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For Blackhawks’ European players, the season is a long drag with no home cooking

From Finnish reindeer stew to Czech goulash, it can be difficult to find some foods in the United States. But the Blackhawks’ Europeans agree American cuisine isn’t too bad, either.

Finland native Olli Maatta’s options for Finnish food in the U.S. are scarce.
AP Photos

PITTSBURGH — When Olli Maatta thinks of home in Jyvaskyla, Finland, he thinks of the reindeer.

The reindeer stew, that is.

“It’s pretty traditional in Finnish,” he said. “And a lot of smoked salmon and fish. And then we’ve got this dark rye bread, really traditional Finnish bread.”

Maatta is far from alone on the Blackhawks’ roster in terms of European heritage: the team has seven guys from across the pond this season. But in terms of eating habits, maintaining that culture proves difficult, especially as the lone Finn.

The Blackhawks’ resident Swedes — Adam Boqvist, Erik Gustafsson, Alex Nylander and Robin Lehner — are relatively lucky: they have Andersonville, with its multiple Swedish restaurants, at their disposal. Gustafsson already plans to take over for Marcus Kruger to organize the Swedish Blackhawks’ annual Christmas celebration.

Maatta’s choices for Finnish food and culture, meanwhile, are limited to one bakery he’s found on road trips to New York.

After all, there is no reindeer stew to be had anywhere in Chicago. There’s plenty of fish, but Scandinavian style is significantly different than American style, and it’s apparently contentious, too. “Bad fish,” Boqvist calls it.

“I probably overdo it a little bit [in the summers], but when you go here for winters, you don’t get it anymore,” Maatta said. “Then you get sick of the American food and you go back to Finland.”

Dominik Kubalik, experiencing U.S. living for the first time, has discovered the same difficulty.

Kubalik’s girlfriend came over from the Czech Republic with him this fall, and has been preparing the beef goulash, potato pancakes and other Czech foods they’re both used to. But Kubalik has learned he’s not there too often to eat it.

“She’s always making something from back home,” he said. “But every second day is a game day, so there is still the routine of you’ve got to eat pasta, chicken, rice, same stuff all the time.”

In the Hawks’ locker room, Kubalik and fellow Czech forward David Kampf — the former more comfortable speaking English, the latter more comfortable living in America — have been bonded at the hip since training camp.

Yet Kampf, it turns out, actually isn’t a fan of Czech food. So Kubalik is hoping for a break in the hockey schedule to venture out to far northwest Chicago and try Cafe Prague, one of a few Czech restaurants around the city.

“We’re definitely thinking of going there, we want to see some Czech people,” he said. “It might be good for my girlfriend too, when [the Hawks] are on the road.”

Kampf isn’t alone either, though: not all of the European Hawks miss their homeland’s food.

Gustafsson said he rarely eats Swedish meals aside from his wife’s meatballs and when he’s at Ikea. His nostalgia about summers at home in Nynashamn, Sweden, stems understandably more from missing family.

“It’s tough with my grandparents [not] meeting my new daughter and stuff like that,” he said. “I can only Facetime.”

And the diversity of American cuisine makes the inaccessibility of home cooking at least a little more manageable.

Kubalik has stumbled upon a new obsession with Caesar salad, which he orders at almost every restaurant now. Kampf is seriously into hamburgers. And along that line, steaks in the U.S. maintain practically universal renown in the hockey world.

“You guys do steaks really well,” Maatta said. “Obviously in Chicago, you’ve got deep-dish pizza, but you can’t really do that too often. So for me, it’s the steaks.”