scheduled to undergo hip surgery.
Other Finnish staff within the Blue Jackets’ organizational structure include head amateur scout Ville Siren and European player development coach Jarkko Ruutu. The Avalanche employs Finnish forwards Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen plus goaltending coach Jussi Parkkila.
As for the matchup, the potential is there for two exciting games.
Columbus swept the season series against Colorado this year, downing the Avalanche twice in a four-day span. Each game went down to the wire. The Blue Jackets won the first in overtime Nov. 3 at Ball Arena in Denver, when Laine strained an oblique muscle, and then won the rematch Nov. 6 at Nationwide Arena on a goal by rookie Cole Sillinger late in the third period.
The Blue Jackets sunk out of playoff contention afterward, playing without Laine for 20 games, while the Avalanche rose to the top of the NHL’s overall standings as Stanley Cup contender.
“It’s one of the best teams in the league, so it’s a great challenge,” Kekalainen said. “There’s four points available, just like for our games played here and in Denver, but as we can see, we’re out of the playoffs and they’re the number one team in the league. We had some success against them this year, so you never know. We’ll just look forward to two exciting games and battle for four points. ”
They’ll also enjoy their surroundings while making a rare road trip outside of North America.
“It comes with challenges, but it’s a great opportunity to go over there and grow the game, showcase (the NHL),” said Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen, who hasn’t previously visited or played in Finland. “It’s regular-season games, so it’s even better. I don’t look at it as a negative. You’re getting your group together to go out there and it’s a really neat experience. I’m looking forward to it. ”