Home crowd cheers as Finland hosts World Hockey Championship

The puck has stopped along two distinct analytical lines regarding the hierarchy of women’s ice hockey during its 29 years of major international tournament competition: There is the US and Canada, and then there is the rest of the world.

Since its inception in 1990, the Women’s World Championship tournament has been won ten times by the Canadians and eight times by the Americans, with Team USA taking seven of the last eight gold medals. In fact, no country other than Canada and the US has even won silver.

Meanwhile, the world’s most competitive women’s ice hockey team outside North America is Finland, which has progressed to the bronze-medal match every single time. With more bronzes (12) than any nation, and tied with Sweden for most fourth-place finishes (six), Finland is attempting to become the first non–North American winner when the 19th world championships are held in Espoo, just west of Helsinki, from April 4 to 14, 2019.

A chance to challenge

Noora Räty, Finland’s goaltender, is in position to stop a shot from Canada’s Sarah Fillier in the Four Nations Cup in November 2018.Photo: Liam Richards/PA Photos/Lehtikuva

“This year Finland has a good chance to challenge,” says Tuula Puputti, general manager of Team Finland and general secretary of the organising committee for the 2019 World Championship.

There are several reasons why Finland could become the first team to unseat the USA and Canada.

Finland will have home ice for the fourth time in tournament history; it was held in Tampere in 1992, in Espoo and Vantaa in 1999, and in Hämeenlinna in 2009. Finland is missing only one player from its bronze-medal performance in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

“You think you know me,” begins the narrator, in a tone that makes it both a question and a statement. The video, entitled “This is who I am,” shows training and game clips of some of the World Championship players.
Video: International Ice Hockey Federation

And not to be underestimated is the fact that the Finnish government now financially supports its top-level female hockey players.

After the 2018 Olympics, 22 Team Finland players each received a 10,000-euro grant from the Ministry of Education and Culture, allowing them to cover some of their living expenses while devoting most of their time to training. For the majority of the squad, it was the first time receiving such a grant, and 10,000 euros doubled the amount given the previous year, when eight players received 5,000 euros each.

Puputti, a former Olympic and national team goaltender for Finland, says this is “the best situation we’ve ever had” to prepare for the World Championship.

The earnings game

Goal’s-eye view: A camera at the back of the net shows Finnish goalie Noora Räty with a glove and a leg out as Russia’s Lyudmila Belyakova (10) approaches during Pyeongchang Olympic action in February 2018.Photo: AFP/Lehtikuva

Equitable financial support has always been a point of contention in women’s hockey. Team USA threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan, until it received treatment equal to that of its male counterparts.

Whereas many male national players earn substantial sums of money as professionals in the National Hockey League and other high-profile leagues, women’s professional hockey leagues are scarce and do not pay well. Traditionally, female national-team hockey players have been left to choose between consistent training and work.

While American and Canadian female hockey players have better access to professional leagues in North American, some members of Team Finland’s lineup have also closed the financial gap by competing in the Swedish Women’s Hockey League, the highest level of competition for women in the Nordics. Puputti says the Swedish league remains just semiprofessional, but it gives Finnish women better financial and competitive footing to prepare for the national team.

Ten teams competing

Finland’s Ella Viitasuo (right) moves to steal the puck from American player Sydney Brodt during the Four Nations Cup in Saskatchewan, Canada a few months before the 2019 World Championship.Photo: Liam Richards/AP/Lehtikuva

“If everyone stays healthy and all goes well, we’ll maybe have our best team ever,” said Puputti, who played collegiately at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

With better financial support worldwide, women’s hockey is expanding its footprint. The field for the 2019 World Championship now has ten qualifying teams instead of eight, coinciding with the ten-team field that will be invited to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998. As in the World Championship, Finland has never won Olympic gold, but it took bronze in 1998 in Nagano, in 2010 in Vancouver and in 2018 in Pyeongchang.

For the World Championship tournament in Finland, Group A consists of the top-five-seeded teams: USA, Canada, Finland, Russia and Switzerland. Group B includes Sweden, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic and France. Following round-robin play, all Group A teams and the top three Group B teams advance to the quarterfinals.

Fans who pack into the 6,982-seat Metro Arena will see only one difference in rules between men’s and women’s hockey: Body checking is not allowed. The debate continues about whether to change this rule in order to promote equality, but women’s hockey remains a contact-filled, fast-paced sport – that’s the nature of ice hockey.

