Finnish forward Teemu Hartikainen has represented Ufa for so long that he won a government medal for service to the region. Prestige and bragging rights aside, it may take the entirety of his contract extension to finally learn the meaning of “Iron Back,” a fan-gifted nickname he still cannot explain. Over the course of seven seasons, Hartikainen has become a Bashkir fixture and local favorite—so much so that he can barely keep track of all the local fishing recommendations sent his way.

Born in Kuopio, Finland, Hartikainen worked his way up the hometown system of KalPa—eventually landing on the club’s SM-Liiga squad in 2008. Drafted 163rd overall by the Edmonton Oilers, the physical winger made the jump to North America in 2010. After three seasons between the Oilers and their AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, Hartikainen joined the ranks of Salavat Yulaev in 2013. Unlike many imports who embark upon a whirlwind tour of KHL cities, Hartikainen has remained in green for the entirety of his KHL career, alongside a slew of Scandinavian imports who have equally pledged their allegiance to Salavat.

I caught up with Hartikainen from training camp in Ufa, where he discussed—among other things—his government medal, a head coaching change and Juha Metsola’s rockstar aspirations.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): I understand that you crowd-sourced some fishing spots from Russian fans on social media. Did they come through for you?

Teemu Hartikainen (TH): Yeah, I actually received a lot of information about the fishing here in Ufa! It was almost too much—I couldn't even read all of them. I definitely found really good places and now I know where to go. There's a lot of rivers and lakes around here, but it takes half an hour to two hours to drive to those places.

GK: Have you checked out any of their recommendations yet?

TH: I haven't yet because we can't leave the bubble—but next week we actually have two days off, so we are planning to go with the imports. There’s a river in the forest where there's supposed to be really big fish, so we are planning to go there by ourselves.

GK: Speaking of imports, Salavat boasts quite the Scandinavian legion. Has that made a difference in your experience?

TH: It has always been a tight group, and its been many years that [Juha] Metsola and [Philip] Larsen have been in Ufa. We are really close friends—and it helps a lot, we do a lot of things together. It's a huge thing for us to have each other, especially now when we don't have families here and it might be a long time [before they arrive]. It's good to have good friends.

GK: When Linus Omark departed the club, I read your tribute on Instagram. You said he was one of your best friends and one of the best hockey players you’ve ever played with. What made him so special?

TH: I played many years in Edmonton with him, and then we played a lot of years in Ufa together. Over the seasons, you get to know each other so well that you don't even have to think about anything when you play together. You just know where to go in every moment. He was so good at reading the game and his hockey sense was great— it was a pleasure to play with him.

GK: With Omark’s departure, do you feel a certain pressure to step up in the locker room?

TH: Yeah, of course. I think I'm going to do the same things that I’ve always done here: be a nice guy to everyone and play my normal game. I don't take any pressure from it, but I understand the situation. Linus is not here and we are building new lines. It might take a while, but I'm not really nervous about that. It's actually fun to see something new—how it all works, and how the combinations are going to work in the locker room too. Nothing really changes because I'm going to be the same guy I’ve always been.

GK: Seven seasons at Salavat is impressive, and your contract extension will total to nine. Why do you think you've stayed so long in one place, especially when so many imports move?

TH: The city is good, and we like it as a family. The fans are great. The organization is really good and has a European style. We have a nice relationship with the GM and the coaches. We can talk about things. Like you can see in many Russian teams, it's the leaders that tell [everyone] what to do, but here you can use your voice and offer your opinions. Those are probably the biggest reasons why we've stayed. Of course, it takes our own kind of mentality to play such a long time in one club and one city. It's not always easy because the routines are the same, and everyone knows you. Your level has to be kept the same all of the time.

GK: It is rare to see a foreign assistant coach replacing a Russian head coach, but a Finn will lead Salavat this season! What has your experience been of Tomi Lämsä thus far, and how do you think he will bridge the gap between imports and Russian players?

