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Official Review by Gary Butterworth, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Night and day. Yin and yang. HIFK and Jokerit.
Helsinki’s two top-flight hockey teams could not be more different. Once fierce rivals, Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna i Helsingfors (Helsinki Sporting Society Comrades, or HIFK) and Jokerit don’t cross paths much anymore.
2014 saw Jokerit depart from Finland’s domestic Liiga to join the Russian-run, pan-Eurasian KHL. HIFK still plays in the Finnish league. The differences don’t end there. “Jokerit” is a Finnish word; HIFK is a Swedish initialism. HIFK has a traditional crest; Jokerit has a modern logo. And it’s just this sort of difference that is immediately noticeable when stepping into each team’s home. Just 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from Jokerit’s modern Hartwall Arena lies HIFK’s vintage Helsinki Ice Hall or Helsingin jäähalli.
Despite having three decades on its cross-town rival, Helsinki Ice Hall is beautifully maintained. Still, it has its warts, and you’ll probably notice them. Maybe you’ll mind, or maybe you won’t.
If you’re in the Finnish capital, try your best to sample both brands of hockey on offer. If you have to pick one, though, we give HIFK the nod.
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".
It's hard to say what is more surprising; seeing multiple nice sit-down restaurants on the concourses of a half-century old arena, or the fact that they were all closed when we attended a fairly important match. Still, we didn't come to Finland to eat Italian at "Mario's World," even if it did look nice.
While those hoping to snag a table might not always have luck, there is enough at the more conventional concession stands to keep most fans happy. From hot dogs to candy to a few less common items, the spread is above average. Prices are on the high side. With vendors ringing both the inner and outer walls of the lower concourse, back-ups can happen in some places. This is one of the few downsides to having options.
Food selection is good, and so is the beer selection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we didn't see any Hartwall beverages here-Coke products are on tap. Despite the options, the favorite here is pretty simple: self-serve coffee (EUR 2.50, about USD $2.80).
To differentiate Helsingin jäähalli from nearby Hartwall Arena in conversation, the former is sometimes referred to as simply "the old ice hall." It is, indeed, an old ice hall. The well-travelled fan will easily recognize the layout as something from the '60s, but no one will find the upkeep lacking or the décor dated. Helsinki Ice Hall is lovingly maintained and absolutely immaculate. Some 10 year old arenas feel older. The interior is spotless, paint is fresh, decorations are current, and the restaurant and lounge areas could have opened yesterday. Team colors, jerseys, and logos are everywhere. Lighting is bright. Well, at least from the exterior and on the concourses.
Inside the seating bowl, HIFK's barn shows its age. It's darker in here. Concrete is bare in some areas and paint is chipped in others. Square corners provide strange viewing angles for fans seated in the far corner sections upstairs. Security railings obstruct views from a few seats toward the bottom of the upper level. Guy-wires and roof supports, while unobtrusive, are a fact of life for many fans in the cheap seats. No one stopped us from roaming around and taking in the match from a few angles, and most were good, but several positions have the sort of minor quirks that are common in older arenas. Seats are a slightly unusual design, but are comfortable.
A small video scoreboard at center ice is utilitarian, and the emcee here has a much easier job than his counterpart does at nearby Hartwall Arena. While Jokerit caters to fans with flashing lights and plenty of electronic distractions, HIFK allows a more organic experience. Here, the game isn't just an attraction; it's the main attraction.
Back on the concourse, healthy scratches are stationed at tables for autographs and selfies, and kids take shots on a net. Even the sideshows here are all about the game.
Helsinki's Töölö neighborhood is a pleasant, classy area just north of the city center. With a variety of small shops, cafes, and handful of touristy sites, Töölö is worth exploring. Töölö also contains what is essentially Helsinki's stadium district: Helsinki Ice Hall, Sonera Stadium, and the 1952 Olympic Stadium are all immediate neighbors. Even if you're not a smoker, it's worth stepping outside into the smoking area during an HIFK match to take a peek inside Sonera Stadium; it's a gem.
The Olympic Stadium has a tower that provides a good view of the stadiums, central Helsinki, and the Gulf of Finland. If you like the area enough, you can spend the night in the youth hostel within the Olympic Stadium. It's Spartan, but relatively inexpensive, and it might give you bragging rights.
The sheer size of the three stadiums means that the venues are a little bit removed from the rest of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, they are far enough removed that fans might be discouraged from visiting the local businesses. If you're able and have time to kill, the 5 minute walk away from the sports complex and into the business and residential areas is worth making.
Helsinki Ice Hall is absolutely covered in HIFK red. Maybe fans feel the painters showed enough support, because we were surprised by the relative lack of team colors in the crowd. Then, we were surprised yet again by the passion of fans who weren't literally wearing their allegiances on their sleeves. Everyone seemed tuned in to the action on the ice.
Casual attire is popular, but not for everyone. A visible minority of fans came decked out in jerseys and scarves. HIFK's standing, chanting fan club sits in a corner, which takes them a bit out of the action and makes them a bit less visible than fan clubs which sit in more prominent areas. Still, the enthusiasm is there.
Helsingin jäähalli is about a 30-minute walk from the center of Helsinki. The walk is safe and pleasant, and it will bring you by or near many sites that are of interest to tourists. However, given cold Nordic winters and short daylight hours, the weather may not cooperate.
Parking is available across several small, spread-out lots. You might have to walk a bit to the car, so bundle up. If coming via public transportation, trams 2, 3, and 7a provide frequent and inexpensive service to the arena area. "Auroran sairaala" is a convenient stop, but if you can't remember, just look for the big Olympic Stadium. If you're lost, most Finns speak excellent English and know all about the hockey team.
Once you're at the venue, things are pretty straightforward. The ticket lobby and concourses can get crowded, but not unusually so. Security is unobtrusive, and a stronger presence did not feel necessary. Restrooms are clean and adequate. For fans with special needs, accessible seating is limited. The main wheelchair accessible area midway up in the corners is roomy and provides a good view.
HIFK offers a good product in a fine setting at a fair price. You might get sticker-shock at the merchandise stands and second guess your souvenirs, but attending a match here is a fair value.
Domestic league versus international league. New arena versus old arena. Tradition versus modernity. Now that "HIFK vs Jokerit" is no longer an on-ice matchup, the teams are left competing in other ways. Philosophically, the clubs are worlds apart. Some will find a strong preference for one brand. We expected to. In the end, though, we had a harder time taking sides than we expected. We could have stayed neutral, but we ultimately settled on HIFK.
The park-like location between two soccer stadiums adds to the feeling of being in a special sports environment. Moreover, Helsinki Ice Hall has a personal, lived-in feeling that Hartwall Arena just doesn't offer. The omnipresent team colors, the jerseys in the concourse rafters, and the accessibility of the players announce that Helsinki Ice Hall isn't just home to any team, it's home to HIFK, and it's damn proud of it.
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Helsinki, Finland 00100