Finnish native named all-conference one season after life changing move
When St. Olaf hockey star Tuukka Totro ’20 first arrived on campus in August 2016, he didn’t exactly know what to expect. After all, transitioning into an unfamiliar land surrounded by unfamiliar faces at the ripe age of 20 isn’t an experience one casually commits to every day. Facing abrupt change in culture, camaraderie and competition, the young Finnish native entered the United States excited to pursue athletic and academic opportunities yet uncertain about adapting to life as an Ole.
“It was a big change for sure,” Totro said. “Once I got here, the feeling was ‘you’re far away from home, there’s no going back. Mom is not going to help you, so you’d better figure it out by yourself.’”
Possessing an insatiable passion and natural intellect for hockey, Totro grew up skating with his closest family and friends in his hometown of Helsinki. The firstborn child of his family, he was inspired to pick up the sport at the age of four by his father, attending skating school and outdoor skating ranges throughout his youth to continue improving. Due to the close concentration of competition in Finland, Totro developed strong bonds with teammates that he would play with for the next 14 years.
“I basically played with the same teammates,” Totro said. “The thing is, we don’t have that many players or that many teams in Finland, even though hockey is a really big sport there. [Finland] is just way smaller, so we don’t have that many players. So, especially the players around the Helsinki area … we played with the same players since I was a kid. I have plenty of friends who I’ve known since I was four who I met in the skating school. I played with them until I was twenty. I’ve been playing with the same guys for pretty much my whole life.”
Named two-time team captain of the Espoo Blues U20 team, Totro became a national champion in 2013-14 together with the friends he had grown up with. However, when it came time to pursue higher education, he faced a difficult dilemma – hockey or academia. Totro’s ultimate answer would lead him outside Helsinki, centering his focus on a small campus in Northfield thanks to some mutual connections.
“My last year before I got here, I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to just play hockey or study,” Totro said. “In Finland, we don’t have the college system that you guys have here, so you do hockey as a full time job or you study and you can’t really combine that. But school’s really important and education is really important, so I wanted to combine those, and I knew that was possible here. That was the biggest reason why I wanted to come here.”
“Mike Eaves [St. Olaf head coach] coached the team in Finland for one year, and his son, Ben Eaves, who was the assistant coach for us last year, played seven years in Finland. So we had mutual friends, and they actually made the connection between us … it turned out to be the best possible option for me with the education and everything that you can get here.”
Therefore, possessing basic English skills and a firm drive to balance hockey with an economics major, Totro began his journey overseas to begin life anew. During the trip, concerns began to grow about any potential language barriers and loneliness that could prove problematic when adapting to a new culture. From first hearing about St. Olaf to starting his first day of class, the entire process took a single month, a whirlwind change that would be daunting for anybody.
However, any fears gradually began to evaporate as Totro adapted to life as an international student, thanks to warm reception from the student body, his new hockey teammates and especially his coaches.
“The resources that we have here, how the international student program works, is just amazing,” Totro said. “It’s amazing how everybody treats us and gives us a real shot. How people in this community treat international students, and really all the students, is really warm. I felt like immediately when I got here whenever I had a problem there were three or four guys to help me.”
However, like his childhood back in Helsinki, Totro found a true family through hockey. Immediately embraced by his teammates and coaches, he was able to realize his ambition of pursuing both his athletic and academic passions while still feeling a comparable camaraderie to that of his home.
“When I got here, I was wondering how long it was going to take me to find friends and everything,” Totro said. “But actually, I already had 35-40 new friends when I got to campus because I felt like all the [hockey] team was so interested in me. They wanted to make sure I had everything fine, so that helped a lot.”
“The coaching staff helped me a lot. Ben and Mike Eaves have been awesome, I owe them so much for getting me here and changing my life. They helped me a lot. [Moving here] was kind of tough, but my teammates took me in as a part of the team right away.”
Adapting to the sport itself presented an entirely separate challenge, as Totro had to quickly learn a new, faster brand of hockey according to the fierce competition in the MIAC. The shift to a more vertical, offensive oriented style of play drastically differed from the more methodical, horizontal norms Totro had grown up learning in Finland.
“We have smaller rinks here in the U.S., which makes the game actually really different,” Totro said. “The guys are bigger, the game is faster, and it’s more from end to end. In Finland, we were playing more puck positioning, trying to pass more … sometimes we came back to our zone and passed the puck. The game here is more north and south … we don’t get as much passing across the ice, it’s more about just passing up the ice.”
“As a defender, I think I have to move back a lot faster, especially when the guys are forward checking and I have the puck. Because the guys are coming at you, you have to make your decisions right away. You don’t have that half a second to make a decision. Right when you get the puck, you already have to know where to go.”
Thanks to a strong instinct for the game, Totro was able to successfully adapt to the drastically different style and pace of play. He’s quickly emerged as one of the Oles’ top talents, being named All-MIAC alongside teammate Drew Otto ’18 and leading the team with 12 assists.
“My strength for sure is my hockey IQ, which means I can make good decisions with the puck,” Totro said. “As a defenseman, because I’m smaller, I have to know positioning on the ice, and I think I’m really good with that.”
Demonstrating a remarkable ability to adapt both on and off the ice, Totro has become an elite force for St. Olaf hockey while successfully demonstrating the opportunities for international student athletes.