5

A journey to Canada

Jouni Nieminen was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1961. He first came to Canada when he was 16 to play junior hockey in Port Coquitlam, BC. He returned 25 different times for extended visits before immigrating in 1997.

On February 10th, 2005, Nieminen received his Canadian citizenship. The next day, carrying a suitcase and a hockey bag, Nieminen arrived at Saiker’s Acres to play hockey for 240 hours in the World’s Longest Hockey Game.

“It was kind of my own citizenship test — if you can play hockey for ten days, you can stay in Canada,” Nieminen said.

Ten days later, in the final minutes of the 2005 World’s Longest Hockey Game, the PA announcer informed the crowd of over 3,000 spectators, and his teammates, that Jouni had become a Canadian only eleven days earlier. It was a special moment. I played in the 2005 game, and I remember seeing the pride in his eyes when the announcement was made. I was unaware he’d just become a Canadian, and that just added to the experience for many of us.

Nieminen will play in his sixth World’s Longest Hockey Game starting tomorrow. He is one of the “Fabulous Five” who has played in every game. Nieminen is the oldest at 56, while Darcy Humeniuk, 54, Brent Saik, 49, Randy Allan, 48, and Curtis Sieben, 42, round out this unique group.

This event has grown a lot since the first one in 2003. That game was “only” 82 hours, and it was more of an off-the-cuff idea by Saik. They had 40 guys dressing/changing in his garage. It wasn’t going well, so Saik opened up his basement and guys crashed for a few hours on the floor, and some lucky ones had a cot.

“Everything is different now,” laughed Nieminen. “We really had no idea what we were doing in the first one. It was spontaneous but magical. We didn’t have the infrastructure we have now.”

The World’s Longest Hockey Game was the brainchild of Saik. The Optometrist is one of most passionate people I’ve met. Cancer has touched him deeply, taking his father Terry and his first wife Susan shortly after the 2003 game. His excitement, commitment and passion is infectious and one of the main reason the Fabulous Five keep coming back.

Nieminen played in the original game, but 2005 was an entirely different challenge, jumping from 82 hours to a ridiculous 240. And it has grown every year since. In 2008, the coldest and most difficult game by far, they played 242 hours. In 2011, they played 246 hours, in 2015 they skated for 248 and this year they will play for 250 hours.

MUTUAL FRIENDS

Nieminen met Saik through his Finnish friend, and former Oiler, Janne Niinimaa in 2000. Saik has been the Oilers and Eskimos optometrist for years, and he and Niinimaa share a passion for heavy metal music. “We used to go to concerts and stuff when we were all young. They are both special guys who really care. Don’t let their fun-loving style fool you,” said Nieminen.

Three years later, while having dinner in January of 2003, a casual conversation led to what Nieminen calls, “An opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I was finishing my salad and Brent was talking about this game he was organizing. It sounded like a totally crazy idea. He asked if I wanted to volunteer as a referee. I told him I wanted to play. I had no idea what the hell I was getting into. I didn’t really deserve to play in that one, I had never had a family member or a close one suffer from cancer. That has unfortunately changed since,” Nieminen said somberly.

This event is about so much more than hockey. It is about life, and sadly, in too many cases, death.

Cancer has impacted all the players, and it is the driving force for why Saik and the 39 other players play through a lot of pain. The night before the 2005 game, Saik cut off the tip of his finger when it got caught in the Zamboni. He went to the hospital, got it bandaged up and played the entire 240 hour-game, in goal, getting by on painkillers and a Sponge Bob Square Pants water bottle topped up with the odd shot of whiskey.

It is impossible not to be inspired by these “average Joes and Jill.” Dr. Jennelle Saik, Brent’s better half, is the only female playing, but this is her third game. She is one of the boys.

I was lucky enough play in the 2005 WLHG, but I’m amazed how Nieminen and others continue to come back and play.

Why is a married 56-year-old Finnish reporter, father of two kids aged eight and ten, still pulling on his skates?

