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Jere Karalahti presents a challenge to his coach
Bill Stewart was aware of Karalahti’s troubled background when signing Finnish defenseman to Hamburg Freezers
By Heikki Miettinen in Hamburg
When Hamburg Freezers coach Bill Stewart hears the word Finland, he responds quickly: “So, you want to know how our number 10 is doing, do you?”
Stewart is excited. He has managed to secure a player who is far too good for the German Elite League. Simultaneously, Stewart has taken upon himself quite a Herculean task.
Jere Karalahti has never been the easiest player to coach in any ice hockey team.
The intricacies of the game he has picked up easily enough. Hardness he has honed in the NHL's tough school.
It is elsewhere that the defenseman's challenges have been lurking.
Stewart remembers very well one particular team meeting from the start of the training season.
“I was face to face with Jere; he looked me straight in the eyes and said he was extremely grateful for the second chance he has been given”, Stewart explains at Hamburg’s Color Line Arena.
The Freezers’ home arena (capacity 13,000 for hockey games) is colossal by European ice hockey standards, and yet it looks like a tiny box next to the stadium of the Hamburger Sport-Verein Bundesliga football club.
The world’s ice hockey circles are small enough for Stewart to have known exactly what he was up against when Karalahti arrived.
“Doug Shedden is a very good friend of mine and I had a chat with him before Jere’s arrival. I also asked Andy Murray for some background information”, Stewart says.
Shedden coached Karalahti for one season in HIFK of Helsinki, and Murray was in charge of the NHL club Los Angeles Kings when Karalahti built his career across the pond.
“It is an enormous challenge to give a person a chance and to improve the quality of his life and his game. I am really enjoying this”, Stewart enthuses.
The 50-year-old Stewart is a Canadian coach, who already knows some German (to the delight of the local listeners), but the conversation quickly switches back into English.
During his playing career, Stewart got used to changing locations. During his eight seasons in the NHL, Stewart played 261 games in four different clubs.
Karalahti’s past is filled with all kinds of incidents, but Stewart was not completely immune to controversy himself.
He was denied entry to the United States, after twice trafficking a Ukrainian-born player across the Canadian-American border in the luggage compartment of the team bus. At the time Stewart was a coach in the Ontario Hockey League.
“One can always look back, but I prefer to look forward”, Stewart states philosophically.
Karalahti has shed some seven kilograms of bodyweight in less than two months.
He appears sharp and trained, even though he is still some way from the level of his best days on the ice.
Karalahti spent three seasons in the NHL between 1999 and 2002, playing with the Los Angeles Kings and the Nashville Predators. He also represented HIFK Helsinki for eleven seasons, before joining Kärpät in Oulu in mid-2007. Karalahti has more than forty international caps for Finland.
“Another 30 per cent or so is still lacking from his top form. Jere is an extremely intelligent player, and once the legs start working, he’ll be even more intelligent in the rink”, Stewart comments.
“Jere is very motivated, and he knows that many people are backing him up. I’m proud to do my part to help him reinstate himself as a player”, Stewart explains.
“He is a terrific personality, who deserves a second chance.”
The team supports Karalahti in many ways.
His living quarters were arranged from the same community with the Canadian players.
This removed the language barrier to German.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 23.9.2008
HEIKKI MIETTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat