Sisu a hallmark of Finnish athletes/Paul Peterson
It has often been said that not everyone can be a full-time resident of the Copper Country.
The region’s long and often brutal winters will certainly deter the fainthearted. But the summers can be surprisingly warm and humid, with an abundance of mosquitoes and black flies. And the springs and falls here don’t last near long enough.
The early settlers in the Copper Country -many of them Finnish immigrants – learned about those conditions first-hand. They had to possess determination and a work ethic just to survive. Their word for it was: Sisu.
And that word helped forge a group of remarkable athletes who followed.
Oh, there’s been plenty of English, Italian, French, Croatian and other nationalities who located here that have produced stellar athletes.
But in the spirit of FinnFest USA 2013, which is taking place all this week, let’s take a look at some of the very best Finnish athletes from our area.
The late Tauno Nurmela of Covington was an amazing athlete who was good in just about any sport he tried.
But track and field was his specialty and he took his show on the road. In the 1920s and 1930s, Nurmela often traveled to Minnesota and Wisconsin to take part in open meets (a popular happening in those days).
He usually returned from those trips with a fistful of medals. In several events, Tauno equaled or bested records set by Finnish track legend Paavo Nurmi.
When he got older, Nurmela competed in and won several cross country ski events.
The late Ed Helakoski of Bruce Crossing was another good example of the word.
Taking over the varsity basketball coaching position at Chassell High School in the late 1940s, Helakoski built teams that set records that stand to this day.
Helakoski did it by emphasizing discipline and hard work by a group of younsters with names like Pokela, Tormala, Mattson and Pyykkonen.
His teams between 1956-58 won three straight Class D state championships and a still record 65 games in a row.
The late Rod Paavola of Hancock was an all-around (baseball, football) athlete but he honed his skills in hockey at the several ice rinks located in the town in the 1950s.
Paavola was good enough in the sport to gain a spot as a defenseman on the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team that upset the Soviet Union for the gold medal. It was, in effect, the first “Miracle on Ice.”
Paavola later played some pro hockey before returning to play and coach the Portage Lake Pioneers to several league and Gibson Cup titles. A no-nonsense kind of coach, he was later inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Calumet native Mike Usitalo was one of the finest athletes ever produced locally.
A standout in football and track at Calumet High in the late 1960s, Usitalo was signed by Michigan Tech coaching legend John MacInnes after playing for the Calumet Wolverines while still in high school (there was no prep hockey back then).
MacInnes compared him favorably to Detroit great Gordie Howe after he tallied a
WCHA freshman-record 28 goals.
Unfortunately, a serious leg injury short-circuited Usitalo’s hockey career, although he did play pro hockey for a few years after leaving MTU.
There have been many other standout Finnish athletes over the years, but all of them displayed the same kind of determination and work ethic.
In short, they had sisu.