TH: [Lämsä] was focusing a lot on all of our systems—power plays, penalty kill, stuff like that. He has really good vision, and he's a good human. It has been nice to work with him all these years, and it's great that he gets the chance to show now what he can do as a head coach in the KHL. He's really young, but you can see that he's hungry and he wants to coach. That’s his dream job, and he's been preparing the whole summer. It’s great to see how he's doing as a head coach, and I'm trying to help him as much as I can.

It was a big day for us when [former head coach Erkka] Westerlund came here, because he arrived with totally new ideas and everything. But Lämsä has been here for two years—he knows the systems and he knows the Russian style. He brings little aspects of Finnish hockey, but he still keeps the Russian way and he doesn’t want us to change too much. I think it's going to be a good mix of both.

GK: How might we see the team’s style of play shift with Lämsä at the helm?

TH: We will definitely see more strategy on the defensive side. We always have a lot of freedom in Ufa on offensive play, and he doesn't really want to change that. But we're going to have some more structure on the defensive side, and I’m pretty sure that our game is going to look a little faster than in past years.

GK: Offensive freedom rests on a certain level of skill. How do you classify Salavat’s strengths as a whole?

TH: Yeah, we have a lot of talented guys. We have [Nikita] Soshnikov, [Sakari] Manninen, [Alexander] Kadeykin, [Dmitri] Kugryshev and now Markus [Granlund] is coming too. We have good, top forwards and the third and fourth lines too. We actually have pretty fast skaters in all of the guys. That's been a big part over the years for having a lot of freedoms in the offensive zone. We can be creative, and you can see that it works pretty well in the playoffs. But the thing we’ve needed to go all the way was in the defensive side of the game, and that's probably going to change a little bit—or actually, a lot, this year.

GK: So much media attention will fall on Rodion Amirov this season. How would you describe him as a teammate?

TH: He’s a young guy, and his strength is definitely in how he reads the game. I was absolutely surprised last year when I saw him in preseason, how calm he was at only seventeen, and how well he would do with the puck and read the game. You can see there's a lot of talent in him. He has to find the right ways to use his talent and get the confidence, and he will do great.

GK: We have to briefly touch on your final playoff series versus Avangard Omsk this spring. I have never seen momentum swings like that.

TH: It’s really hard to say because I was thinking the same! Normally in the playoffs, you play a lot of overtimes and it's tied or just one-goal games. I felt last year like it was the first period, and then the game was over many times. It was kind of funny. I've never been in a series like that. It's impossible for me to tell how it happened, but something weird was going on.

GK: Where did you get the nickname “Iron Back?”

TH: [Laughs] I don't know, there have been a lot of nicknames over the years in Ufa.The fans posted something in the rink, like a big picture. They wanted me to sign for one more year and they put up a huge picture of me when we were playing. It said “Iron Back” or something…I have no idea!

GK: Nicknames aside, you also received the Order of Merit for the Republic of Bashkortostan. That sounds like quite an honor. How did it happen?

TH: Yeah, it was a really cool thing actually. We had a good playoff round. We had lost against Omsk, but after that, we had a meeting with the [Bashkortostan] president. He said my name, and I went up and I got the medal. I was really surprised because I wasn't expecting something like that at all. When I went home, I read about why this medal is given to you and all of the components you need to receive that kind of award. I saw it was a big honor for me. When I got it, I was like, "Okay, this is a really nice thing.” But now I understand it more.

GK: What were some of those components?

TH: Mainly to represent Bashkortostan and to do good. A lot of people know more about Ufa in Finland because I've been playing here a long time. I've been talking about it to the media, and then it's about your services to Bashkortostan—playing here a long time and at a good level. That’s what I was reading about it. So yeah, it kind of made sense, but at first I didn't understand how a hockey player could achieve something like that.

GK: Hockey players have always struck me as diplomats, in a sense. I became fascinated with Russia because of the Russian hockey players who came to play in America.

TH: Yeah, that's true. A lot of people ask me about Ufa, and actually many have been visiting and are surprised by how nice it is. They have a different view of Russia because they usually never come here. They only go to Moscow or Saint Pete, but never go deeper into Russia. So yeah, in that sense, I’m kind of like an ambassador for a lot of Finnish people.

