Karhu-Kissat, 70 years old this year, came into being when someone quit smoking
Helsinki's oldest pure ice hockey club now brings juniors through to the adult game
By Pekka Aaltonen
The reasons behind the establishment of a sports team can sometimes be rather obscure.
In the case of the Helsinki ice hockey club Karhu-Kissat, the threshold was nothing more or less than quitting smoking.
A bunch of youngsters who had been playing in another team in the capital - HJK, founded in 1907 and then playing ice hockey, bandy, and football - felt that they were being given a raw deal in the big club when they failed to receive the medals they had earned in a local tournament.
They resolved to break away and set up their own team.
The new team needed a financial backer, and they found one in the shape of local businessman Otto Wuorio, the owner of a successful construction company.
Wuorio, an enthusiastic hockey fan and later the second President of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association, agreed to help out, but he had one pretty serious condition that had to be met before he would part with any money.
The club would be founded just as soon as his son Olavi gave up smoking.
Wuorio also rejected the boys’ suggestion that the club be named “Smoke Extractors”.
And so Karhu-Kissat were born. The club took their name and their stylish burgundy-coloured jerseys from the Bearcats (the name is a direct translation) used as a mascot by numerous North American college teams. They asked permission nicely first.
In 1938, ice hockey was very much a poor cousin to bandy - close to “field hockey played on ice”. These days, of course, the roles have reversed, but before the war the ice hockey pioneers had to be a doughty lot.
Some idea of the scale of things can be had from the fact that a decision was taken that year to raise the number of teams in the top Finnish ice hockey league from five to seven.
In their first season on the ice, Karhu-Kissat were placed in the “National League”, the second level in the country.
Their home ice was in Kamppi, with an outdoor rink located roughly where the Narinkkatori Square now stands in front of the Kamppi Center shopping mall and bus station.
At the end of the 1940s, the club moved further along Mannerheimintie to Hesperia, where there was a pitch for Finnish-rules baseball (pesäpallo) in the summer and a makeshift “ice stadium” for hockey in the winter months.
The hockey players then moved further north in the late 1950s, when a new artificial rink was completed on the site of the present Helsinki Icehall.
The ice hall itself came in 1968, and until the construction of the Hartwall Arena it was the main venue for the sport in the city.
Karhu-Kissat’s heyday was in the 1950s.
The club played seven straight seasons in the top echelon from 1951 to 1957, and were runners-up to the all-conquering TBK of Tampere in 1954.
At least according to the club’s own history books, they have a further three bronze medals, but for some reason the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation does not list them.
Rather than through cups and medals, Karhu-Kissat’s fame was spread by one of the country’s greatest goaltenders of all time, Unto Wiitala.
Wiitala played man and boy for Karhu-Kissat for 19 seasons from 1939, saving flying pucks bare-headed and with a handsome parting in his hair.
He also represented Finland at five World Championships and one Winter Olympics, and was within an inch of being snapped up by the Detroit Red Wings of the NHL in the mid-1950s.
In the 1972 season, the roster was briefly joined by Lauri Mononen and Seppo Repo, who were later to be among the first Finnish ice hockey professionals to cross the Atlantic and play for the Phoenix Roadrunners in the then World Hockey Association league.
That season was the club’s last appearance in the top flight in Finland, and at the men’s level, the Karhu-Kissat story ended in 2002.
Since then Karhu-Kissat, which is the second-oldest "dedicated"* ice hockey team in the country and the oldest in Helsinki, has concentrated on being a “feeder” side, bringing through good junior players who then go on to success with other teams in the adult game.
The club runs an ice hockey school, and has teams in local leagues in all age-categories from 7 to 8-year-olds through to the A-juniors level.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 3.4.2008
*Note: As in the case of HJK Helsinki, many sports clubs in the early years were multi-discipline affairs, playing several sports under the one umbrella. Karhu-Kissat was the first pure ice hockey club to be formed in Helsinki.
Karhu-kissat (site in Finnish)
PEKKA AALTONEN / Helsingin Sanomat