By Michael Hunt, March 2019

Finland’s first feminist: Why Minna Canth’s writing is still important

Minna Canth (1844–97) is one of Finland’s most influential writers. Minna Canth Day is celebrated annually on her birthday, March 19.

During her lifetime, she published stories, articles and plays that explored the oppressive structural conditions that governed the lives of women and of working class people. She wrote in Finnish and Swedish, both of which are official languages in Finland today.

Canth received admiration for representing women realistically and questioning the patriarchal norms that limited their opportunities. Her play Sylvi (originally published in Swedish, in 1893, and in Finnish shortly thereafter) is about a young woman who cannot divorce her older husband to be with the man she loves. Työmiehen vaimo (“The Worker’s Wife,” 1885) tells the story of Johanna, a submissive wife whose alcoholic husband controls her finances. Anna Liisa (1895) tells the story of a teenager who becomes pregnant outside of marriage and is driven to kill her own child.

Doing her own thing

Author and teacher Minna Rytisalo cautions that “establishing a right doesn’t guarantee it forever,” and says that we can all learn from Minna Canth’s attitude.Photo: Marek Sabogal

“In many ways [Canth] was ahead of her time,” says Minna Rytisalo, author of Rouva C (“Mrs C,” published by Gummerus in 2018), a fictionalised account of Canth’s marriage to her former teacher, Johan Ferdinand Canth (1835–79).

“She believed that girls should have the right to an education…to learn about things like science, nature and the economy,” says Rytisalo, who teaches Finnish language and literature at the upper secondary (high school) level.

Although Finland has taken huge steps towards achieving gender equality since Canth’s time, her writing remains relevant. “Rights are never written in stone,” Rytisalo says. “Establishing a right doesn’t guarantee [it] forever.”

Rytisalo tells me that the Me Too movement is prompting “exactly the kinds of conversations that Minna Canth would have wanted us to have.”

She adds, “In a way, she was Finland’s first feminist.”

Canth’s legacy has inspired generations of feminist writing in Finland. “You can see traces of her thinking in the works of Saara Turunen, a writer who…asks audiences to consider…why we gender people,” Rytisalo says.

“The attitude [Canth] had is something we can all learn from. She believed in doing your own thing and knowing in your heart that it is the right thing to do, even when the world says it’s not.”

Rytisalo mentions Tove Jansson as “another Finnish writer who always knew the way she wanted to create art.” A painter, illustrator and writer, Jansson is most famous for inventing the Moomintrolls but also wrote novels and short stories for adults.

A supportive marriage

Minna Rytisalo decided to write Rouva C (“Mrs C”) after she read Minna Maijala’s biography of Minna Canth, Herkkä, hellä, hehkuvainen (“Sensitive, Gentle, Radiant”).Covers: Gummerus, Otava

Social equity was another of Canth’s topics. “She believed that we should organise society such that it would help the poor,” says Rytisalo. Canth’s play Kovan onnen lapset (“Children of Misfortune,” 1888) sympathetically depicts the social hardships of the unemployed. The conservative authorities of the day considered it controversial enough to ban it shortly after its publication.

Rytisalo decided to write Rouva C after she read Minna Maijala’s biography of Canth, Herkkä, hellä, hehkuvainen (“Sensitive, Gentle, Radiant,” Otava, 2014). Maijala’s book casts doubt over previous historical accounts that suggested Canth’s husband was controlling. Instead, it tells the story a supportive marriage that allowed Canth the freedom to thrive as a writer.

Rytisalo is thrilled that young people are interested in Canth’s writing again: “We have always thought about her as a kind of statue, without considering what she actually said.

“But now that’s changing.”

By Tabatha Leggett, March 2019

Fibre innovation from Finland may change textile industry

The modern clothing industry is a marvel. Walk into any fashion store and you have your pick of thousands of different items in a huge variety of styles. Yet the industry is also marked by its unsustainability.

Some of the most popular materials, such as polyester, are derived from petroleum. Plastic microfibres from synthetic fabrics end up in the oceans and enter our food chain. In turn, production of natural fibres such as cotton demands an enormous amount of water.

The very nature of fashion encourages people to toss their old clothes in landfills and buy the next popular thing. It is a monumental problem, but people are now aware of it.

Gown made of birch

Churn after reading: Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s most widely read newspaper, can become fabric for a laptop sleeve with Ioncell’s process, which dissolves cellulose and turns it into fibres.Photo: Eeva Suorlahti

“Sustainability is becoming very important to the consumer today,” says Anna-Kaisa Auvinen, managing director of Finnish Textile and Fashion, a textile and clothing industry organisation.