GK: What are some of the things you like most about Ufa?

TH: There are a lot of things. I like the sauna culture here. I love to go to saunas and I go often, almost every week. The people here—they’re a different kind of people. Russia is a really big country and I like the Bashkir people. They're really friendly, and if you need any help—let’s take that fishing question I had—the people are so willing to help you. If you walk with a stroller because you have a kid, they open the doors and stuff like that. Already the ten-year-old boys are doing this. That's one of the things that I like most.

GK: Who is your favorite opponent to play against in the KHL?

TH: Team-wise, Kazan of course. The Green Derby, for us, it’s a big game. I like the Kazan and Magnitogorsk games because they are really close. And city-wise, we like to go to Saint Pete and Moscow. Those are nice road trips. Player-wise, there are a lot of good players. During the Green Derby, I play a lot against [Albert] Yarullin. I have a good balance with him. In Omsk, I've been playing a lot against Ville Pokka and [Alexei] Emelin. At Avtomobilist, there is [Nikita] Tryamkin. You get a lot of the same players, year after year—it’s always fun to see who has a better night that week.

GK: It’s funny—you all talk about the Green Derby, but no one acknowledges the fact that the trophy is made of chak-chak and a lot of imports don’t even like it! What’s your take?

TH: Well, it's not my thing. I actually don't really eat any sweet stuff. I'm more of a salt eater. But yeah, I think if somebody wants to eat it with a cup of tea—that’s okay. It's not my thing.

GK: Is heavy metal music your thing? I hear Juha Metsola is a big fan…

TH: Well now he's playing the guitar. Once I went to his place and he was trying to play some songs, but he only knows maybe ten seconds of them! [Laughs] It’s kind of funny. He wants to be a rock star, but I see it's going to take a while. I think he better stay in the hockey business.

GK: When did you fall in love with ice hockey for the first time?

TH: I was playing a lot in the street. My big brother started playing hockey when he was seven or eight, and I was crying at home because I wanted to go too. Eventually my dad took me. I was playing with my brother's teams and he was two years older than me, and I was so bad because those boys were two years older, but I wanted to get better. I just loved the game. I was playing on the street after school everyday—five, six hours. It wasn't really practicing, it was just having fun. That made me into the hockey player I am now.

GK: Sergei Fedorov and Slava Fetisov have both said to me that they feel creativity in hockey is on the decline because kids don’t play in the streets anymore.

TH: Yeah, that's actually true. You don't see those street games anymore in Finland. When I was young, on almost every street you went, you had to stop your car because the guys who were playing needed to take the goals away. I was living in a neighborhood and we had a game called King of the Streets. Those were the big games. If you lost that, it was a real disappointment. Those are the funniest and best hockey memories I have.

GK: What is your training camp schedule like these days, and how have KHL camps evolved over time?

TH: In the morning, we go to the rink and we practice. Then we go to lunch and take a nap, go back to the rink and practice. Then we come home and we sleep. Pretty boring. There is a lot of off-ice too, of course. There's everything that you can imagine.

We basically practice three or four days really hard and then we have a day off. It's easy to know that you have three to four days of working hard, and then you get a rest. Sometimes in my earlier years, it could be eleven days and three workouts in the day and two on-ice. It was a little bit too much! There has been a huge difference over the past seven, eight years here. The mentality of the players has been changing too. It's actually fun to see how they come into the training camp. Back in the day, the guys came a little bit chubby and out of the shape, but now when you see the guys, they’re coming ripped and almost ready to start the season. It's funny to see the differences over the years.

GK: Was it hard to stay in shape during quarantine, given the lack of ice time?

TH: I didn't go on-ice in four months. It was my first time on-ice here, but of course we arrived on the eighth of July. It was early enough to skate for two months before the season. I was a little bit chubby, but I gain weight really easily. [Laughs] I don't need to even open a beer—if I look at it, I gain like a kilo! It's always a little bit of work for me, but I was training. I was in shape when I came to camp, but I will lose a couple of kilos before the season.

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