“I feel that it’s my responsibility because I’m a child of Estonian hockey,” Rooba told me earlier this week from Tallinn, where he is spending time with family and friends. “So now it's my time to give back as much as possible—to make hockey bigger, and to make the future brighter.”
With few opportunities available to develop at home, Rooba moved to Finland at the age of fifteen to pursue an opportunity with the Espoo Blues. His father Jüri, a former hockey player himself, took a job as a cab driver in order to accompany his son. The pair would ascend together by virtue of hard work—Rooba debuted in Liiga, Finland’s highest league, several years later, while his father has since become General Manager of the Estonian National Team. Despite Espoo’s relegation from Liiga, Rooba remained in Finland for another five seasons, joining JYP Jyväskylä in 2016. He recorded the best showing of his career in 2020-21, logging 41 points in 59 games played, and naturally caught the attention of foreign clubs. “We didn't look at his passport, we looked at his games,” Severstal head coach Andrei Razin told Estonian news outlet Delfi, adding, “The Finnish championship is far from weak. [Rooba] adds from season to season.”
I caught up with the KHL’s new addition over the phone this week, as he prepares the move from Jyväskylä to Cherepovets. We discussed his groundbreaking achievement, vision for Estonian hockey and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): I was reading an article that came out in the Estonian press recently. It called your signing in the KHL a "hockey miracle.” As the first Estonian player in the league, what does this milestone mean to you?
Robert Rooba (RR): It has always been my dream to play in the KHL. As an Estonian hockey player, you kind of have to understand, what are the chances you make it as a professional player in Europe? It has been a privilege for me to play in Finland, and now getting the chance to play in the KHL, that's huge. It will open up some new doors for our young Estonian guys and show them that it's actually possible to make it as an Estonian hockey player. We don't have many professional hockey players here, so when somebody gets to a nice league, it's a huge thing here.
GK: How have you seen the growth in Estonian hockey over time? Have conditions improved since you were a kid?
RR: Yeah, actually, they have. In the last seven, eight years, I've seen some nice improvements in everything. I would say the biggest problem right now are the rinks, because Estonia is such a small country and hockey is obviously not the biggest sport here. To get the resources to make new rinks, that is a lot of work. You need to get money from the private sector too, not only from the government. It means that you need to find people who are actually interested in having rinks and interested in putting their money in hockey, or winter sports overall. It's pretty hard to make hockey much bigger than it is right now.
I think we just have to keep working for that and making those baby steps every year. Obviously in the future, I'm pretty sure that hockey is going to be a much bigger sport than it used to be, you know? All of the KHL games that have been previously played in Tallinn have been a huge thing for Estonia. There are a lot of people who are following the KHL in Estonia because we used to be in the Soviet Union. The KHL is close to Estonian hockey fans' hearts. I still hope that we can bring more games to Estonia, and then obviously new rinks are the next thing that I'm going to hope will happen in the near future. That will get more kids into hockey, and then the support will grow.
GK: Ironically, your future team was a participant in the KHL World Games in Tallinn. It’s interesting to hear how that series impacts the local market.
RR: When you bring those games to people's homes, that's great. I heard that there was nice growth in the number of young hockey players set to play the first time after the KHL brought games here. Obviously that has been a huge thing for our hockey.
GK: Is growing the game at home something that you hope to be a part of when your playing career is over?
RR: Of course, yeah. I am ready to help them in any way possible. I feel that it’s my responsibility because I’m a child of Estonian hockey, so now it's my time to give back as much as possible—to make hockey bigger, and to make the future brighter.
I am always ready to help them, and we have done some projects together. I even have my own hockey camps for children during the summers. Obviously last summer and this summer was tough with the COVID situation, but that has been a big thing and the kids have loved it.
GK: I understand that you had already signed a contract extension in Finland when Severstal called. How did the opportunity unfold for you?
RR: I signed a new contract for a year with my former club, but I had a KHL option there. For me, that was the most important thing. I was not worried so much about salary or whatever, but the most important thing that I told to my agent, was that I wanted to have the KHL option. When the chance came, I wanted to use it. I had a good thing going in Finland, and had this not happened, I would have been happy to play there. I have loved my time in Jyväskylä. The city and my teammates are close to my heart. But I was hoping and I was ready to get the KHL option, and then when it came up, obviously I signed it.
GK: Your new head coach gave an interview recently, and he noted how important your Russian language ability will be. Is it something you have to brush up on, given how much time you’ve spent in Finland?
RR: Actually, it’s funny that you're asking about that. In the morning, I gave a radio interview to a Russian-speaking radio station here in Estonia. I actually noticed—and I told them too—that I feel like it is a bit rusty. I am not remembering all of the words that easily. I can already tell after giving a few interviews in Russian here in Estonia that it's coming back. I am not worrying about that. I am 100% sure that it's already enough to communicate with my coaches and teammates.
GK: How did you get into hockey in the first place?
RR: In Estonia, it is not the most common choice for kids to play. For me, on the other hand, it was pretty logical because my dad played. I went to see his games, and you know, I fell in love with the game and I wanted to play too. Dad put me on the ice, I started playing, and that's how it went. It’s a unique story here in Estonia. My Dad is still very involved in hockey. He is now the general manager of the Estonian National Teams. Some people call him “the soul of Estonia hockey” right now because things have changed a lot under his leadership. For him, hockey is life, and therefore it’s understandable why I am here too.