“In Finland we have great fibre innovations that will help the industry be more environmentally friendly. Increasingly we see new startups being formed in Finland with corporate social responsibility as the core of the company.”

Several Finnish organisations have been puzzling over the issue of a sustainable raw material for textiles for years, including VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Aalto University. Pirjo Kääriäinen, professor of design-driven fibre innovation at Aalto, estimates that seven or eight different projects are currently under way, and some of them have graduated out of the laboratory.

At Aalto University, professor Pirjo Kääriäinen and scientist Michael Hummel show how they and their students make wood into thread and fabric without producing waste or consuming chemicals.
Video: Ioncell/Aalto University

Kääriäinen is involved in Ioncell, a project that has developed a method of creating high-quality textile fibres from wood or recycled materials.

They found the perfect publicity for their product when Jenni Haukio, the First Lady of Finland, wore a dress made from birch-based Ioncell fibre to the annual Independence Day gala.

Infinite source of raw materials

Aalto University students Simone Haslinger and Yingfeng Wang produced a scarf using Ioncell fibres recycled from old cotton; French President Emmanuel Macron received it as a gift when he visited the school.Photo: Mikko Raskinen

“Traditional methods of creating fibre from cellulose, like rayon, require heavy chemicals,” Kääriäinen says. “The whole Ioncell production process is safe and non-harmful. It can even keep the colour: if you recycle red T-shirts you can get red fibres out of the process without needing to re-dye it.”

Another company active in the field is Infinited Fiber. Its roots date back to the 1980s, when various Finnish corporations and VTT studied viscose production.

“The breakthrough came in about 2010, when we discovered how to use waste paper as a raw material,” says CEO Petri Alava. “We can now use a huge variety of raw materials, like paper, carboard or textile waste. Availability is a big issue for the industry, but some of the infrastructure is already in place for these materials, like cardboard.”

Infinited Fiber was spun off from VTT in 2015 and now has a pilot plant in operation. Their process separates fibre, turns it into a liquid, and transforms the liquid into a new cotton-like fibre. Cotton is a major material for the mainstream textile market, and Infinited Fiber plans to license their technology to big global producers. Their denim has already met 100 percent of commercial quality requirements.

“It’s encouraging to see the high interest we are receiving from the market,” Alava says. “The younger generation wants environmentally sustainable clothing, and this is a major challenge for fashion brands.”

Spin to win

Companies such as the Finnish brand Melli EcoDesign are trying Spinnova fabrics. Melli is particularly interested in textile textures, since it specialises in clothing for infants and premature babies.Photo: Spinnova

Spinnova is located in the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä, at the heart of Finnish forest country. They use wood pulp as their raw material, but their process has a different spin.

“We use no harmful chemicals at all,” says CEO Janne Poranen. “We use a mechanical process to spin the natural fibres through small nozzles to create textile filaments.”

The only by-product of Spinnova’s technology is water that evaporates during drying and is reused in the spinning process. The closed-loop system caught the attention of Finnish fashion icon Marimekko and a partnership began. At the time of writing, the two companies are planning to bring their product to customers in the near future.

“Our pilot plant is in the startup phase and then we will begin to scale up,” Poranen says. “In two or three years we expect to see big volumes.”

Finnish innovators such as Spinnova, Ioncell and Infinited Fiber have a huge goal: to find a sustainable process with sustainable materials for the world’s textile needs. They employ different methods, but there’s more than one way to stride down a catwalk.

By David J. Cord, March 2019

13 contemporary Finnish authors you should be reading

In recent years, more books by Finnish authors have been released worldwide than ever before.

We consulted with librarians and literature societies to compile a list of noteworthy present-day writers from Finland. Some of their careers already span many decades, whereas others have established themselves more recently with bestselling debuts.

For each writer, we mention at least one book. To narrow down the list of authors, we limit ourselves to books published since the mid-2000s and already available in English; many of them appear in multiple other languages, as well. With one exception, the originals are all in Finnish or Swedish, both of which are official languages in Finland.

Inger-Mari Aikio

Photo: Jaime Mejía

Inger-Mari Aikio is a writer and translator who writes in Northern Sámi, one of the languages of the indigenous Sámi people, whose homeland stretches across northern Finland, Sweden and Norway and a corner of Russia. (Three Sámi languages are spoken in northern Finland, and have the status of official languages there.)

