Kiwi Abroad

Matt Kennedy-Good extends his OE and follows his heart to Finland

The ultimate goal

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Everyone says that people who set goals are winners.

So when I moved to Finland six months ago, I developed a list of ambitious objectives for the cold months ahead. With these goals to strive for, I felt better about trading a New Zealand summer for a Finnish winter.

At the top of my list was catching a fish through a hole in the ice. Ice fishing had always appealed to me as mysterious and romantic; now it was my chance to live the dream.

As described in the blog Hel Freezes Over, although sitting around on the ice with a few other guys was every bit as romantic as I imagined, due to a lack of interest from the fish I failed to achieve this objective.

My second goal was to build The Best Snowman in Finland... Ever (that I have ever seen).

In Pyramid Envy I explain how instead of fickle Finnish fish, the vagaries of Finnish snow now thwarted my grand visions.

Although my creation was more pyramid than man, happily I didn't see another decent snowman all winter and claim success in this challenge.

The third objective was to see the famous Northern Lights. Again, even in this simple task I failed, but I don't feel bad about it because no one else I know has seen them either.

In fact, as far as I know they are a hoax. I didn't write a blog specifically about this challenge, although The Dark Night from April 1 covers it pretty well.

There was one final goal on my list. Achieving it would mean a 50 per cent pass rate overall and make winter - and my life in general - a success.

I wanted to learn how to ice skate.

As anyone can shuffle around on ice and call it skating, to make it challenging I wanted to learn to skate well enough to play ice hockey (referred to as simply "hockey" here).

I did not expect to play competitively, I just sought that most humble of objectives - to not embarrass myself in a social game.

In theory it made sense: I would train every night at the nearby park. It would be fun as well as good exercise.

For inspiration I went to see a local hockey team called the Espoo Blues play Porin Ässät. Although an international sport, it was very Finnish: At the stadium there are even saunas for hire with one way windows to view the action.

Along with motor racing, hockey is one of the most popular spectator sports in Finland. At least to my untrained eye it is easy to see the common ground between them.

Everyone watches as competitors race around at reckless speeds, hoping to see them smash into each other.

In between the bone crunching collisions I studied the players' skating technique. Their incredible balance and seemingly effortless ability to manoeuvre at high speed made it look easy.

And after the first couple of hours on the ice I began to feel that the goal was within my grasp. As with any new skill, my improvement was rapid and satisfying.

Each session on the ice I felt more and more like a professional hockey player, less and less like an old age pensioner whose drink had been spiked.

Even better, I had found a suitable forum to fulfil my goal: At midday each Saturday a group of local school kids met to play an informal game of hockey. Not only were they people I didn't care about impressing, but with an average age of 10 years old, I was bigger than all of them.

Unfortunately, circumstance again intervened.

Over the course of three weeks it snowed every few days. Those responsible for clearing the ice of snow evidently found the task too onerous and gave up.

If I had started my training at the beginning of winter this may not have been a problem. But because of the trouble I had in acquiring skates it was already late in the season.

When it finally stopped snowing regularly and the ice was clear again, it was almost Spring.

Despite all my enthusiasm I had only managed five training sessions. The first three were encouraging, but very short due to the discomfort that my awkward pigeon-legged stance caused my feet. I was nowhere near as competent as I had hoped.

Nevertheless, as I laced up my boots for the first time in three weeks I felt confident. The sun was shining, the kids looked disinterested and apparently a few had even allowed their younger sisters to play: It was perfect.

Joining a group of kids young enough to be my children was easier than I anticipated.

After hovering on the periphery for a few awkward minutes trying not to look dodgy, I summed up the courage to make Sanna ask one of the kids on the sideline if I could borrow his hockey stick and join in.

She picked a little boy who had fallen a few minutes before and was nursing a sore hand. It was natural selection at its finest. He gave it up very obligingly, seemingly happy to have an excuse not to rejoin the game.

At first, things went well. The kids seemed a little surprised when I joined them, but I cleared the first hurdle: None of them laughed out loud. Far from making skating more awkward, the stick actually provided a type of third leg I could use to help balance.

Once in the game, the problem was not so much moving, but moving quickly enough to get to the puck. Every time I got to where the action was it had long since shifted elsewhere.

I was so far behind that Sanna thought I was deliberately avoiding involvement and yelled out "Don't be frightened!" from the sideline.

Before I had a chance to tell her to shut up, the puck came my way.

This time, instead of looking at the other kids I focused on the little black disc. Moving my legs as fast as I could to build momentum (anyone who has seen me sprint knows this is not very fast at all) I scrambled forward, winning the race and even managing to knock the puck in the direction of someone on my team.

My confidence up, I held my defensive position and only seconds later hit the puck again, although this time deflecting it out of bounds.

But I didn't mind: I was playing hockey.

The fact that the kids were going easy on me didn't matter either. From the sideline it just looked like they were scared of the big kid.

I held my head high; a real winner.

- Matt Kennedy-Good

Click here for photos

Pictured above: Skating when the ice is covered in snow is a waste of time, although picturesque. Photo / Matt Kennedy-Good

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