“I’m not that smart,” he laughed. “Being involved with this great and special event is something that is very hard to describe. All the people around this event are very special, volunteering their time and working so hard. I always say playing is the easiest job in the Worlds Longest Hockey Game. Imagine driving a Zamboni for 250 hours, every hour, and making sure old “Blackie” starts and runs properly.

“People who come to Saiker`s Acres and stay a while will understand. We all also play for the people we have lost to this terrible disease. You can literally feel that we have angels up there cheering for us. And the players have a special bond. We are like brothers. I recently put out an email looking for a place to sleep during the game. Within two minutes guys were offering spots in their trailers. That’s the kind of people they are.

“This is an ugly group, with a beautiful cause. I’m happy to be part of it. I will play as long as my doctor and my wife let me. Not necessarily in that order,” smiled Nieminen.

MEMORIES

When you’ve played five times the memories are plentiful, and Nieminen shared a few.

“There are so many I could, and probably should, write a book. The way everything just exploded during the first game. An old farmer had heard about the game and brought us three pucks from his barn. We have hundreds of pucks, but you don’t forget something like that. A Baba carrying perogies from the car. A father who brought his six-year-old boy straight from the hospital to see us — I found out later he is now perfectly healthy.

“Some of the people who passed away while we were playing, some who made it and were actually cured with the equipment purchased through these games who come to visit every time. It has been very emotional at times. The cold in the 2008 game, it was minus 51 one night at the Acres. But we made it through. Some of the injuries I have seen my teammates suffer, but still continue to play is amazing.

“And then there’s been all the shenanigans on the ice. There was even a fight in the 2005 game (details later). Some great fun which helps you through so many hours.” said Nieminen.

But the most powerful memory for the Fabulous Five occurred in the first game when a young girl and her dad showed up with a sign, “I just lost my mom to Cancer, thank you hockey players for caring.”

Wow.

WHAT PLAYING MEANS

Playing in this game is a big commitment. Players take time off from work and they are away from their families for eleven days. The players can’t leave the facility or the game won’t be recognized by Guiness Book of World Records.

It is also challenging. Trying to avoid frostbite, blisters, lace bite and pulled muscles is almost impossible.

So what does it mean to Nieminen to play?

“Playing in five WLHG and also in the Worlds Longest Baseball Game in 2016 has been the craziest project I have ever been involved with. It has been an honour to be involved in a small way in helping and giving back to the community. I have met some of the best people through these events.

“In some weird way, this being outside at these games reminds me of my military service in Finland as an 18-year old. They used to drop us off from the boat about ten feet from the shore in November, a machine gun in one hand and backpack in the other. So you learned to swim really well.

“This is similar to those trips. The being outside, the camaraderie, getting through stuff no matter what. But with a lot better underwear,” laughed Nieminen

“This one will probably be my last game so I’m going to really enjoy it, really soak in the experience. I’m going to spend a little more time around the people, listen to the stories, maybe dance by the fire, hope it doesn’t rain right after, and maybe even have a beer before the final buzzer which I have never done before,” continued Nieminen.

He also wouldn’t be playing again without the support of his loving wife and children.

“My children are little. My ten-year-old son is a good little hockey player who really loves the game, and my eight-year-old ringette-playing daughter is probably the best skater in the whole family. They think it’s alright, but dad is away from home for a long time, basically eleven days, so it’s kind of hard, too. We couldn’t play these games if we didn’t have supporting families.”

The puck drops Friday morning at 8 a.m. and they will play until 6 p.m on Monday, February 19th.

Make some time over the next ten days to go and watch the game, located on Saik’s acreage at 52269 Range Road 220, a mile south of the Wye Road Laughing Llama gas station.

And if you can, make a donation. You can do it online here, or bring some cash with you when you show up at Saiker’s Acres.