Aikio’s writing explores her views of genuine Sámi identity and tackles themes of cultural otherness and gender. Her bilingual poetry anthology, published in Northern Sámi and Finnish as Beaivváš čuohká gaba / Aurinko Juo Kermaa in 2014, contains the languages side by side in a collection of nature-inspired verses similar to haikus. To allow readers to experience a similar interplay between two languages, it was translated into German and English (Sahne für die Sonne / Cream for the Sun, 2018).

An accompanying album, created together with musician Miro Mantere, is available on Spotify. Aikio reads a selection of poems in Northern Sámi and Mantere sings in Finnish, backed by instrumental music and sounds from nature.

Monika Fagerholm

Cover: Schildts & Söderströms; photo: Stefan Bremer/Teos

Monika Fagerholm is an award-winning Swedish-speaking Finnish author. Her third novel, The American Girl (2010; Swedish: Den amerikanska flickan, 2004), tells the story of a girl from Coney Island who disappears when she arrives in Helsinki in the 1970s. The crime mystery, which is also a sensitive meditation on female friendship, won Sweden’s August Prize in 2005. It’s the first in a two-part series, followed by The Glitter Scene (2011; Swedish: Glitterscenen, 2009).

Elina Hirvonen

Photo: Jarkko Virtanen/Teos; cover: Teos

Journalist, author and documentary filmmaker Elina Hirvonen’s debut novel When I Forgot (2009; Finnish: Että hän muistaisi saman, 2005) tells the story of a journalist reflecting on her life and her brother’s life during the time following the September 11 attacks. A tremendously thoughtful book, it unpacks the process one woman experiences when she decides to explore her own memories. Since then Hirvonen has continued to publish novels while also filming documentaries.

Emmi Itäranta

Cover: Teos; photo: Heini Lehväslaiho/Teos

Emmi Itäranta finished her first novel, Memory of Water (2015; Finnish: Teemestarin kirja, 2012), while she was studying for an MA in creative writing at the University of Kent, England. Itäranta started writing the novel in English, translating it into Finnish along the way. She finished writing the book in Finnish and English simultaneously. Memory of Water is a coming-of-age story set in a future world that is running out of fresh water. Reviewers have compared Itäranta to Margaret Atwood, and Memory of Water won her the Kalevi Jäntti Literary Prize for young authors in 2013 and the Young Aleksis Kivi Prize in 2012.

Katja Kettu

Photo: Ofer Amir/WSOY

Katja Kettu is a columnist, an animated-film director and the author of The Midwife (2016; Finnish: Kätilö, 2011). Inspired by the real life stories of her grandparents, Kettu’s historical novel tells the wild love story of a midwife working in remote Lapland and a German officer during the Second World War.

Rosa Liksom

Photo: Pekka Mustonen/WSOY

Visual artist, illustrator and author Rosa Liksom won the prestigious Finlandia Prize in 2011 with Compartment No. 6 (2014; Finnish: Hytti nro 6, 2011). Liksom’s writing often focuses on the differences between urban life and reclusiveness. Compartment No. 6 is an ode to the dying Soviet Union. It relates the story of a young girl who boards a train heading eastwards to escape a failed affair in Moscow.

Laura Lindstedt

Photo: Jarkko Mikkonen/Teos

Laura Lindstedt’s second novel Oneiron (2018; Finnish: Oneiron, 2015) won the 2015 Finlandia Prize. In the book, Lindstedt experiments with combining different genres of writing, including poetry and essays, to explore the concept of life after death. She tells the story of seven women who meet as strangers in a space where time does not exist. Together, they piece together their lives in an attempt to ascertain the events that led to their deaths. The complicated story took Lindstedt eight years to finish and has received praise from reviewers all over the world.

Ulla-Lena Lundberg

Photo: Cata Portin/Schildts & Söderströms; cover: Schildts & Söderströms

At the age of 15, Ulla-Lena Lundberg published her first poetry anthology. Since then, the Swedish-speaking Finn has written fiction about places she has lived. She was born in Kökar, in Finland’s Åland Islands, an autonomous archipelago located between Finland and Sweden. Other settings include Botswana, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania and Siberia. Her novel Ice (2016; Swedish: Is, 2012) won the 2012 Finlandia Prize. Set in the Åland Islands after the Second World War, Ice tells the story of a pastor who falls in love with remote island life. The Finnish National Opera adapted it for the stage; it premiered in January 2019.

