Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Helsinki and Saint Petersburg have more in common than their fanbases would like to admit—blustery coastlines on the Baltic, historic connections with Peter the Great, and at one time, even club ownership. In the old adage, “keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” Jokerit and SKA have succeeded on geographic and managerial grounds—but now they share one more legacy, perhaps to Helsinki fans’ chagrin. It is none other than Mikko Lehtonen, a lethal two-way defenseman who will soon suit-up for the Army Men.

“He's a good friend and a great player,” Jokerit veteran Marko Anttila told me upon arrival in Saint Petersburg last night, ahead of the hotly-anticipated rematch. “We haven't talked about [the trade] that much inside of the team. Of course, we knew that he was going to Europe after the NHL experience didn’t go like he wanted. We haven't talked about that, but I think he wants to have some new experiences and a new challenge for his career.”

The move may further fray the tense rivalry, but Anttila—author of Suomi’s 2019 World Championship fairytale—remains firmly in the Finnish arsenal. The Jokers defeated SKA to grasp the top of the Western Conference four days ago, a crown that will require his hefty wrister and 6’8 imposing frame to defend.

Anttila’s career began in his hometown system of LeKi, prior to transiting through SM-liiga clubs Ilves and TPS. After a sixteen-game stint with the KHL’s Metallurg Novokuznetsk in 2013, he departed for Sweden’s Örebro HK. Anttila returned to familiar shores in 2016 to join Jokerit, where he has remained a steady leader. The Lempäälä native has represented Finland on a multitude of occasions, most notably delivering the game-winning goal in 2019 for the nation’s spectacular victory at Worlds.

We previewed the imminent clash of Western Conference titans, but more importantly, established Anttila’s agenda for his upcoming Finnish presidential campaign. As a hockey lover, you will likely approve of his message.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Was the Mikko Lehtonen news difficult to take this week? So many of you coincided with him during his tenure at Jokerit.

Marko Anttila (MA): He's a good friend and a great player. We haven't talked about it that much inside of the team. Of course, we knew that he was going to Europe after the NHL experience didn’t go like he wanted. We haven't talked about that, but I think he wants to have some new experiences and a new challenge for his career. And that’s okay.

GK: Tensions are already sky-high between Jokerit and SKA. Does this add a bolt of electricity to the matchup? 

MA: Yeah, of course. I want to play hard against him, and I think that every team in Europe wanted to have him. We tried to push him in our line. I don't know if he is playing tonight, but in the future, of course, we have to be good against him. He is a very good player.

GK: The clash with SKA last week ended in your favor and landed Jokerit at the top of the Western Conference—but it was no easy victory. What were your impressions of that game? 

MA: We won the game and we had a lot of fans in the stands. It has been a pretty tough year and a half with the COVID situation. Now it is starting to become a little bit normal in Finland, and there were 10,000 people in the stands. It felt like real hockey again, and it was a really nice win. I think the result was the most important thing in that game because we could have played better. And like you said, SKA has a very good team every year. Now even [Nikita] Gusev is back, one of the best players in Europe. They are even more dangerous now, and we have to be very good tomorrow to beat them in their home rink.

GK: As you mentioned, you pulled out a win—but you were off to a rocky start. It appeared that discipline was a big issue. How are you rethinking that piece going into tomorrow? 

MA: That is the biggest thing we're going to improve. We took too many penalties. I think it was five or six. We can't take that many penalties against those good teams in Russia. They have a very good, big team, and that's the biggest thing we have to do better tomorrow and for the rest of the season.

GK: When it comes to the bigger games, do you think the excess penalty-taking boils down to emotion? 

MA: Yeah, of course. We tried to play hard and want to play hard. There are so many skillful guys on those teams, and it's not easy to play against them. Sometimes you just have to take the penalty or something like that. But when it comes to the stupid penalties, we can take those off. You can't play without penalties, but you have to keep them as low as possible.

GK: SKA is traditionally among your biggest clashes, but then we have Lokomotiv—who you have faced an absurd number of times over the past two seasons. Who takes the cake in terms of rivalry? 

MA: Saint Petersburg is very close to Helsinki, and a couple of years ago, it was easy for the fans to travel here and back. Their fans really want to beat us, and we want to beat them. But like you said, Lokomotiv has been tough for us. It has been a lot of battles against them in the playoffs. I think we know each other pretty well by now. We know how they play, and they know how we want to play. But yeah, it's hard to compare those teams in terms of who is the bigger enemy. I like to play against both, and it's always a good battle.

GK: I spoke with Brian O’Neill for this series in the past, and he said to me, “The challenge we’ve had over my tenure at Jokerit is that we start off really, really well, and then hit a wall right before Christmas. We limp into the playoffs not playing great hockey.” He made that statement some time ago, but do you still agree with his assessment? 

MA: Yeah, I agree with him. We had a very good first 20 to 30 games in the regular season. It's a big thing, for example, to be in the top four to get home advantage for the playoffs. And we have talked about this a lot for the last two seasons—we want to be in the best shape when the “real game” starts, so to speak. It's a goal for us this season too. We really want to play the best Jokerit hockey in the playoffs. And like Brian said, we’ve been a little unlucky with the injuries too. Even last season, right before the playoffs started. We have to be in a situation so that we can have all of the players healthy. It's not always possible, but we are trying to do off-ice things to be in the best shape when the playoffs start.

