In late August 1975, Pekka Rautakallio, his wife Arja, and their two-year-old son, stepped off a plane into Phoenix’s sweltering heat. During those weeks, temperature highs floated between 105F/40.5C to 107F/41.6C. Back in Pori, Finland, summer started turning into fall with highs around 57.5F/14.2C. The Rautakallios retrieved their luggage ready to start the upcoming Phoenix Roadrunners’ hockey season. When he stepped off the plane, Rautakallio became a migrant worker as a Roadrunner defenseman.
Excluding advances in transportation, Rautakallio’s story shared many aspects with European migrants of the early-1900s. At the turn of the twentieth century, steamship agents recruited peasants trumpeting America’s wealth. The agents often acted as auctioneers, creditors, and even loaned clothes. Furthermore, agents knew about jobs and wages of destinations. After recruiting a peasant, the agents tagged him, usually with a button, to ensure smooth flow through the pipeline to America (Wyman 1993, 15-31). Sports agents share many commonalities with their steamship counterparts.
In July 1975, Finnish star Juhani Wahlsten convinced Rautakallio and Lauri Mononen to travel to Phoenix. Herb Rudory, a Chicago-based sports agent, met them in Phoenix. Rudoy negotiated two-year contracts for Rautakallio and Lauri Mononen with the Phoenix RoadRunners*. At the contract signing party, Rudoy preened for the publicity shot (Arizona Republic 1975, 30).
Steamship agents of yore accompanied their recruits on part of their journey until passing them to the next link in the chain (Wyman 1993, 29). Waiting outside the airport, the Rautakallios found Roadrunners’ General Manager, Al Rollins, waiting for them. Effectively, Rudory handed them off.
Taking them from the airport, Rollins dropped the Rautakallios off at a motel to find housing, transportation, and other necessities. Rautakallio spoke limited English. At practice, teammate Cam Connor asked Rautakallio about his name. Rautakallio replied in bad English, “It means Iron Rocky”. Thus, Rautakallio earned his nickname, Rocky. Still in adjustment, they lived out of the motel. Unknown to the Rautakallios, Phoenix contained a thriving Finnish community centered around George and Helmi Anttila.
After reading about a new Finnish hockey player, George tracked down the Rautakallios. George’s parents emigrated from Ranua, Finland in the early 1900s as immigrant laborers. George grew up in Michigan. In 1947, George and his wife, Helmi, moved to Phoenix due to health reasons. In 1953, the Finlandia Foundation opened a chapter in Phoenix. George was its first president and held the post for 23 years. Over the years, George assisted Finnish athletes and hobos. For promoting friendship between the United States and Finland, Finnish President Urho Kekkonen awarded George the Medal First Class with Gold Cross of the Order of the White Rose in December 1964 (Cooke 1970). George extended that helping hand to the Rautakallios.
Anttila met Rautakallio in the Roadrunners’ office. From there, Anttila helped Rautakallio rent an apartment just a few blocks away on 17th Ave. Then, Anttila assisted them with getting furnishings and a car. When Mononen arrived in September 1975, Pekka already started informal training with Roadrunners’ coach, Sandy Hucul. While Mononen met the Anttilas, he received help from fellow Karelian living in Phoenix. Repeating history, both players relied upon the pre-existing community to help them transition.
The 1976/77 season added two more Finns to the Roadrunner roster, Seppo Repo (center) and Juhani Tamminen (left wing). With Mononen at right wing, these three Finns formed the Lappline because they originated from Lapland in northern Finland. The Lappline lived near each other on W. Octollio Rd. They lived so close that they would carpool to practice. Also, Rautakallio moved from 17th to 27th Ave. possibly to be close to the other Finns.
Although Rautakallio’s English improved, the team declared Tamminen the official team interpreter. In the 70s, Finnish school experienced a systemic reform (Jaatinen 2014, 30). Reforming the schools included replacing German with English in the 1960s (Jaatinen, 39). As result, Rautakallio and the other Finns may have learned Latin and German, but only briefly exposed to English. Tamminen’s college offered a path to learning English not available to the other Finns.
On April 6, 1977, the Tamminen supplied the WHA Phoenix Roadrunners’ final win with three goals and an assist. The team’s 7-3 win against Indianapolis sealed the end of the team, but not the Finns. Tamminen and Repo finished the season with the Oklahoma Blazers. Rautakallio and Mononen returned to Finland. By the 1977/78 season, all Finns played for teams in the top Finnish league. In 1979, Rautakallio returned States-side to play for the NHL’s Atlanta Flames. He became the first Finn to play in an NHL all-star game.
Migration stories rarely end with the accomplishment of a few successful migrants. For example, the US Visa office considered Rautakallios, Tamminen, and the other Finns to be nonimmigrants. Migrating for work does not equate to being an immigrant. Transient athletes acquired an H-1, exceptional ability, or an H-2, temporary worker, visas potentially impacting quotas until 1990. In 1990, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service created a new category, P, to separately cover nonimmigrant, professional athletes. And what of their impact.
Today, the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum still stands. Its economic impact is modest at best, but its cultural impact significant. It brought world class hockey to the desert. Its ice allowed Finns to demonstrate their hockey prowess for the NHL and the world. Finally, it kept winter sports alive for a young, Mexican-American named Auston Matthews to discover a passion for ice hockey. From San Ramon, California to Scottsdale, Az and now in Toronto, Matthews learned hockey from a Ukrainian who was Mexico’s director of ice hockey. All because of family connections to Mexico (Pinchevsky 2017). Matthews scored the most goals in the 2020/21 NHL season dominating the Rocket Richard race against Alex Ovechkin (Capitals) and Pasternack (Bruins). The circle completed as migrant worker Anttila assisted migrant Rautakallio who kept alive a migrant worker’s sport for migrant Matthews to excel.
*NOTE: This transaction was likely one of Rudoy’s first as an agent. By the 1980s, Rudoy improved how he handled players. Currently, Rudoy performs agent duties for NBA, NFL, and soccer (MLS and FIFA) players.
Links to the other parts of the series:
PART 1: Phoenix: Preparation for Migratory Sports
PART 2: The Coliseum’s Impact
PART 3: Migration Patterns of Hockey Players: Pekka Rautakallio and Juhani Tamminen
Pekka Rautakallio (Hockey Player/Coach) in discussion with Hannu Kauhala, June 2021.
Juhani Tamminen (Hockey Player/Coach) in discussion with Hannu Kauhala, June 2021.
Wyman, Mark. (1993). Round-trip to America: the immigrants return to Europe, 1880-1930. Ithaca, N.Y : Cornell University Press, 15-31.
“Publicity Photo of Al Rollins, Juhani Whalsten, Pekka Rautakallio, Lauri Mononen, and Herb Rudoy.” Arizona Republic, June 17, 1975, 30.
Cooke, Ellen “Cooke’s Carte: Someone to put the Finnish to the Food”. Arizona Republic, December 3, 1970.
Order of the White Rose of Finland – Ritarikunnat, last accessed June 22, 2021.
Phoenix Roadrunners [WHA] all-time player list at hockeydb.com, last accessed June 22, 2021.
Jaatinen, R., & Saarivirta, T. (2014). The Evolution of English Language Teaching during Societal Transition in Finland – A mutual relationship or a distinctive process?. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(11). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2014v39n11.3
Pinchevsky, Tal “Secret behind Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews’ skating prowess is a Ukrainian via Mexico”. ESPN, Jan 17, 2017. NHL — The secret weapon behind Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews’ skating prowess is a Ukrainian instructor who moved from Mexico (espn.com) Last accessed June 23, 2021.