Sofi Oksanen

Photo: Toni Härkönen

Born in Finland to a Finnish father and an Estonian mother, Sofi Oksanen is a cultural commentator who has written extensively about women’s rights, freedom of speech and immigration. With translations into more than 40 languages, Oksanen is Finland’s best-selling living author. Her best-known novel, Purge (2011; Finnish: Puhdistus, 2008), chronicles the lives of women from one Estonian family between the 1930s and the 1990s. Norma (2017; Finnish: Norma, 2015) tells the story of a mother fighting to preserve her daughter’s supernatural secret.

Riikka Pulkkinen

Photo: Jouni Harala; cover: Otava

Riikka Pulkkinen is a former athlete with novels translated into around 20 languages. Her second novel, True (2012; Finnish: Totta, 2010), tells the story of three generations of women, the oldest of whom has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. An elegantly written story, it’s filled with sharp observations about families, gender and death.

Salla Simukka

Photo: Hanna Poropudas; cover: Tammi

Translator, literary critic and author Salla Simukka is best known for a young-adult thriller trilogy including As Red as Blood (2014; Finnish: Punainen kuin veri, 2013), As White as Snow (2015; Finnish: Valkea kuin lumi, 2013) and As Black as Ebony (2015; Finnish: Musta kuin eebenpuu, 2014). The books follow the life of a teenager who escapes from her home in the central-western Finnish city of Tampere after someone entangled in the international drug trade begins stalking her. Simukka’s writing style has inspired comparisons to Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson.

Anja Snellman

Photo: Jouni Harala/New Terrain Press

Anja Snellman is a columnist and television host whose career as an author spans three decades and 24 novels. Her work has been translated into 20 languages. Pet Shop Girls (2013; Finnish: Lemmikkikaupan tytöt, 2007) is the first of Snellman’s books to be translated into English. The story of a missing teenager, the suspense novel is especially perceptive on the topic of mother-daughter relationships.

Maria Turtschaninoff

Photo: Karin Lindroos/Schildts & Söderströms; cover: Schildts & Söderströms

Maria Turtschaninoff writes fantasy novels such as the series called The Red Abbey Chronicles, which includes Maresi (2016; Swedish: Maresi, 2014) and Naondel (2017; Swedish: Naondel, 2016). Set in an isolated abbey populated only by women, the books combine feminism with mythology. Turtschaninoff won the Finlandia Junior Prize for young-adult and children’s literature with Maresi in 2014. At the time of writing, UK-based Film4 is adapting that book into a film.

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8.

By Tabatha Leggett, February 2019

With thanks to the Saami Council; the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland; the Finnish Literature Exchange; and Libraries.fi’s Ask a Librarian service, for their recommendations.

Modern stories of Finland meet ancient Kalevala via Gallen-Kallela

Finland’s national identity is deeply associated with the Kalevala, a work of epic poetry compiled in the 19th century from an oral tradition of ancient folklore and mythology.

February 28 is officially designated as both Kalevala Day and Finnish Culture Day.

Numerous artists, writers and musicians have sought inspiration from the Kalevala, most notably during the national romanticism of the late 1800s. However, few have captured the Kalevala spirit quite like Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931). His illustrations of the epic stirred the imaginations and passions of readers who, through his brush, could see the olden texts come to life.

Some of Gallen-Kallela’s most famous Kalevala-inspired masterpieces, such the Aino Myth triptych, are displayed at Ateneum Art Museum, the classical branch of the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki. They stand as a testament to a vision of Finland that originated in the past.

But what does it mean to be a Finn in modern times, and how does that connect with the Kalevala?

Connecting past and present

Gallen-Kallela drew this sketch in preparation for the Great Kalevala, a richly illustrated version that remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Photo: Mari Viita-aho/Gallen-Kallela Museum

An exhibition at the Gallen-Kallela Museum, just west of the capital in the neighbouring municipality of Espoo, tries to answer those questions with some of the painter’s lesser known, yet highly relevant, Kalevala-related works (until May 5, 2019). Entitled The Kalevala, In Other Words, the show features preliminary sketches of his classics that give insight into the development of Gallen-Kallela’s Kalevala oeuvre, as well as never-before-seen and unfinished works by an artist who helped form the nation’s character.

“One of our goals in this exhibition is to make more connections with Kalevala to the present day and contemporary times,” says Mari Viita-aho, the museum’s project planner. “We want to ask, ‘What does it mean to be Finnish today?’”

Part of the appeal of any exhibition at the Gallen-Kallela Museum is the building itself. Located in the rustic, seaside Tarvaspää area, it was completed in 1913 as a grand, turreted home for Gallen-Kallela and his family. It has operated as a museum since 1961, and part of In Other Words is housed in the painter’s spacious studio, which still looks much as it did when Gallen-Kallela created his famous works. Exhibits are also placed in what were once the family’s kitchen, dining room and living room.

