There hasn’t been a war on Finnish soil since 1945 when occupying German forces were expelled from Finland’s Lapland province in a skirmish semi-related to World War II.
In the 68 years since, Finland has enjoyed a mostly peaceful existence with relatively little in the way of involvement in any military conflict. Despite that, every able-bodied male in Finland is obligated to serve one of three branches of that country’s military, the Maavoimat (army), Merivoimat (navy) or Ilmavoimat (air force).
Professional athletes such as Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta (right) are not exempt from serving.
“I’ve got to arrange some time for it for sure,” said Maatta. “It’s something I have to do. I’m not the first [athlete] who has done it.”
Finnish males must complete at least six months of service between the ages of 18 and 28. Maatta, a 19-year-old rookie in his first professional season, isn’t sure when he will fulfill his obligation but has applied to join Finland’s navy.
“You fill out an application for where you want to go,” said Maatta. “It depends on where you go. Some of the stuff – if you go for like me with the navy – you have to stay there for a year and learn more stuff. If you go to the army, it might be only be six months. Some of the guys will like it. They might stay there. They might get a job from there.”
While athletes are not excluded from serving, arrangements are made for their training and playing schedules. Maatta has the option of breaking up his six months in order to avoid any scheduling conflicts for games in North America.
“I’m pretty sure I can figure out something,” Maatta said. “I could do it in like two summers. That might be possible. I’ll see how it goes. They’re really good at [making arrangements]. If you play abroad, it’s not like you have to stay there for six months and miss the season.”
Maatta’s teammate and fellow countryman, left winger Jussi Jokinen, fulfilled his obligation to Finland in the early 2000s.
“I started the general army right after the World Junior [Championships],” said Jokinen. “I was able to get a couple of days off here and there when we had playoffs. After that, it was a straight three months.”
Jokinen, 30, admitted serving in the military can offer some challenges to maintaining a training regimen as a hockey player.
“It takes lots of time when you want to be able to practice and work out the way you want. It’s probably a good life experience at the end of the day. [I spent] eight days in the forest and living in the tents in the winter when it was cold. That was the most challenging part of it.
“They try to balance it out and help the professional athletes to get through.”
Maatta, who has friends who were part of NATO’s security forces in Afghanistan, sees the benefits of serving.
“It’s something that everybody has to do. I don’t think it’s like here [in the United States] because we don’t really get paid for it. I think of it as growing towards an adult. It teaches you a little bit about life. That’s how I feel it is important.”
(Photos: Claus Andersen/Getty Images)