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Home Is Where the Puck Is: Esa Lindell’s Quest to Save Jokerit

Before he was a Dallas Star, the 29-year-old defenseman played for Finland's most storied hockey club. And when it teetered on the verge of collapse, there was only one thing for Lindell to do: help buy it.
Esa Lindell, wearing a jersey with Jokerit's famous red-and-yellow logo on his chest, is trying to save his hometown hockey club. Photo courtesy of Dallas Stars.

Esa Lindell remembers what Jokerit used to be. 

Growing up in Helsinki, the Stars defenseman was enamored with the club’s iconic red-and-yellow jerseys: the ones that were at the pinnacle of European hockey in 2002, when Lindell was eight years old and the club won the SM-liiga title, Finland’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup. Like generations of boys in Finland before him, Lindell dreamed of pulling that sweater on.

Unlike most of them, he eventually did. Lindell first played for Jokerit at the junior level in 2008, debuting with the under-16 team before working his way through the under-18 and under-20 teams and then making his SM-liiga debut as an 18-year-old. Everyone knew the NHL could be in his future, but for the time being he was still theirs: one of Finland’s brightest prospects skating for its biggest franchise. So it had always been for the club that had been the incubator for legends including Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne, arguably the two greatest Finnish hockey players of all time. It was the natural order of things. 

Until it wasn’t. 

On March 16, 2014, Lindell’s second professional season with Jokerit ended in a 3-2 playoff defeat to Hämeenlinnan Pallokerho. It was far from the worst loss that season. Months earlier, a group of Russian-Finnish businessmen had purchased the club and its arena with the intention of having Jokerit compete in the Kontinental Hockey League, a Russian-based competition that at the time was the second-biggest hockey league in the world after the NHL, at the conclusion of the 2013-14 SM-liiga season. Jokerit would be its first Scandinavian member. 

Domestically, it felt like the end of something far more than the beginning. Looking to make an impression in the KHL, the team started signing older players and foreign imports. Players like the 19-year-old Lindell, a defenseman who had NHL talent but was still unpolished in his game—the gems Jokerit was once renowned for polishing—didn’t matter like they used to. What good is a global stage if no Finns could perform on it? 

“That was the team that meant so much to many of us to be in Finland,” Lindell says now. “It was kind of like part of Finnish hockey, for me, being taken away.”

He couldn’t do anything about it then. But now, a decade later, he’s helping bring it back. 

Lindell got the call a year ago, during the 2023 NHL All-Star break. 

Ossi Väänänen, a former NHLer who also played for and captained Jokerit, wanted to save his boyhood club. But he needed help. Lindell was one of the first names on his list. So was Carolina Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teräväinen, Lindell’s one-time teammate at Jokerit. 

By then, Jokerit had effectively been shuttered. What began as a damaging cultural decision mushroomed into an economic one, too, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The fallout permeated sports around the world, from Russian athletes being banned from international competitions to tennis players no longer being allowed to represent the country on the ATP and WTA tours to Major League Soccer blocking FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira from accepting a move to a club in the Russian Premier League. For Jokerit, that meant sponsors fleeing en masse from a team playing in a Russian league. The biggest blow came weeks after the war began, when Hartwell, Jokerit’s largest sponsor and its old arena namesake, terminated its contract with the club’s parent company. 

The Jokerit Supporters Association, a group representing the club’s fans, demanded the team withdraw from the KHL. In April 2022, the franchise severed ties with the league. An initial announcement was made about hoping to return to Finland’s top league during the 2023-24 season, but SM-liiga would not be so welcoming. Wary of potential international sanctions, the league informed Jokerit that any chance of a return began with a clean break from its Russian ownership and the installation of new Finnish owners. Until then, the club was in limbo.

So a Finnish businessman named Mikko Saarni began assembling an ownership group with those who knew Jokerit best. Those who played and rooted for the organization, like Väänänen, and current NHLers who reached their athletic pinnacle because of time with the club. People who loved the club far more than they wanted to profit from it.

In the meantime, without a league to play in, Jokerit did not take the ice in 2022-23—the first time since its founding in 1967. Without a helping hand from its alumni, the club risked slipping into irrelevance once and for all. 