GK: When I spoke with head coach Lauri Marjamäki at the end of last season, we agreed that of all the KHL teams, COVID upheaval hit Jokerit the hardest. What did you take away from that experience, and how has the team changed? 

MA: It was a tough season. I think everybody is going to agree with that, and it wasn't fun. No people in the stands, all of those things, but I think we learned a lot. We learned how to appreciate how things are going now, and to appreciate playing hockey in general. Our lineup is a little bit younger now. There are a lot of competitive players. We have been practicing a lot of one-on-ones and two-on-twos in small areas, those kinds of battles. We have to be better with those because all of the best teams in Russia are very good in one-on-one battles. We want to be better in those situations.

GK: How does the Finnish style of hockey fit into the KHL more broadly? What advantages might it pose? 

MA: It’s our thing in Finnish hockey that the five guys play well together. That's how the National Team too has found some success, and we learn how to win games as a team. Those kinds of things are big in Finland. There is so much skill on those Russian teams. Maybe we can't be perfect in certain situations, but we can get the advantage back with good team play and the five guys working together. That's always been a big thing in Finland and international hockey.

GK: What is the toughest away rink to play during the season? 

MA: I have to say those two teams from the Far East— especially for us, because we remain on Finnish time on those trips. The game is at 9 or 10 am for us, something like that. I think they have good fans there, and it's always a tough trip for us. We have them in a couple of weeks and we want to win some games there, but it's not going to be easy. It’s an adventure at the same time—I’ve always loved to go there and see the different cities.

GK: You played in the Swedish league for a bit. I'd be interested to hear how you would contrast the style of hockey that you encountered there. 

MA: I think that in Sweden, the game is a bit faster. Everything goes quickly and it's a skating league. There are more tactical considerations in the KHL. In Sweden, it's pretty much all about the quickness and how the players are moving on the ice.

GK: We have to turn now to the 2019 World Championships, where you starred in the Cinderella run. Did you expect such a performance walking into that tournament? 

MA: I wouldn’t say that we had a “big” team when you think about the names on the list, but we were pretty confident before the tournament because we had this practice tournament in the Czech Republic. All of those NHL guys were already there for Russia, the Czech Republic and Sweden. We had played pretty good hockey against them and it gave us a lot of confidence, but of course, you never know. We had our first games with Canada, Slovakia and the U.S., so it was a tough start, but we managed to win those games. It feels like a story in a fairytale after that, because we got the right flow for our game and everyone was pretty confident. It was very good memories. I will remember that tournament for the rest of my life.

GK: Your Jokerit teammate Veli-Matti Savinainen announced that you should be the next president of Finland. I believe even the reigning president himself agreed on Twitter! 

MA: Finland is a crazy hockey population. They love to watch the games, especially when the Finnish National Team plays. It's always like two million spectators are watching on TV. Of course, some crazy things happen too if you do well and win the gold medal. [Laughs] But I don't think I'm going to be the next president, in any case. We had a crazy party in Helsinki. There were 50,000 people and music and all of those things. It was fun.

GK: Hypothetically speaking, if you were the next president of Finland, what would be the first item on your agenda? 

MA: That's a tough question. I think there would have to be hockey at every school, and everyday, everyone in Finland would have to have one hour of hockey—either playing or watching.

GK: Now there is a political agenda I can get behind! Beijing 2022 is coming up. Is a repeat Olympic appearance something you are chasing? 

MA: It is going to be very, very nice hockey there. It seems that the NHL will be there and we have so many talented players. Of course, I would love to play, but it's going to be tough. We have so many good, young players—maybe 20 forwards who have been playing [in North America]. We will see how it goes, but at the very least, I’m going to watch those games and be a big fan.

GK: Could you tell the story about your nickname Mörkö?

   MA: The background is pretty much that I am very tall for hockey, and not moving that fluidly on the ice! [Laughs] I don’t look like a very like typical hockey player. There's this ghost cartoon for kids and the nickname comes from there. The fans all over Finland started to call me that. Of course I like it, because you have to have done something good if you have a nickname in the whole of Finland.

GK: What are some of your earliest memories in hockey? I would imagine that your brother, who also played professionally, features prominently in them. 

MA: We played together all of the time. He is two years younger than I am, and he played as a goalie. I don't know if that is my fault, but I think he always wanted to be a goalie in our games. We had one-on-ones after school, and we always went with our skates to play at our hometown rink and it was very fun. Unfortunately, he had some back problems and couldn't go that long in his hockey career, but he has been a good support after that too. He knows what it is to be a hockey player and what it requires, so it's a big help for me too. He texts me before and after every game, so I think he's watching pretty much every single one. When I played closer to our hometown, he came many times to sit in the stands. It gives you a little bit more energy.

GK: A legend of Finnish hockey, Jari Kurri, is your general manager. I would imagine that never gets old. 

MA: He’s one of the biggest legends in Finnish hockey. He was a little bit older when I started to really like hockey, and we couldn't see that many NHL games in Finland at that time. But of course, he is a five-time Stanley Cup Champion. It’s a privilege to know him and to be a part of his team.

GK: What is one lesson you can take from hockey after retirement? 

MA: I think the biggest thing—and the most fun—is to work as part of a group. It has always been a big thing for me. You get all of those social skills, which I will want to bring someday to normal life. There are many pieces to a team, and I'm just one of them.

GK: That mentality will serve you well when you become the next president of Finland.

MA: Exactly. I can use those skills.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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