Climbing to culture and history

This drawing, The Defence of the Sampo, shows a key scene from the Kalevala; the sampo is a mystical source of power or wealth. Gallen-Kallela also made a very different painting of the same name, which he reproduced as a mural on the ceiling of the National Museum in Helsinki.Photo: Jukka Paavola/Gallen-Kallela Museum

Supporting the contemporary theme of In Other Words, the rooms in the tower feature the culture, history and everyday life of Espoo. Visitors can climb the steps to the top room, with its sweeping views over an inlet of the Baltic Sea. Idyll, an installation by the Espoo Artists’ Guild, centres on a large egg, a significant creation-myth symbol from the Kalevala, suspended in mid-air over a nest-like construction. The work incorporates video and audio collected in Espoo.

In another room, audio recordings of local storytellers play in nine of the many languages spoken in Espoo. The stories in Finnish, Swedish, Russian, Estonian, Arabic, English, Vietnamese, Hindi and Lithuanian lend a modern, relevant subtext to the ancient Kalevala. Sixteen percent of Espoo’s 214,000 residents have a native language that is not Finnish or Swedish, which are Finland’s official languages.

“When we made this exhibition we asked the question, ‘What is Kalevala all about?’” says Viita-aho. “We came to the conclusion it was about people meeting people and telling stories and spreading the information of cultural heritage onwards. That stands as the essence of Kalevala for current times.”

Revealing personal touches

Lemminkäinen’s Mother, on show at the Gallen-Kallela Museum, depicts a Kalevala scene. This version is only about three centimetres wide; a much larger, more detailed painting is located in Ateneum Art Museum.Photo: Jukka Paavola/Gallen-Kallela Museum

The exhibition centrepiece, located in Gallen-Kallela’s studio, tells the story of the women of the Kalevala. There, personal touches are revealed: The model for Gallen-Kallela’s painting of Aino, a heroine from the epic, was his wife, Mary.

For Lemminkäinen’s Mother, a Gallen-Kallela masterpiece that hangs in Ateneum, the model was the artist’s own mother. And he painted the visage of Louhi, the mythological wicked queen, as a composite of faces he encountered during his visits to the Finnish countryside.

“He had a lifelong relationship with the Kalevala from a young age and was impressed from his first readings,” Viita-aho says. “He is not the only one who painted the Kalevala, but his paintings are the first that come to mind when people talk about the Kalevala.”

By Michael Hunt, February 2019

At Finland’s high schools, wild winter party precedes study break

What would you think if, in your hometown, a caravan of dozens upon dozens of open-bed trucks drove slowly past, each full of teenage students, many of them in costume, making noise and throwing handfuls of candy to the gawking spectators on the roadside?

That’s what happens each year in Finnish towns on a Thursday in mid-February, when students in their third and final year of upper secondary school (high school), conclude their last courses and begin a study break before their final exams. The break lasts four to six weeks, depending on what subjects they are taking. But prior to studying, they party. The adjective generally used to describe the event is “carnival-like.”

This is penkkarit in Finnish, short for penkinpainajaiset. If that means nothing to you, try Finland’s other official language, Swedish: bänkskuddagillen. If you still don’t get it – and why would you? – picture a bench (penkki, bänk), like the name says. It might be a school bench, or it might be a seat on a train leaving town for the study break. You’ll get different information from different people, but all you really need to know – and all most people really know – is that it’s a party.

A very big deal

Sharing the fun: All over Finland, costumed students in caravans throw candy to the crowds.Photo: Laura Vanzo/Visit Tampere

The tradition apparently started in Helsinki and gradually spread to the rest of Finland. Estimates about the date vary, but it goes back to at least the early 1900s, if not farther. And back in those days, they used to ride around town on a horse-drawn sleigh. After the Second World War, the ritual grew to include the carnival atmosphere and the candy.

Why is it such a big deal? After all, they aren’t out of school yet – they still have to get through their matriculation exams.

It’s an important milestone – some might even say a rite of passage. The tests are still hanging over their heads, but these kids – well, they’re almost adults, aren’t they? – will never again have to attend a high school class. They’re 18 or 19 years old, and they’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.

As the teens ride through town, laughing, screaming and throwing candy, the smaller kids among the onlookers scramble to gather up the goodies. Maybe those little children are thinking, “One day that’ll be me up there!”

Wait, could this be the secret to the famously successful Finnish school system, a way of instilling enthusiasm in pupils from an early age? (A carrot usually does work better than a stick.)

