Welcome to the 1-on-1 “Face-Off” segment here on Murph On Ice – where we bring you Murph’s conversations on a regular basis with some of the best hockey minds around!
Murph had the pleasure of chatting with an English National League Captain, an avid Bristol hockey promoter, and a blogger for Pucks Across the Pond. Enjoy his interview with Janne Virtanen.
Janne Virtanen is the Captain of Bristol Pitbulls ENL2 team and has been playing hockey since an early age. During his career, Virtanen has played on various levels in his native Finland, and made his senior hockey debut for IJCU Utrech in the Netherlands after his family moved to Amsterdam in 1998.
Murph On Ice – Great to finally talk to you Janne, thanks for taking the time to join me here on the website!
Janne Virtanen – My pleasure Murph, thanks for having me on!
MOI – You’ve played hockey at various levels in the Netherlands and Finland, so what’s the biggest difference for you playing in UK and the English National League?
JV – The game is definitely more physical in the UK and in ENL than any other league I’ve played in. I guess it comes from playing games on different sized ice pads, where you can go from something like Basingstoke with ample space to something like Gosport or Isle of Wight where it is more like bumper car hockey at times. So for sure the physical aspect of the game was one thing that I had to get used to. I took my wife to watch a top flight Finnish league game at Christmas and she wasn’t too impressed with the lack of hitting and said that there are more hits in my games than in the game we went to see. I think the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the Finnish brand of hockey is more creative and ‘open’ where in the UK it is definitely more physical. But I enjoy it regardless.
MOI – How did you get started playing hockey as a kid in Finland, any inspirations or heroes when you were younger?
JV – I started playing outdoors, like most kids do back in Finland or in North America. The first ever league I played in was an outdoor league. It definitely gives you an appreciation for rinks and playing ‘indoors’ when it’s -15c not to mention the wind chill. The ‘temperature’ limit for ‘unsafe’ conditions was -25c if I remember right. The parents would leave the cars running so that we could go and warm up between shifts in some games. Obviously a bit weird if you’re into the greener things in life. Where I lived for the first six years in Finland (Espoo) we had an ice rink less than a minutes’ walk from our flat. It’s where my dad taught me how to skate. I also went to the old Espoo arena to skating school and public skating. I guess I had my first sign of the injuries involved when I got a skate to the chin when I fell trying to dodge someone who had fallen. I went down as well and while the other person was getting up they accidentally kicked me in the chin. My biggest influence was and still is Jari Kurri. He was the player that all Finnish kids looked up to as he was the first one to make it big in the NHL and I think he sort of made NHL ‘big’ in Finland. My parents were another influence growing up and they encouraged me with the sport, though I think they are tired of me calling them and saying “Hi mom, Hi dad! I’m injured again.” Obviously there are others that I look up to nowadays, like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Martin St.Louis and some of the new kids like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Mikael Granlund and so on. I wish I had some of the skills and creativity of some of those guys. It’s just amazing what these kids can do with the puck at times.
MOI – The Pitbulls were founded in 2009, and are well supported in Bristol – what are the fans like for your home games, and what could an outsider like me expect on a game night there?
JV – The fans are really loud and have embraced the team from day one. We get a mix of people coming to the game, some who are going to a hockey game for the first time and those who have been following the game for a long time, but haven’t been able to watch live games as the closest team has been either Swindon or Cardiff. Rich Hargreaves, who set up the team and runs things, has ensured that the product on the ice looks and acts professional and has ensured that there’s some form of entertainment for the fans in between periods. Additionally our supporters’ club, The Pack, do great things for the team. I remember when I first turned up in Bristol there were only a handful of members, but it has grown in a season, so the sport is popular in Bristol and it’s good to see that people enjoy the games. It’s definitely a fun night out, despite what the facilities are like.
MOI – The Elite League is the top flight here in the UK – how’s the feeling amongst the players in the ENL that a good season there could have them on the radar for the big clubs?
