Though he’s a native of the country known for ice hockey and other winter sports, Max Poikonen chose a different path – one that led him to the roster of the football team of Finlandia University. Born and raised in the town of Kerava, about 20 miles north of Helsinki, he pursued studies in athletic sciences in Kajaani in the Kainuu region. The university in Kajaani has an exchange student agreement with Finlandia University, and that gave him the opportunity to come to the Copper Country to play football.
The Finnish linebacker did not know anything about the area he was moving to, and some things came as a surprise. “It is kind of funny and even a little weird I must say to see all the names of place in Finnish around here,” said Poikonen. It almost goes without saying that Poikonen is not the only player with a Finnish name on the Finlandia Lions roster. “There are some really nice guys on the team, they’ve been helping me adapt,” he said, adding that he’s been enjoying the experience. “The competition is definitely harder. You get nothing for free. The best players and hardest working players get to play – and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Poikonen found his passion for the sport after a relative recommended football camp for him. He had already gotten to know the sport a bit in the same way many Finns once did. “At that time Finnish television used to show the Super Bowl every year, and I used to record it on VHS tapes and watch the game the following day,” Poikonen remembers. The New York Giants have been his team ever since those days. Besides football, he also played hockey and basketball, but pretty soon there just weren’t enough hours in the day. Poikonen, who is 22, made the junior national teams for Finland in the under-17s and under-19s. But what attracts this young Finn to the type of football played on the other side of the Atlantic is the perfect balance between being a tactical sport and a contact sport. “It’s great, it’s both aggressive but balanced,” he explained. “You sometime have to look crazy out there but still be in full control of the situation.” This is not Poikonen’s first experience in the U.S. He spent a year in high school as an exchange student in Strasbourg, Virginia.
Football developing in Finland
In Finland football – or “American football,” as the sport is called for obvious reasons — is a growing sport. The National league Vaahteraliiga (The Maple League) was founded in 1980 and consists of seven teams and some of them have a nearly professional organization even though the majority are amateur teams. The Vaahteraliiga season differs from the American football season in that it is played in summer, with a schedule usually from May to September. The Finnish is league is not as competitive as other leagues in Europe, not to mention in the United States, but Poikonen is confident about the future of the sport in Finland. “I think American football in Finland looks promising,” he said. “It has developed a lot just in the 10 years that I’ve been playing.” Poikonen welcomes the news of more Finnish players going to the U.S. and making the teams in Division 1 college football. There are players from Finland on the roster and training squad for UNLV and Hawaii, Poikonen mentioned. Poikonen’s own team in Finland, the Sipoo Bulldogs, have been struggling recently. Very few Finnish teams have the resources to keep up with the off-field tactical side of the game, which in football means looking at hours of plays on video. One thing Poikonen appreciates in American sports culture is that sports are connected to universities and schools, making it is easier to combine the two. In Finland and most of Europe sports are largely club-based. The football season is coming to an end this month and for the spring semester Poikonen will focus on his Sports Management studies at Finlandia. Before that he plans to spend Christmas with his Canadian girlfriend, who he met in Kajaani, in her hometown of Alberta. In the summer, he plans to take a shot at playing for a Vaahteraliiga team in Finland. Otherwise the future is still open but one thing is certain — it contains football in one form or another.
This article was written by Johannes Waris for the November edition of The Finnish American Reporter.
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The Finnish American Reporter is a monthly, English language journal, established in 1986, featuring articles and news reports of interest to Finns across North America, in Finland and around the world. It is the largest and most widely-circulated newspaper for Finns in North America.
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Tags: Finnish American Reporter, Finnish Exchange Student, Football, Max Poikonen