A very old dance

Many schools post video coverage of their second-year gala. The students show off ballroom dances, but they also perform a modern choreography to pop music, usually as the grand finale.
Video: Tapiola High School

Meanwhile, back at school, one-third of the student population is suddenly gone. The second-years waste no time in celebrating the fact that they are now the new royalty of the school. The following day, they hold a fancy ball for themselves and their parents.

This is Vanhojen tanssit, literally the Dance of the Old, and it’s a tradition that’s almost as old as penkkarit. The second-years are simply declaring that they are the eldest students left.

The name also fits well with the old-fashioned dresses and suits that participants used to wear to the ball, although nowadays most of the dresses are more glittery and gaudy than people probably could have imagined back when the tradition began.

In many cases they have trained for months, learning the Viennese waltz, the foxtrot or other venerable dances, not to mention the tango, which holds a special place in Finnish hearts and culture. There may be some traditional folk dances thrown in for good measure, and many classes also concoct a choreography set to modern pop music to top it all off.

Their parents come to watch and applaud, and afterwards it’s time to enjoy a fancy dinner.

All of these parties – and the academic work, of course, don’t forget that – form integral steps in the progression towards receiving a white cap with a narrow black brim, called a “student cap.” That hard-won hat means you’ve graduated – but that’s a story for another time. The party’s not over yet.

By Peter Marten, February 2019

For Finland and China, hockey is a contact sport

It was never a contest inside Malmi Ice Hall, an arena just outside the Finnish capital. In two periods of play the Finns won, 9–0, with virtually all of the action occurring in front of the Chinese goal.

The Finnish team was a youth squad from Helsinki club Jokerit; their opponents came from the Beijing Ice Hockey Association (BHA).

The outcome wasn’t the point, not with Finland being a world power in the sport and China just recently catching on to the nuances of hockey. The game formed part of a much broader partnership between the two countries, designed to make the Chinese national hockey teams more competitive in advance of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics while also offering possibilities for Finnish businesses.

Hockey-based brainstorming

The chase is on: The Chinese players travelled to Finland to gain experience in a country where ice hockey is a national obsession.Photo: Hernan Patiño

The idea began in 2015, when Jokerit executives began hearing rumours that a team from Beijing wanted to join the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). At the time, Jokerit’s men’s team was itself a relatively new addition to the Russian-based KHL, which now includes clubs in seven countries. Beyond the novelty of a professional ice hockey team located in China, Jokerit’s management team saw the potential of a Finland–China cooperative that could benefit both countries.

As Finland lends its vast know-how and experience in the sport to a hockey novice like China, Finnish companies such as those that specialise in building hockey rinks are looking at the possibility of market inroads in China in the lead-up to the Olympics. (A Finnish firm built the rinks for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.)

Beijing-based Kunlun Red Star entered the KHL in the 2016–17 season; at the time of writing, the club has five Finns on the roster and a Finnish head coach. Before Beijing joined the league, Jokerit management had already made a number of goodwill trips to China. The ongoing partnership is even creating growth opportunities for the Finnish tourism industry.

“This has a huge impact for the winter-sport market here in Finland, with all the Chinese tourists coming to Finland,” says Jussi Rapo, general manager of facility operations for Jokerit, after returning from his 25th trip to China since 2015. “And this is just the beginning. About 100 million Chinese people have a passport. They estimate that 350 million will have a passport in the next five years.”

Looking for overnight results

The big boys: Steve Moses (11, in blue) of Jokerit and Taylor Beck (41) of Beijing’s Kunlun Red Star fight for the puck during KHL action in Helsinki.Photo: Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva

In the long term, the benefits of attracting tourists from a massive country that is just beginning to appreciate winter sports could pay off for Finland. Meanwhile, Finnish expertise in providing hockey rink technology to China could enhance Finland’s industrial base.

For now, Rapo says the sports-first goal of the partnership is to help China develop viable national hockey teams. The coach of the Chinese men’s national hockey team is a Finn, Jyrki Aho. China wants its men’s and women’s teams to be competitive in time for the Olympics, but that is a herculean challenge, given that there are only 15,000 hockey players in a country of 1.4 billion. Finland, by comparison, has five times as many players among its 5.5 million inhabitants.

With a series of ongoing games in both countries, Finnish hockey ambassadors are teaching skills and coaching philosophies to their peers, but Rapo says that cultural differences sometimes impede progress. Whereas Finland became a dominant power in hockey partly by adopting knowledge from other countries and modifying it to suit the Finnish culture in a process that took many years, China wants to go straight to the competitive stage.