***Thanks to Rob Hislop for the great photos***

PARTING SHOT

Talking with Jouni about the game brought back a flood of memories for me. When I played in 2005, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was a great event. The first few days were tough because it was so warm the ice was melting, especially at the bluelines and red line. You couldn’t glide, so you had to take every step. On the third day it got colder, the ice froze, and the game seemed much easier. In the middle of the night, on day five, our team was playing the overnight shift. It was -20 and both teams, six guys aside, were tired, sore and cold.

The zamboni would flood every hour, and at 2 a.m. we were all crammed into the one bench, which had a heater that worked sporadically. No one talked. Usually, there was a lot of chatter and good-natured chirping going on, but that was the coldest night so far and we were nearing hour 120.

Just as the Zamboni was about to leave the ice, a man and his son came walking across the ice towards our bench. They opened the gate to the enclosed bench and the boy stepped in with a huge smile on his face. “Hi guys,” he said. I remember thinking, ‘What is a ten-year-old doing out at two in the morning?’ I got my answer moments later, and I still tear up thinking about.

He had just gotten out of the hospital. He was cancer-free, and he told his father the first thing he wanted to do was come to the World’s Longest Hockey Game. He told us his story, and then made a $40 donation of money he brought with him. He told us what a great job we were doing and how we inspired him. By the time he was done talking, all the players had tears running down their cheeks, or were trying to hold them in.

The next few hours were the fastest paced we’d play for the entire game. His words and actions lifted our spirits. It was a poignant reminder of why we were playing.

And finally, Jouni mentioned the “fight” in 2005. I should clarify it wasn’t really a fight, more of an accidental one. My good buddy Mike Burge played on Team Red and I was on Team White. Our two groups each had six players who played some level of junior, so when we played it was a bit quicker. Burge and I, like most friends who played, loved chirping and beaking each other.

On the third night, we were playing a four-hour shift from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. In the far end of the ice, Burge and I were battling for the puck in the corner. He finally slapped the puck up the wall and then we exchanged some friendly slashes to each other’s shinpads. Then some pushing and shoving and we decided to drop the gloves and throw “air punches.” You’ve likely done it, where you stand toe-to-toe, throwing punches, but always stopping before they connect. Well, we did that, but we ended up landing a few to each other’s face accidentally. We weren’t mad, but the refs actually gave us each a five-minute penalty and we had to sit in the box.

Some volunteers were watching from the other end, and with the lightning not perfect, from their vantage point they thought it was an actual fight. We finished our shift and went to bed.

After a quick three hour nap, I got up for breakfast. I went into the house and Burge was sitting at the table. I slid in beside him, and jokingly chirped him to move over. All of a sudden the ladies working the kitchen come over and say, “You two get along. We can’t have this.” Mike and I were a bit confused, but I looked at him and he had a scrape around his eye and it turned out I had a small bruise over my left eye.

We learned the myth had spread over night. Some thought it was an actual fight. In fact, CBC TV came to the rink that morning, and after hearing about the alleged fight they asked Saik about it. He looked straight in the camera and said, “The guys are treating this like a real game, anything can happen.” You have to remember this was during the 2005/2006 lockout, so there was more media coverage than usual.

Mike and I had a good laugh about it, but for days other people came up to us, asking what had happened. It was too funny, and while we did actually land a few accidental punches, I would never call it a true fight. But it was a good story.

I wish all 40 skaters the best of luck. It was a privilege to play in 2005, and I can’t wait to go watch. This is a fantastic event, and you will be impressed by how organized it is and how many people volunteer so much of their time.

The forecast looks great. Not too cold. So get out and support them.

HELP OUT…

They have a bit of a World’s Longest Game Emergency! They need officials. Guinness World Record has all of sudden said they need two refs and two linesmen at all times instead of just two referees like previous years. No ref experience needed, but you must be 18! Please email wlhgrefs@outlook.com. This is crucial so if you can help out, or know someone who can please email them ASAP.

Recently by Jason Gregor: