Watching Finland win the world juniors. Again.

Kasperi Kapanen scores the golden gold at the 2016 World Junior Championship.

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of Sportsnet magazine.

HELSINKI – Only a couple of minutes remain in the intermission before the puck will be dropped for overtime and Max Kolu points to his left, two sections over, between the bluelines in the lower bowl of Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, Finland. “Section 105,” he says. “It was right there, the biggest game I ever saw. That’s where I sat at the 1998 world juniors. I was 14 and this arena was almost brand new. I can remember everything. I still see it.”

What he can remember like it was yesterday: Kolu was just one of 1,000 teenagers wearing national team sweaters, “SUOMI” across the front. He came in from Turku to see Finland’s biggest game ever at the World Junior Championship.


Download it now: iOS | Android | Windows | Special Offer


What he can still see as if it’s playing out in front of him again: Fourteen minutes into overtime, Niklas Hagman, the son of long-time NHLer Matti Hagman, skating hard half the length of the ice to get a step on a Russian backchecker and then tipping the puck, sending it rolling past a sprawling goalie, setting off flag-waving euphoria.

“An amazing night,” Kolu says, going to the photo library on his iPhone and pulling up an unforgettable—if somewhat regrettable—image: the ’98 team’s most valuable player, a doughy-faced Olli Jokinen, wearing his medal and celebrating with a cigar. “Back then every Finnish kid wants to be a player on that team,” Kolu says.

Kolu didn’t become that player. He never played for the national team at any level, but he did play, going from Turku’s age-group teams to Clarkson University on a scholarship and then back to play professionally for TPS Turku. Now only 32, he played his last game a few years back. “I had gone as far as I could in hockey and I had my business degree,” he says. “I wanted to stay around the game for a night like that ’98 championship... like this one.”

Eighteen years later, Kolu is again watching Finland take on Russia for world-junior gold, hoping that history repeats. OK, he’s not wearing a team sweater. His face isn’t painted in blue and white. There’s no baseball hat, toque or Finnish do-rag, just a shock of red hair. No, he’s expected to observe professional decorum. He’s in his first year scouting for the Arizona Coyotes. Rooting is considered unseemly.

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of Sportsnet magazine.

But, of course, it’s unavoidable. Finland is the smallest of the major hockey nations, all of five million citizens, and it’s a given that everybody knows everybody else. There are only two degrees of separation between Teemu Selanne and any man, woman or child in Finland. Kolu played on youth-hockey teams with Mikko Koivu, teams coached by Mikko and Saku’s father, Jukka.

His connection with the 2016 Finnish under-20s is even tighter. After hanging up his skates, Kolu managed the national under-16 and under-17 programs. He didn’t work with 19-year-olds on the squad—they graduated the year before he came in. But the best players on the 2016 junior team are the underagers—Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Olli Juolevi—and all played for Kolu’s teams. “It makes it special, for sure,” Kolu says, doing his best to undersell it.

The suspense doesn’t last like it did in ’98. Kasperi Kapanen, another NHL vet’s son, scores on a wraparound a little over a minute into the overtime. Again, a Russian goaltender flails and within a few minutes, the teens who played for Kolu just a couple of years ago dip their heads as Selanne hangs medals around their necks.

“Don’t you wish you had one of those medals?” an NHL scout says, taking a little jab at Kolu.

“I have one from ’98,” Kolu says. “It’s my father’s. He was the team doctor. It’s how I got the seat.”