If you really want to appreciate the small things in life that you take for granted, I would suggest living with 5,000 guys on an army base in Finland … in the middle of winter.
I know it helped me.
See, when you turn 18 in Finland, you must go sign up for a mandatory six month service in the Finnish Defense Force. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a professional hockey player, like I was. Everybody has to do it.
So in 2009, I started my military duty with four of my teammates on Lukko. We got into a car, drove 40 minutes outside my hometown, and waited outside in the cold to receive our clothes and equipment with hundreds of other guys.
I remember we finally got inside the barracks and got settled, I said to one of the other new guys, “So what do we do?”
And he replied, “Just sit around and wait for somebody to yell at you.”
We sat and waited, and just as he said, one of the superiors came in and put us to work. I remember the wake up call at 5:40 the next morning was so brutal, and we had to make our beds, go to the bathroom and get our clothes on in like 10 minutes, and I thought, Oh my God, this is my life for the next six months.
But I have to say, once I got used to the 5:40 wake-up, the whole experience was pretty rewarding. Maybe some Americans reading are picturing it like ski patrol, but because of our country’s history in World War II, it’s a pretty serious thing in Finland. We would go out into the forest for five days and sleep in tents while we were practicing defensive maneuvers and survival training. We were put in real combat situations. We had heavy-duty weapons training. You had to take it seriously.
I actually got to shoot a shoulder-mounted missile launcher twice. It weighs like 50 pounds, and when you press the button, fire shoots out of the back and it’s so powerful that your whole body shakes. The first time, I didn’t expect it, so I was fine.
The second time, I had my finger over the button, and I was terrified to press it, because I knew how loud it was going to be.
When I finished, my superior said, “It’s good you hit the target both times. It’s 2,500 Euro per rocket.”
It was a completely different life. And the crazy thing was my teammates and I were allowed to go back home for practice a few days a week. So we would show up to practice in our military camo, go out onto the ice for practice, then change back into our camo and go back to this other life where we were sleeping in the forest and shooting guns. It was pretty surreal, and it definitely made you appreciate your normal life.
After a few months, one of the leaders of our squad was injured, so I was promoted to corporal. The funny thing was, two of my Lukko teammates were in my squad. Every time we did drills, my teammates didn’t wanna listen to me. I’d point to the bars on my sleeve like, Come on guys. I was supposed to be Corporal Raanta. But of course, I’m just Antti to them.
This one day, we were doing an exercise to defend a road from an attack, so I needed to send a lookout to see if a tank was coming and secure the perimeter. I’m looking out at the road through my binoculars for a few minutes, and I’m on the radio communicating the strategy with the other units.
Then once we have the orders, I yell back to my teammates, “Okay, we need a lookout. One of you, run across to the treeline over there. Go!”
Silence. Nobody says anything.
I look back, and the guys are nowhere to be found.
Then I walk over to this ditch, and they’re both in there sleeping like babies.
I’m like, “Awesome, guys. We’re under attack and you’re taking a nap.”
Of course, when the big generals showed up, they were always wide awake. Funny how that is.
As hockey players, we were in pretty good shape coming into the service, but what was really cool was seeing the guys who had never done anything physical in their lives come to the army and by the end of the six months, they were like new people. They were really strong and knew how to do so many things they weren’t capable of before.
I know it wouldn’t work everywhere, but think it’s a pretty cool aspect of my country. It’s something that left a mark on me. It made me appreciate how much the military and police sacrifice to do their jobs.
So when I came to New York to play for the Rangers last season, I wanted to do something special to support the people who protect and serve the city. I try to create something unique to me every time I design a new mask. It’s almost like a small Christmas every time you unwrap a new mask, you know?
I remember when I was a little kid I’d watch this 30 minute NHL highlights show with my dad every Saturday morning. One of the things I always noticed was the designs on the goalie masks. Mike Richter had the red, white and blue Statue of Liberty design, and I’d tell my dad, “Ah, that’s so sick! I wish I could have that mask!” But all we had in Finland was the plain white masks. I didn’t get my first painted mask until I was 18. It was just the team logo on both sides, but I still remember putting it on and looking in the mirror and saying, “Oh yeah, awesome.”
When I was traded to the Rangers, I wanted to do something with some “New York style” like Richter used to do, but I wanted it to be unique to me. I thought it would be really cool to honor the NYPD, so I started working with the Swedish mask artist Dave Gunnarsson, who paints a lot of NHL masks.
Of course, the first thing he said was, “Let’s use Rantanplan!”
That’s the dog who is always featured somewhere on my masks. He’s a character in the Belgian cartoon Lucky Luke.
Rantanplan is a prison guard dog who helps the sheriff Lucky Luke track down escaped criminals. Except, instead of being really clever like an American cartoon dog, Rantanplan is really slow and he loves food. It’s pretty funny. Sometimes he’ll think a bar of soap is a piece of cake and he’ll eat it and then he’ll be chasing around the criminals with bubbles coming out of his mouth.
Rantanplan has always been on my masks for a personal reason. When I was 15, my goalie coach had two young children at home, and they loved the cartoon.
My coach loved giving us millions of nicknames. Every practice, he’d give you a new one. So one day, for whatever reason — maybe I was slow that day, or maybe he was just being cheeky with my last name — he starts yelling out, “Raantanplan with the save!”
“Raantanplan flashes the glove!”
I have to admit, it was pretty good. It just stuck. He stopped giving me new nicknames. From that day on, I was Raantanplan.
When I moved away from Finland to play in the NHL, I wanted to take something from my hometown with me, so I started painting the dog on the back of all my masks.
The last thing I would see before putting my mask on was Rantanplan, and it would remind me of my goalie coach, and of my home. Simpler times.
So when Dave heard about the story of Rantanplan, he said, “We gotta have Rantanplan be the police dog!”
Then he started going crazy with his ideas.
When he gave me the new mask, it was so awesome. On the sides of the mask, Rantanplan was hanging out the window of the police car, like he was just so excited to be a cop in New York City.
I posted a picture of the mask on Twitter hoping people would like it, and I immediately got a response from NYPD officers saying how much they liked it.
I also got a few responses from New York firefighters saying, “Hey, this is awesome, but what about us?”
I knew what I had to do next. I called up Dave.
“Dave, guess what? Rantanplan wants to be a firefighter, too.”
I had Dave make a new red FDNY version over the summer. It’s just as awesome. Now it’s Rantanplan hanging out the window of a fire truck, giving a thumbs up. Again, he’s super happy just to be in New York, kind of like me.
Now that Rantanplan is featured on the front of my masks, you might wonder what is on the back. Right now, it’s just a Finnish flag and an American flag to remind me of my two homes. However, I have a good idea for what to put there next.
My wife is having our first child in January, so the spot is reserved for her or him (she won’t let me say which yet).
Every time I put on my helmet now, I get a little reminder of my family back home and my army days in Finland, and I also think about the people in my new home who sacrifice a “normal” life for a greater cause.
Maybe it’s not as sick as Richter’s legendary mask, but I think it’s pretty cool.