That’s when Lindell and Teräväinen got the call. After they each discussed the idea with Väänänen, the old friends spoke with one another to discuss the merits and financial challenges of owning a pro sports team. 

“It’s something we both wanted to do right away, but I think we both took our time to look and make sure we could do this,” Teräväinen says. “It was easy to say yes right away, but you had to look and make sure it would work.”

Lindell and Teräväinen agreed in February 2023 to partial ownership roles with the new group, putting their names on the project as part of the application to return to Finnish hockey. 

“I was very excited about the chance to help them back on their feet,” Lindell says. “It was time for a new coming of Jokerit after that KHL time.”

But it will not come easy. In the end, even with a new ownership group, SM-liiga did not accept an outright bid from Jokerit to re-enter the top league. Instead, the club has begun its rebirth in Mesis, the second tier of Finnish hockey. Beginning next season, SM-liiga will reopen promotion and relegation. The Mestis champion and the last-place team from SM-liiga will square off in a playoff series, with the winner cementing its place in top-flight hockey and the loser stranded in the second division. Jokerit has a little more than a year to climb from third place to first in Mestis just for a shot at competing in the league it once owned. 

Then there’s the matter of where the team is playing. While Jokerit is back in Finnish hockey, it’s also homeless. The old arena, still Russian-owned, sits vacant, leaving the club to play its games across town in the building of its oldest rival, HIFK. 

That makes the thought of Jokerit’s former glory still feel so far away. But this is what Lindell and his friends signed up for. 

“One step at a time, but that’s kind of what we have to work toward,” Teräväinen says. “Getting Jokerit back to the top league.”

To truly understand Jokerit’s journey and potential return, you must understand its place in Finnish hockey, as well as the circumstances behind its departure from it. 

The Helsinki-based club was one of the foundational pieces of Finnish ice hockey: one of the biggest draws and most successful teams in a hockey-mad country. 

“They were one of the teams that everyone wanted to see, one of the teams you made sure you had tickets to go watch,” Stars defenseman Jani Hakanpää says. “You never played a game against one of those big teams, like Jokerit, without it being packed.”

Between 1989 and 2014, Jokerit won five SM-liiga titles, fourth-most in the history of Finnish professional hockey. The team played in the country’s largest arena and frequently led the league in attendance. 

As the Cowboys were winning three championships in the 1990s as America’s Team, Jokerit was claiming SM-liiga titles in 1992, ’94, ’96, and ’97, entrenching itself as Finland’s equivalent to America’s love-hate relationship with Dallas’ NFL franchise. 

“You don’t have a middle-ground opinion on Jokerit,” Detroit Red Wings defenseman Olli Määttä says. “You either rooted for them or against them, and you watched just to see if they would lose.”

Although Jokerit won its last title in 2002, its growth as a power player in the international hockey landscape peaked in the early 2010s. 

Jarmo Kekäläinen, now the general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, was named Jokerit’s CEO in 2009 and focused on building the brand of the franchise. He beefed up the junior program and initiated a minor-league collaboration with a lower-league team called Kiekko-Vantaa.

Soon, Jokerit became a touchpoint for NHL franchises. In 2011 Jokerit and crosstown rival HIFK played an outdoor game at Helsinki Olympic Stadium before a crowd of 36,000—the most at the time for a European club hockey game. The following year, Jokerit was important enough to host an exhibition game against the Anaheim Ducks. That spring, four Jokerit players were selected in the NHL draft—the most ever from one Finnish team.

During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, Erik Karlsson, the NHL’s reigning Norris Trophy winner, played for Jokerit. It was a major coup for a Finnish team to steal one of Sweden’s top players, even for a short time. Soon after, Kekäläinen was off to Columbus as the NHL’s first European GM. His legacy was secure: Jokerit was one of the biggest properties in international hockey.  

Think of Jokerit as the Dallas Cowboys of Finnish hockey. Mikko Taipale / Jokerit

Then came the sale, a business transaction that soured Finland’s relationship with one of its prized cultural properties.