JV – The guys obviously work hard in training and in games to progress their hockey careers. From the Pitbulls organisation we’ve seen guys like Henrik Sahlin transfer to English Premier League (EPL) to play for Telford Tigers and we’ve had a couple of guys like Steve Osman and Jamie Newton to name a few guest at the EPL (the second highest league in the UK) level as well. Obviously big seasons put you in the frame for other clubs and I think it is important for the bigger clubs to give the British guys a chance at the higher levels. I think the great thing about the Pitbulls is that they take pride in the fact that someone like Henrik has been recognised as a good player through the Pitbulls and there’s a real sense of pride when ‘one of your own’ makes it to a higher level. I think it speaks volumes of the teams’ emphasis on player development.
MOI – What’s been your personal highlight of your time playing hockey in the UK?
JV – My personal highlight is yet to come and that is to hoist some silverware at the end of a season. There have been a lot of good memories and friendships I’ve gained through playing here so that’s one highlight.
MOI – We’ve chatted off-line about the injuries faced by hockey players Janne. You’ve had concussion issues in your playing days, so what are the biggest factors you think with the concussion epidemic that is plaguing all levels of competitive hockey at the moment? What can be done to curb this horrible injury?
JV – I think I’ve had more injuries than I care to remember. I’m trying to think if there is actually a body part I HAVEN’T injured, but can’t come up with any. I was hoping to have an injury free season this year, but I had to undergo ankle surgery in October, so I’m hoping that my injury streak remains at that. With concussions, I’ve suffered a fair few of them in hockey. With the concussion epidemic, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the actual effects and what concussion actually is. It winds me up when people talk about ‘concussion-like’ injuries. Either you have one or you don’t, so I think that sort of gives the issue and I think it confuses people. As for the issue itself, definitely take all the ugly headshots or any headshots out of the game, but unfortunately, as with any contact sport, concussions will happen from even clean hits. I sustained my last one, which was severe, from a clean hit. So I guess the way you can limit is to either take the hitting out, which would dilute part of the reason why people are drawn to hockey, because it is a collision sport. I think that with the current concussion management system the NHL has in place is working, though I think players should be evaluated more intensively. We’ve all seen what happened to Crosby from the Winter Classic and the subsequent Tampa Bay Lightning game. If you ask me, he should have sat out and he’d be back playing now instead of sitting on the sidelines. I think the NHL and hockey has woken up to it far too late. Back in the old days, guys would play through concussions as they were difficult to diagnose and guys would just write it off as ‘I just had my bell rung’. Now we understand concussions more and with an all-star line up of people sidelined with concussions this year, people are noticing it more. It’s not an injury that the grinders get, but it is something that every player can get even if it is just a funny fall or something as unfortunate as what happened with Claude Giroux. From personal experience with concussions, it was the most difficult thing to explain to people that despite you looking like you’re fine, you’re really unwell. The other difficult thing with concussions is that they are as different as the individuals. With my one, I found that I was OK if I was staying still, but something minor, like walking up the stairs would wipe me out. The other major thing was also the constant memory lapses and forgetting what you did five minutes ago. I still suffer with some after effects, for example I can’t cope with flashing lights and I get frequent, intense headaches. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the experience it is to listen to my body and really rest if I don’t feel 100%. I would recommend any player, regardless of the level does the same, no matter how bad the desire to get back out on the ice is.
MOI – And finally Janne, how are the Pitbulls doing this season – and what can Bristol fans expect the rest of the way from you guys?
JV – We started the season really well, but for us we’ve seen a bit of a dip in our form of late. We are playing maybe a good 20-40 minutes of hockey, but that’s not really enough to bring home the W’s. I don’t mean to sound negative as we’ve got great potential in the team and I think that once we get everything back on track we can look for a strong mid table and maybe even push towards the top places in the league. As for the ENL1 team, I think they’ve got a great team together this year and they’ve got a goal to get to the play-offs this year and looking at the way things are going, I’d say there’s a strong chance we’ll see some play-off hockey in Bristol this summer.
MOI – Thanks again Janne, good luck the rest of the way, and I’ll see you in Bristol for a game sometime.
JV – Anytime Murph, my pleasure!
“Face-Off” is a regular feature here on Murph On Ice. Keep an eye out for Murph’s next 1-on-1 as he continues to bring insight from the greatest hockey minds around.
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