Joonas Oden could hardly contain himself when the NHL announced in December 2018 that it was expanding to Seattle.
“I was like, ‘Yo, I was born there,'” said Joonas, a forward who played for Finland at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic, which ended Jan. 5. “That would be sick to play there, back to Seattle, back to Washington.”
The 19-year-old has been thinking about a homecoming after perhaps the biggest moment of his career. His third-period goal gave Finland a 1-0 win against the United States in the WJC quarterfinals on Jan. 2. The North American television broadcast crew and other media covering the game noted the irony that a player born in Washington State had scored the winning goal for Finland and eliminated the United States.
Oden was named player of the game for Finland, which finished fourth, and ended the tournament as his team’s third-leading scorer with six points (three goals, three assists) in seven games.
He’s back in Finland now, playing for KooKoo in Liiga, the country’s top pro league, where he has six points (two goals, four assists) in 26 games.
But Oden’s hockey roots are in Washington State, where he was born to a Finnish mother and an American father. When the family moved to Spokane, his mother, Minna Hakala-Oden, tried to entice him and younger brother Markus, now 18, into playing hockey by buying them inline skates. They weren’t interested.
“But on our street, our cul de sac, we had neighbors who were playing street hockey, so we wanted to play street hockey,” Joonas said. “There were two kids down there; they both played ice hockey and they said we should play ice hockey, and that’s how we started ice hockey, pretty much.”
Joonas and Markus told their mother about a local ice rink, and she signed them up for skating and hockey lessons. The boys, then 8 and 7, picked up the game quickly.
“I remember Spokane Valley, where we lived,” Joonas said. “It was beautiful.”
But Joonas’ time in Washington was cut short when he was 12. His parents got divorced, and Hakala-Oden returned to Finland with her sons.
“First they thought that it was like we were going on vacation, so it was fun,” she said. “But when the reality hit that they had to go to school and live here forever, that’s when it started to be tough for them.”
Joonas said adjusting from living in Spokane to life in Haukipudas, a town of 19,000 near Oulu, Finland’s fifth-largest city, was a challenge, especially because he didn’t speak Finnish.
“To be honest, me and my brother didn’t really like it and we wanted to go back [to Washington],” said Joonas, who now understands Finnish better than he speaks it. “We decided to deal with it, and we loved it after all.”
Because the move was such a big disruption in her sons’ lives, Hakala-Oden vowed to keep them involved in hockey, no matter the cost.
“They lost their friends, they lost their homeland, they lost their language, they lost their dad, everything,” she said of the divorce. “But hockey — I love hockey myself, and I see the passion in their eyes when they play. I see that they can make friends. Hockey people are like family, so that was important for me to keep them there.”
It hasn’t been easy. Youth hockey in Finland is expensive, just as it is in the United States and Canada. Hakala-Oden, who is a nurse, sometimes worked as many as four part-time jobs at the same time to help cover fees, equipment and other game-related items.
“I just took whatever shifts I was able to,” she said. “Sometimes I went to one job in the morning and one job in the evening.”
The family sometimes had Ramen noodle meals after hockey expenses ate up Hakala-Oden’s paychecks. At times, Joonas and Markus had to rely on the kindness of teammates for hand-me-down equipment.
“I remember we couldn’t buy sticks all the time when they broke,” Joonas said. “Some people helped us out; we got discounts from the store, and that helped. I remember using my teammates’ [old] gear. I just got rid of a chest protector I had been using for two years.”
Paying for hockey has kept Hakala-Oden from replacing her rusting high-mileage car. Joonas and Markus half-kiddingly ask her to park it away from the rink and tell her they’ll walk the rest of the way.
“Hey, it moves, and it gets us from point A to point B,” she said with a laugh. “That’s all that matters.”
His mom’s sacrifices aren’t lost on Joonas.
“There no words that I can explain. I’m really proud of her,” he said. “I’ll take her as a role model, as a parent. I think she’s very proud of me and happy because she knows that she didn’t work for no reason.”
Things are a little better financially these days. Joonas plays for KooKoo’s team in Liiga and is paid. Markus plays for KooKoo’s junior team.
Joonas was eligible for the 2019 NHL Draft but wasn’t selected. He’s looking forward to seeing what happens in the 2020 NHL Draft, scheduled for June 26-27 at Bell Centre in Montreal. Oden was a C rated skater on NHL Central Scouting’s Players to Watch list in November, indicating he’d be a candidate to be selected in the fourth through sixth rounds.
He said his favorite current NHL team is the Colorado Avalanche because of All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon. But Oden and family also dream of him playing for the NHL’s yet-to-be-named Seattle team, which is scheduled to begin play in the 2021-22 season.
“That would be great. I would love that too,” Hakala-Oden said. “He would already have a place to stay because we have friends there.”
Said Markus, “I would live in his garage.”
Photos courtesy of Ella Taponen / KooKoo and KooKoo