Upon the announcement of the deal, other SM-liiga teams claimed Jokerit had never consulted the league about leaving and that it was violating the shareholders’ agreement. There was also a push to suspend Jokerit from SM-liiga for the 2013-14 season, before the league shareholders relented and allowed the club to play one final season in Finland before leaving for Russia. 

The team was a success in the wide-spanning KHL, reaching the playoffs each season, but it started to lose its status as a hub of future NHL talent. While Kekäläinen would promote from within, the new Jokerit looked for older players, and the junior teams struggled as players realized they had better options for career advancement. During the 2018-19 season, Jokerit became the first Finnish-based team in any sport to have more international players than Finns on the roster. 

“I think it really killed the juniors,” Lindell says. “Guys saw, rightfully, that they wouldn’t get a chance before. They would play with Jokerit until a certain point, then a Russian or someone else would get the job with the top team.”

He says that after riding a stationary bike in Little Caesars Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings. When D requested this interview weeks earlier, Lindell asked that it be in person. And when that was fulfilled prior to the Stars’ game against the Red Wings on Jan. 23, Lindell asked to chat before morning skate so he had extra time–not afterward, as media conversations so often are. 

These are small but intentional gestures for a player who is not overly loquacious. He knows the weight of what he bought into and what that means to so many around the world. And that, as much as it means to them, it’s that much more important to him. 

“It’s not as much about the money or business for me—it’s about being able to help save the team,” Lindell says. “It was the time to do something right for the team that really did so much for me.”

If you’re a television watcher, this all may be sounding like the hockey equivalent of Welcome to Wrexham, the FX docuseries that follows the immersive experience of actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny after purchasing a historic, hard-luck Welsh soccer club in hopes of helping restore its former glory. 

Not quite. At least, not yet. 

One of the things that Lindell and Teräväinen worried about in their initial conversations with Väänänen was balancing their willingness to help Jokerit with the limitations of what they can do as NHL players in the primes of their careers. 

“With Ossi, one of the things me and Teuvo liked right away is he understands,” Lindell says. “We have our games here. We are in different time zones, on the other side of the world. So our focus still has to be on our [NHL] games first.”

So they do what they can. The time difference makes it hard for Lindell and Teräväinen to join ownership meetings virtually, so Väänänen often acts as a proxy and reports back to the two players. 

Both track and watch as many Jokerit games as possible—they typically start in the late morning in Dallas—while Lindell also made sure to attend a preseason game before flying home for training camp. Not just any preseason game, either. 

That game was Jokerit’s first game back as a truly Finnish team since Lindell and Teräväinen played for the franchise in the 2014 SM-liiga playoffs against Hämeenlinnan Pallokerho. 

“That was special to see in person, even if it was just an exhibition,” Lindell says. “To just see them back after they didn’t play at all [during the 2022-23 season], that was something I had on my calendar and wasn’t going to miss.”

Lindell says watching Jokerit play in person brought a couple of things to mind.

“Winning, of course, is what fascinates as a player—and I guess as an owner—but for me I watched it and thought about the juniors, having that chance again to be able to do what I did,” Lindell says. “Someone could now again grow up in Helsinki like I did and play for Jokerit and actually have the chance to go pro all the way, maybe even reach the NHL” like he and Teräväinen have. Teräväinen says that while both want to play in the NHL “as long as possible,” he confirmed that “later on, in person, I think we both are going to have a bigger role each day.”

Perhaps then they’ll channel their inner Reynolds and McElhenny, doing more than ever to restore Jokerit to where it should be and doing it as friends. 

“We’ve known each other for a while, he’s always had a little smile on his face and jokes around,” Teräväinen says. “It’s been awesome to do this with him because it means so much to him and me.”

That smile gets wider whenever you ask Lindell about Jokerit. He gets almost giddy when you mention the possibility of seeing Jokerit again playing in SM-liiga and going to a game in the not-too-distant future. 

And, in time, perhaps much, much more than that.


Sean Shapiro

Sean Shapiro

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Sean Shapiro covers the Stars for StrongSide. He is a national NHL reporter and writer who previously covered the Dallas…