By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
At first glance, Fort Lauderdale and Helsinki seem to have little in common aside from both being seaside destinations.
Granted, Helsinki has some popular beaches, though sunbathing season is rather short at that latitude. A more notable link between the cities does have to do with chilly water – frozen solid to be precise.
The Florida Panthers have an affinity for Finnish hockey players and are hoping to exploit the connection not only to improve their fortunes on the ice and box office, but perhaps boost tourism in South Florida as well.
There were 39 Finnish-born players in the National Hockey League in 2017-18, and the Panthers have one of the best in center Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov, who was appointed team captain for the upcoming season.
Barkov, on the brink over superstardom at age 23, will lead the Panthers to his home country for two games in the NHL Global Series against the Winnipeg Jets, Nov. 1 and 2, 2018.
The Jets’ Patrik Laine, who had a dazzling rookie season as a 19-year-old with 44 goals and 70 points, is also from Barkov’s hometown on Tampere, about 110 miles from Helsinki.
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The Panthers may have another Finn in the games. Helsinki native Henrik Borgstrom, at 21 their most highly regarded prospect, has a good chance to make the team as a forward on the third line.
They have several other Finnish prospects in the organization: Henrik Haapala, Aleksi Heponiemi, Juho Lammikko and Sebastian Repo, developing for the future.
Florida’s Finnish connection has gained attention in Finland, and the Panthers are marketing the idea of enticing fans from the Scandinavian country to travel for sun and hockey in the Fort Lauderdale area.
“It’s huge for us,” Panthers president and CEO Matt Caldwell said. “We’re working with the [Broward County] convention and visitors bureau. With all of our digital marketing efforts we can tell when people from Finland are buying games, coming and traveling. That helps tourism here.
“They’re really supportive of us going there [and] playing the games. The games sold out in minutes. We’re going to be all over those fans to come, fly to Fort Lauderdale, spend a week, come check out two games with the Panthers. It’s a rabid fan base; we see a lot of opportunity there.”
The prime attraction to that objective is Barkov (son of a prominent former Russian player and coach), who earned his first NHL All-Star selection last season. Borgstrom could add to the perception of Florida as Finland’s team.
Barkov had a career-high 78 points (27 goals) last season, second among Finns behind Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, who had 84 points (29 goals).
The two games at Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena sold out quickly after they were announced in early 2018.
NHL hot ticket in Helsinki
That was partly due to Finland’s appetite for hockey. The chance to see the two Tampere natives going head-to-head in regular-season NHL games in their home country made the games a hot ticket.
With more than a month before the Global Series, there were only a handful of tickets available on Stubhub for the Nov. 2 game, in the upper deck ranging from $497 (U.S.) to $745.
The first time Barkov saw an NHL game live was in 2009 when the Panthers played two games in Helsinki against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“It’s my home country, I grew up there. To go back home and play NHL games, I never even dreamed about that,” Barkov said when the Panthers began training camp in Sunrise, Fla., in September.
“Very excited just to go back home and play the games there and maybe a couple days before that live in that atmosphere because I know Finland is as crazy a hockey country as Canada, so they will be waiting for the game for a long time.”
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The Global Series is designed to promote interest in the NHL overseas, and includes three other games involving the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers in Switzerland, Germany and Sweden.
The games will also put the spotlight on the host countries, none more so than Finland, which has more than 75,000 registered hockey players and 260 indoor rinks serving a population of 5.5 million.
The Hockey News, in 2016, made the case “that pound-for-pound, there is not a better hockey country in the world than Finland.”
Finland tourism on rise
For Helsinki, it will be a chance to draw international attention to its other virtues. Lonely Planet ranked Finland in its Best in Travel 2017 list behind Canada and Colombia.
Helsinki drives Finland’s growing tourism economy, but as the second-most northern capital city in the world it is an out-of-the-way destination.
Among the attractions is the 68-year-old amusement park Linnanmäki, which draws more than a million visitors a year and features seven rollercoasters, including a wooden wonder built in 1951.
A very walkable city, there are numerous themed tours that can be taken on foot, including the Strange World of Theme Bars, a murder walk tour of the Darkest History of Helsinki and the Butts of Helsinki Walking Tour – naked statues abound in the city.
Finland is best known as the birthplace of the sauna, a tradition of relaxation and replenishment that dates to the Viking period. There are more than 3 million saunas in the country, one for every two people. Helsinki has eight public saunas.
Asked what he looked forward to showing his teammates about his home country, Barkov said, “Make them go to a sauna and then jump in the lake or sea.”
That is a popular pastime in Finland year-round, regardless of the briskness of the water. The Panthers and South Florida tourism officials are hopeful they can lure Finns to enjoy water more suitable to bathing.
Regarding the attraction of attending the games in Helsinki, Barkov showed his dry Finnish sense of humor by saying, “I mean, food is great, and hopefully the weather is going to be good too. But, I doubt it.”