Finland native Boger soaks up experience as foreign-exchange student, hockey star at Kent Roosevelt

By Tom Hardesty | Assistant sports editor Published:

In moments of solitude, there are times when Okko Boger allows his mind to travel to the other side of the world, to the picturesque Scandinavia region of Europe, to Finland.

To home.

"I'll start thinking about things, like, 'What am I doing here? My friends and family are in Finland," said Boger.

He feels the pangs of homesickness as his mind wanders to a place half a world away, to the serene Finnish city of Jyväskylä, his beautifully forested and hilly hometown that features over 300 lakes, located in central Finland 170 miles to the north of the capital city, Helsinki.

The feeling soon passes, though, and Boger returns to the moment, a 17-year-old living in the city of Kent, Ohio and leading a life just like any other student at Kent Roosevelt High School: going to class, taking care of homework, hanging out with friends.

And, in Boger's case, playing ice hockey for the Rough Riders. And playing it well.

Boger grew up playing hockey, a game woven so tightly into the cultural fabric of his native Finland that it's as much a way of life as it is a sport. He started playing hockey at age 6, and in the ensuing years has honed his skills playing club hockey in his country.

"Hockey is a big thing in Finland, like football is here in the United States," said Boger. "In Finland, we play and practice nine months out of the year, so the skill level is very high. If you don't start playing hockey by the time you're 8 years old or so, then it's too late because you won't make the team. The other kids have been playing hockey for a long time by then."

So when Boger arrived in Kent at the beginning of this school year to attend Roosevelt as a foreign-exchange student, he was a welcome addition to the Roosevelt ice hockey team and coach Ben Barlow. Only, Boger didn't know it yet.

"I had no idea they had a hockey team here at Kent Roosevelt," said Boger. "When I came to the States, I didn't bring any of my hockey equipment or anything with me. When I found out they had hockey, I emailed my dad and told him to send my skates and some equipment over.

"It didn't even cross my mind when I came here that I would be playing hockey."

Boger had enough on his mind already as he prepared to spend the school year at the home of his host family in Kent, the Gwinns.

"I came into a whole new environment," he said. "I didn't know anyone, I didn't know the school, I didn't know what street I would be living on. Before I got here, I didn't even know where in the U.S. I would be living, I just knew I was going to be somewhere in the States.

"That's the risk we take as an exchange student. You just hope for the best."

The best is what Boger has received with the Gwinn family in the time since his arrival, helping to put his trepidation of the unknown at ease.

"I still get homesick a little bit, but I have such a great host family and they feel like my family too," said Boger. "I have some good friends here now, and there are some other foreign-exchange students at Roosevelt and around Northeast Ohio I've become friends with too, and that's really helped because we understand each other. They're in the same situation I'm in.

"I'm very grateful and thankful for my host family and all the friends that have been a part of my great experience here. This has been one of the best years of my life. I love this."

Boger's transition on the ice has been a smooth one as well. Prior to Thursday night's game against Orange, Boger had scored 38 points on 17 goals and 21 assists this season, including four power-play goals. He has proven to be a lethal force with the puck, a dangerous weapon for the Rough Riders whom opponents must account for at all times.

"It's great having Okko on the ice," said Barlow. "He's a very skilled player. He's a big kid -- he's about 6-foot-2 -- and his shot is very strong. He's exciting when the puck is on his stick. He's got a very quick release.

"His hands are his best attribute and he's a real smooth skater. He's a tall kid so he has long strides on the ice. He's fun to watch skate."

Barlow knew early on that Boger could be a great fit with the Rough Riders, a difference-maker on a team that already featured several very talented players.

"He had four goals in a preseason game for us, so he became a team favorite and fan favorite real quick," said Barlow. "He's been a great addition to our team, but not just on the ice. He's extremely mature, he has a great sense of humor, his overall character and demeanor are great, and he's been a great teammate. The kids love him."

In fact, Barlow has taken the opportunity to learn aspects of the game Boger picked up from his Finnish hockey background.

"He has a vast knowledge of the game and we bounce ideas off one another," said Barlow. "I'm a sponge. I like to learn what his coaches in Finland taught him and the things he knows. He's a very smart hockey player."

However, Boger's transition from European hockey to North American hockey wasn't without its adjustments. There are differences in the style of play between the two continents: European hockey is generally considered to be a more wide-open and finesse game, whereas North American hockey is akin to trench warfare with its physicality.

"The ice surface is bigger in Europe -- the rink is longer and wider -- so because there is more time and space on the ice in Europe, it's a different game," said Barlow. "Here the rinks are smaller, so it's more physical."

Still, because of his extensive hockey background in Finland, it didn't take Boger long to make the adjustment to the North American style.

"You take more hits in the games here than you do in Finland -- you don't have as much space to skate around here," he said. "You have to be quicker with the puck and make faster decisions here. But it wasn't a huge difference."

"It really only took him a few games to get over that physical grind," said Barlow.

It also didn't take Boger long to adjust to life in America, quickly discovering that his days in Kent weren't much different than his days back in Jyväskylä. He spends the first part of the day in school, then goes to the Rough Riders' hockey practice or game, then he goes home to take care of schoolwork or hang out with friends.

"Just chilling," he said.

Weekends are filled with the usual time-honored teenage fare: spending time at friends' houses and indulging in hobbies. It's just that for the time being, Boger is undertaking those activities on the other side of the globe.

"Life is similar here," he said. "I love spending time with my friends and we have a good hockey team. It's great."

But he's also well aware of the rapidly turning pages of the calendar. February is already here and the hockey season is winding down. In late June he will again pack his bags, this time for the trip back across the Atlantic, back to Finland, back to Jyväskylä.

Back to home, where he will finish his schooling and then begin pursuit of his dream of becoming an airline pilot, a career derived from his love of travel.

"I'll probably cry the day I leave when I say my last goodbyes here. I've had the time of my life," said Boger. "But I'll also be so happy to get back to my Finnish friends and family. It'll be good to be back home."

And while Boger will be gone, he will not be forgotten by his newfound friends and family in Kent.

"He has really added a tremendous piece to our environment this year. It's been a pleasure to coach him," said Barlow. "We're going to miss him."

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  • I spent the season 1983-1984 also playing for the RHS hockey team. A lot of the story was like reading from my own experience 30 years ago. I still remeber the year. I had great time and it affected to my life a lot. Eg this story was passed to me by my former RHS teammate from 1983-1984.Greetings from Finland, Pauli Pelto. Tsemppiä Okolle!

  • Okko is an outstanding young man! It has been a privilege to get to meet him and his wonderful host family. Our son has greatly appreciated the opportunity to get to know Okko as a teammate and a friend.