“They want it to happen overnight,” Rapo said.

Inspiration from Finland

The boys from Beijing had fun playing in the mounds of snow outside the arena, too.Photo: Hernan Patiño

In a recent game in China, Finland’s ten-year-old boys’ team was soundly beaten. While the Chinese are quick learners, Rapo said many players quit before they are 12 to concentrate on academics.

Jiří Novák, the Czech coach in charge of the BHA under-16 team that failed to score in the game in Malmi, says life is difficult for aspiring Chinese hockey players. On top of hours of school study, these guys face long trips across Beijing to reach the few available ice rinks.

However, Novák believes the humbling experience in Helsinki can only help his players.

“These boys were in the Chinese championships and they won games by a big margin,” he says of his team. “They think, ‘We are good.’ But when they compare with a good hockey-culture team, they see a big problem.

“It’s good for us, because the boys can see what the Finnish boys can do. I hope that when we get back to Beijing they train harder.”

By Michael Hunt, February 2019

Finnish specialist helps make artificial intelligence human-centric

Data is being collected, analysed and utilised everywhere. Artificial intelligence algorithms process data to produce automated decisions, recommendations and services. New artificial intelligence applications are springing up at an accelerating pace.

“Our positive expectations regarding the data economy won’t come true if citizens and consumers do not trust that artificial intelligence is used to drive human wellbeing,” Haataja says.

In the future, the competitiveness of companies and countries will depend to a great extent on their ability to utilise data and artificial intelligence. One key issue is who possesses expertise in this sector.

At the same time, a growing amount of attention is focusing on the ethical basis of AI activities.

Large-scale changes, fast pace

Nuts and bolts: Constructing a piece of healthcare technology that may provide data that leads to better decisions.Photo: Sakari Piippo

Earlier in her career, Haataja worked as director of artificial intelligence at OP Financial Group, one of the largest and oldest financial companies in Finland. At that time, she says, it really hit home for her that power and responsibility must go hand in hand.

“I began to wonder what it would take for me to convince our owner-customers that the data we collected about them was always truly to benefit them,” she says.

She subsequently moved on to developing principles and practices for the sector in Europe and globally.

“This is exceptionally meaningful work, and therefore it’s also rewarding,” she says. “It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to collaborate with other experts from around the world to formulate new guidelines that will shape the world our children live in.”

The tremendous pace of progress in AI adds its own dimension to the work: “Large-scale changes have to be implemented at a relatively fast pace.”

Human-centric tech

This photo, showing many different influences and inputs on a piece of music, symbolically plays on the fact that artificial intelligence technology is even being utilised in the arts.Photo: Aleksi Poutanen/Aalto University

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is one of the places where Haataja is currently contributing to promoting AI ethics. An independent global organisation with 400,000 members in more than 60 countries, it develops technology sector standards.

“Above all, the organisation wants to promote human-centric technology that serves people,” says Haataja. “For example, the current WiFi standard was developed by the IEEE.”

She is also the chair for Finland’s AI Programme’s Ethics working group. In addition, she has her own company, Saidot.ai, which develops technologies in order to enable ecosystem transparency, accountability and agreements in artificial intelligence.

In May 2018, the EU’s General Data Protection Resolution (GDPR) entered into force. It guarantees every EU citizen the right to check what data has been collected about them and receive information on how the data will be used and who will have access to it. Additionally, citizens have the right to correct their data or delete it from a register.

“The GDPR marks an exceptionally significant step in the direction of responsible use of data,” says Haataja. “It will provide the foundation for creating good shared ethical practices.”

How will AI influence our lives?

Studying radar displays at Helsinki Airport: Air traffic control is one of numerous fields in which use of artificial intelligence is set to increase.Photo: Riitta Supperi/Keksi

“Nowadays artificial intelligence is largely being developed to solve or automate specific narrow use cases and problems, but it’s also crucial to consider the impact of the technology from a broader, long-term perspective,” Haataja says. “How will it influence our lives and our society?”

She mentions that there is a need for ethical standards and certifications, for example on how AI is used in recruitment:

“When artificial intelligence makes assessments on how well a person is suited to a position, for instance by analysing microexpressions on the person’s face, then there’s reason to consider whether it will lead to discrimination, and how that could be avoided.”

She adds, “The EU has an important role as a pioneer. However, the IEEE’s standards and certificates are intended for global use.”

By Matti Välimäki, January 2019