GK: I read that your Dad worked as a cab driver to support your early days in Finland. We’ve talked about your career progression, but what a journey he has had too.
RR: Both of my parents have sacrificed a lot for my career. When I first went to Finland, I was fifteen years old. Obviously, I was not ready to live on my own. Dad came with me and took the job as a cab driver in the beginning just to get something going. Later, he applied to other jobs. My Mom and Dad, who are happily still together, had to live in separate countries because of me for many years. They have always found a way to make everything work. I am very thankful for all of the sacrifices they have made, and I am very happy that now when I signed in the KHL, that was a huge thing for them too.
GK: They must be so proud of you.
RR: Yeah, they’re both actually pretty humble. They never show much emotion, but I think that's something pretty common in Estonian people. Of course, they are happy. My Dad’s reaction was classic. At first he was happy, but then while we were having family dinner, he was like, “I hope that you understand that you still have to stay humble and keep working. You are just beginning the new journey.” [Laughs] And I was like, “Dad, I am not fifteen anymore, you don't have to remind me—but thanks!”
GK: That’s what dads are for! Your most recent season in Finland was the best of your career. Even though the team struggled, what clicked for you?
RR: I think I had put in enough effort and enough work to become the player I am now. All those five years in Jyväskylä, I was improving my game and my goalscoring ability every year, and I had a clear plan of what I was doing. This year obviously, the team was struggling, we were having a tough time. There is a rebuild going on in Jyväskylä right now. We were not the biggest contenders in the beginning of the season either, but individually, I think that my role on the team grew all of the time. The coaches gave me a lot of ice time. I was getting my confidence up and just played my game. I didn’t do anything special or anything extraordinary. I just played my game, and I believed in myself.
GK: You’ve played with Ak Bars legend Jarkko Immonen. Did he give you a primer on the KHL?
RR: Jarkko is a very quiet guy, he doesn’t speak much. We used to have this thing that before the games, sitting in the dressing room and waiting to go for warm-ups, we would ask Jarkko to give us one KHL story. [Laughs] He would tell us whatever story about things that used to happen there. I think that's the only time that we spoke about the KHL. He is a very humble and laid-back guy. He knew that I followed the KHL very much and I loved KHL stuff, so he would sometimes ask me about how his old buddies like Zaripov were doing there.
GK: You’ve also played with an up-and-coming star that is going to get a lot of attention this year—Brad Lambert. He seems very talented, very promising.
RR: Yeah. He’s just a kid, and for him, this year was full of learning about how to be an adult and how to be a professional hockey player. Obviously his skill set, his skating ability—they’re out of this world. I'm really hoping that he’s going to grow as a human, as a player, and he's going to have an incredible NHL career in the future.
GK: What are some of your passions outside of hockey?
RR: Well, it's not a surprise that I play golf…
RR: Yeah, that's pretty normal. Otherwise, I just love to hang out with my friends. This year, I didn't have many chances to come back home to Estonia during the season, so the last two weeks have been incredible. For me, hockey is such a huge part of my life. I live, breathe, and do everything for hockey. I haven't found other hobbies because, if you’re giving it your everything, you don't have much time for other stuff.
GK: You mentioned that you closely follow the KHL. What did you make of the Gagarin Cup Finals?
RR: Actually, I saw all six games. I was really happy that Omsk won because as a kid, I was a huge fan—well, I still am—of Ilya Kovalchuk. It was great that he came back and showed everybody that he's one of the best players to ever play the game. I think Bob Hartley is a very interesting coach and person overall. I like the energy that they had on this team. There were two Finnish players on Avangard too. For me, I was really hoping they would win.
GK: Part of my job, admittedly, is flipping through Instagram before I interview players. I noticed you have a lot of cool tattoos. Do you have a favorite?
RR: They’re all my favorites! I haven't gotten tattoos just to make pictures on my skin. I have a story with every tattoo. Most of them are very personal. Each one is related to something that has happened in my life. There are some for people that are very important in my life, or some for experiences. There are people in the world who believe in God and different religions. As Estonians, we are an atheistic people, and we say that we just believe in ourselves. The tattoos on my skin are my bible, and they are the story of how I came here and who I am. Overall, they are important to me and they give me energy, belief, confidence, and so on. Actually, in a week, I have some free time and am going to make a few more.
GK: You’ll need to get one for your KHL milestone.
RR: I am pretty sure I'm going to have something on my skin at some point that reminds me of my time in Russia.
GK: What is one lesson from hockey that you'll take with you, long after you hang up your skates?
RR: Oh, that's a good question. I think the biggest thing is that work always beats talent. That's something I have seen for myself. I was never a draft pick or whatever, a young star. I just worked my way through, and now I have become a KHL player.
I feel like in normal life, whatever you do, work ethic is the most important thing. When you have the work ethic, you can make anything happen.You have the power to just do it. I think that's the biggest thing that I have learned, and that's something that I am going to keep doing. I want to keep working and making my dreams come true.
GK: Beautifully said. Okay, lightning round. Three questions—first thing that comes to mind. What’s one song on your workout playlist right now?
RR: Foo Fighters - The Pretender. An oldie, but a goodie.
GK: What did you eat for breakfast?
GK: And what’s the last thing you searched for on the internet?
RR: Let’s see. [Laughs] I searched for rental units. I am moving my stuff back from Finland right now.