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Official Review by Gary Butterworth, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
If the Russian military can capture Crimea, why can’t the Russian hockey league annex Helsinki?
After nearly a half-century as a power in Finland’s domestic hockey system, Helsinki’s Jokerit turned heads after the 2013-2014 season when it announced plans to join the Russian-operated Kontinental Hockey League. An affront to Finland? An inevitable restructuring of the European hockey landscape? A savvy financial move? European geopolitics in microcosm? It depends who you ask.
Regardless of how it got there or what it means, Finland’s capital now hosts not only two high-caliber hockey teams, but also two high-caliber hockey leagues. HIFK holds down the fort in Finland’s domestic Liiga, while Jokerit runs a first-class transcontinental operation from its home at Hartwall Arena. Indeed, the KHL experience at Hartwall is among the most modern and high-tech in European and Asian hockey. With a new-ish building and busy video boards, it is reminiscent of the NHL experience one might find in the US or Canada. Indeed, the NHL has played a handful of regular season games here. Yet singing fan clubs still have a place, and sporadic Cyrillic letters remind you that, in a way, this arena has been colonized. Whether this international model of club hockey has staying power remains to be seen. But if this really is the future of hockey, it’s not a bad compromise between the NHL model, Western European traditions, and Russian leadership.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Hartwall Arena's namesake is a Finnish beverage giant based in Helsinki. And yes, you can drink your fill of Hartwall's Jaffa soda in Hartwall Arena. Also on tap is Hartwall's Karjala beer, a long-time sponsor of pan-European hockey which is named for the region divided between Finland and Russia. The Karjala logo purportedly depicts a Western European soldier squaring off against a Russian counterpart-fitting, given that Jokerit is playing mostly Russian teams these days. The Russian-brewed Baltika beer, advertised on the dasher boards, is nowhere to be found.
Finland's Hesburger, international chain Pizza Hut, and a variety of other brands fill out the concession stands. All stalls feature Finnish signage. Most also feature English and/or Swedish menus, while a few also provide Russian translations. Virtually all staffers speak perfect English.
Little in Finland comes cheap for the foreign visitor, including stadium grub, but at least snacks aren't marked up too terribly from prices outside the arena. Lines can be long and concourses can get crowded during intermissions, but these die down quickly once play resumes.
Hartwall Areena (yes, it's sometimes spelled with a double-e) is typical of the late-90s/early 2000s era construction in that it is pleasant, comfortable, and uniform. While not bland, it is not particularly unique and not at all quirky. Nothing about the arena will grab your attention, nor will anything distract you from the action. (Ok, the free WiFi did distract me, but only because I was looking up player stats.) Seats are comfortable, sightlines are good, and fans are neither silent nor deafening.
Jokerit's game presentation is more high-tech than most European teams, to the point where the team has received criticism for over-reliance on its video and sound systems. True, Jokerit does make heavy use of its ribbon video boards and even employs decorative LED lights on the glass partitions and in walkways, but we found these criticisms a bit overstated. The atmosphere is not traditional, but not overdone. Still, either despite or because of the high-tech production, the crowd can feel smaller than it actually is.
Helsinki's suburban Pasila neighborhood ("Böle" to the small, but well-served Swedish-speaking minority) is a safe but relatively bland area just north of downtown. The arena, Helsinki's main convention center, and some railway yards are the most visible fixtures, while offices, homes, and hotels round out the neighborhood. For the sports traveler, Helsinki's velodrome and older ice arena are both long walks away. Locals may have pre or postgame haunts nearby, but those new to the area are better served staying in central Helsinki and commuting in around game time.
The announcement of of Jokerit's intention to move to the KHL brought about a near mutiny from many longtime supporters. Intensive PR and advertising campaigns did a great deal to soften many, but not all, anti-KHL voices. By the time of our visit a few months into Jokerit's first KHL season, many fans were at least willing to give this new brand of hockey a chance. The mid-week game we attended brought out a respectable crowd of more than ten thousand, including a few dozen visiting fans who had made the 950 mile (1500km) trek from Kazan, Russia.
Jokerit's loudest supporters take their traditional place behind the goal and voice their support with sporadic chanting and singing which is impressive, but not amazing. Elsewhere, fans focus on the action.
Approaching Hartwall Arena, you can't help but notice the train station and the parking garage. If you're coming to check out Jokerit, chances are that you'll be availing yourself of one of these methods of transportation.
All trains leaving Helsinki Central Station stop at Pasila just a few minutes after leaving the city center. From there, a walkway links the railway platform with the arena. Fans arriving by train should exit the railway platform from the end opposite the entrance to the station, without ever entering the station's interior. If you're inside the station, you went the wrong way when you exited the train.
Video monitors on Hartwall Arena's concourse provide real time train arrival and departure information. This is useful for planning your trip home or for pondering one of Helsinki's other links to Russia: the Helsinki-St. Petersburg Allegro express train. In any case, trains make the short trip downtown frequently. If public transportation isn't your thing, taxis can be found at Pasila station, but they don't come cheaply. Inquire locally for additional public transportation options.
If you're driving, the parking garages provide adequate parking, but some fans do choose to leave early to avoid a wait on the way out of the garage.
While at Hartwall, fans should have relatively few complaints. Despite crowded concourses during intermissions and postgame, Hartwall has most of the creature comforts that fans expect of modern arenas. Concourses are flat and well-lit, so mobility isn't much of a problem. Bathrooms are relatively plentiful and well cared for. Security is present but not overzealous. The overall atmosphere is civilized and pleasant, if unremarkable.
There was a time when hockey fans could debate what league held the title of "Europe's best" or "the world's 2nd best." Depending upon the severity and the longevity of the Russian economic crisis, that day may come again. However, for the 2014-15 season at least, there is essentially no debate: the KHL is the world's best hockey league outside of the NHL. The drop-off in quality of play is noticeable, but so is the drop off in ticket prices. Less noticeable is the drop-off in quality of game presentation.
Furthermore, Helsinki is one of a small number of KHL cities in countries that do not require visas for many Western travelers. If you want the KHL experience, Jokerit provides a good value in a comfortable and accessible venue. Occasional ticket deals can make it an even better value. (Run Jokerit's webpage through Google Translate if you're curious about upcoming promotions.)
On one side of Hartwall's rafters are banners with the names and numbers of Jokerit's greats. Opposite those banners are the flags of the seven countries sending teams to the KHL. Read into that what you'd like, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to interpret this as a symbolic faceoff between Europe's traditional nationally-based leagues and Russian ambitions for cross-border dominance, on and off the ice. There are geopolitics at play, and sports haven't been spared.
Whether you love or hate the KHL's attempts to reorganize European hockey under a Russian-centric model, you can't help but wonder if this is the future or just a phase. Hartwall Arena is a good place to witness this evolution first hand.
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Helsinki, Finland 00100