Mandatory military duty a tricky dilemma for Finnish NHL players

Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins joined Hockey Central at Noon to discuss his thinking behind signing a long-term deal with Pittsburgh and how that was always the plan for the young defenceman.

Free time is a precious commodity when you’re a professional hockey player. Especially one on a good team that plays late into the spring.

But a number of North American-based Finns are going to have to give up one or two of their coming summers in order to fulfill the obligations of their country’s mandatory military service.

Every male from that country is required to serve at least six months by the age of 29 – even those currently earning millions of dollars in the NHL. Olli Maatta, the 21-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman, is planning to enlist this summer and a number of others still have to do it, including Florida Panthers star Aleksander Barkov and Chicago Blackhawks winger Teuvo Teravainen.

Timing can be a tricky issue.

Teravainen, for example, was left with just a three-month window between lifting the Stanley Cup at United Center last June and reporting for training camp in September. If all goes well, he could be facing a similar schedule again this year.

The same goes for Barkov, a 20-year-old centre on the upstart Panthers who told Sportsnet this week that he hasn’t mapped out a plan for satisfying his military duties just yet.

“We’re in a pretty good spot right now,” he said. “We’re going to be in the playoffs, so I don’t think too much about that. Maybe in the summer or something.”

The only advantage enjoyed by athletes over civilians is more flexibility in completing their service. It can be split up over multiple years and days off are permitted to assist with training and other needs specific to an athlete’s career.

But they aren’t otherwise pampered.

They sleep in a large barracks – “You’ve got like 20 guys in the same room,” said Toronto Maple Leafs winger Leo Komarov. “It’s like what you watch in movies” – and are kept to strict schedules and routines. Athletes are typically trained in reconnaissance duties and spend time camping in the forest.

“It’s good for you to do it, but they don’t f--- around with you,” said Komarov. “They just teach you how to be a man and how to use a gun.”

Komarov completed his military service during the summer of 2007 or 2008, when he played for Pelicans in the Finnish Elite League. At that time athletes joined Hame Regiment at the sports school in Lahti – the city where his team was based – but those involved in team sports have since been moved to Guard Jaeger Regiment in Helsinki.

Among those that served alongside Komarov were other hockey players and some skiers and ski-jumpers.

The routine was basically the same every day.

“You wake up at 5:45 in the morning, you go for a run, and then you start doing your [training] for the whole day,” said Komarov. “Then we went to the forest for three full weeks, like always a week at a time from Monday to Friday. Sleep in small tents and doing the stuff you need to do.”

A significant part of that included learning how to use various weapons – an aspect of Komarov’s military service he has regaled Leafs teammates with in the past.

“I’ve never been in a war, but it’s like preparing for wars,” he said. “When we were in the forest we didn’t use those real gun shots. You can take a shot, but it’s not coming out anything. Then we went on the shooting [range]; then we were shooting real shots.”

Mandatory conscription is serious business in Finland, with those that fail to complete at least six months in the military or 13 months in the civil service sent to jail. You can’t even renew your passport for the normal five-year term if you get to age 27, say, and haven’t finished it.

Historically, hockey players have tried to get it out of the way soon after turning 18 – before they move to North America. But with more coming here at a young age, such as 17-year-old London Knights prospect Olli Juolevi, it’s created some challenges.

Among those who still need to complete their military service are Minnesota Wild centre Erik Haula and Detroit Red Wings winger Teemu Pulkkinen, who are both 24, and Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen (age 19), Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen (19), Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo (21) and promising Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen (21).

Given the unpredictable nature of their jobs, you can understand why hockey players might be eager to fulfill their obligation as soon as possible. Mikko Koivu, for example, waited until the summer of 2011 – when he was 28 – to complete his service and it would have made for a tricky situation if the Minnesota Wild had qualified for the playoffs that season.

Maatta is scheduled to report for duty on April 18, according to reporter Juha Hiitela of Urheilusanomat, but will have to delay the arrival if the Penguins go on a long run.

“I know I have to do it,” Maatta explained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Everybody has to do it. It’s the law for our country. But they do a really good job working it out, because normally it would be impossible for me to do it and play hockey at the same time.”

Ultimately, it’s considered a character-building rite of passage for Finns.

Komarov has travelled the world, represented his country at the Olympics, won a world championship and KHL championship, and became an NHL all-star. But those months he spent in the military still have a prominent place in his mind.

“I wasn’t happy to go in there but when I look back on it, it was probably one of the best times in my life,” said Komarov. “It grows you up. You don’t normally wake up at 5:45 in the morning and you have to pull your sheets and stuff like that, you have to clean up your stuff, you have to be exactly on time when they told you to be.

“The problem is you miss the summer, but when you’re young it’s fine.”