Everybody loves an underdog story with a fairytale ending. There’s Cinderella, Rocky and the Miracle on Ice. And in Finland, there’s HPK Hameenlinna, who defied the odds all the way to a Finnish League title.
To call HPK a no-name team is more than fair. They didn’t have any Team Finland regulars on the roster, and the one player with NHL experience was 28-year-old winger Philippe Cornet, who returned to HPK from the Norwegian League having played two games with the Edmonton Oilers back in 2012.
But somehow, the team that missed the playoffs the year before came together and came out on top. Finishing fifth in the standings, Hameenlinna defeated fourth-place TPS Turku, second-place Tappara Tampere and regular-season champs Karpat Oulu en route to hoisting the Canada Bowl, the Liiga’s championship trophy.
And they did it in style, beating Karpat in the final on Markus Nenonen’s title-winning goal in overtime of Game 7. “Hockey is a team sport, and this here is a band of brothers,” said HPK coach Antti Pennanen. “This is the result of people, both players and coaches, moving forward, developing and maturing. That, and hard work, which is boring at times, but these players have put in the hours.”
Pennanen’s band of brothers included Arto Laatikainen, a one-time defenseman of the year who signed a one-season deal with HPK; Filip Riska, who didn’t get a new contract with his previous team despite offering to take a pay cut; Valtteri Puustinen, who had been shown the door by KalPa Kuopio’s junior program; and goaltender Emil Larmi, who, days after Game 7, tweeted out a screenshot of a rejection email he had received from HPK several years earlier. In the email, HPK informed the then-15-year-old Lahti Pelicans junior netminder that he didn’t get a spot at their under-16 tryout camp. Larmi tweeted out the image along with the words, “No hard feelings.”
“We were underdogs in every series, but we had also seen in the regular season that we could beat any team in the league, even when we had a lot of injuries, even in the playoffs,” said the 22-year-old Larmi. “And that put the pressure on the opponents. Our veteran players showed great leadership, and we had that one elusive thing: chemistry. We had a room full of different personalities and everybody could be fully themselves.”
Whenever an underdog team rises up and goes all the way, just about everything has to work perfectly, and that was the case with Hameenlinna, according to Larmi. “Everything has to fall into place, and I’ve never seen a team that was this close-knit,” he said. “Everybody gave their all.”
And of course, all successful teams need solid goaltending. “Well, as long as the goalie makes a save every now and then,” said Larmi with a laugh.
He did a lot more than that, posting a .932 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average in 18 playoff games, including two shutouts in the final series. “The best thing about winning in team sports is that you win it together with a team,” Larmi said. “And Hameenlinna is a true hockey town, to see the main market square packed with people was amazing. It made me think we had accomplished something meaningful.”
While Pennanen – who also doubled as Finland’s assistant coach when they won gold at the World Championship – is under contract for another year, he’s losing several key pieces from the championship team. Larmi signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, while playoff MVP and team captain Otto Paajanen is moving on to Helsinki IFK. “That made winning this all the more special,” Larmi said.