USA South Hall of Fame feature: Pekka Kaartinen

Posted on June 20th, 2018 by Danielle Staub

By Drew Wilson

When Pekka Kaartinen ’82 received an email from USA South Athletic Conference Commissioner Tom Hart this past January informing the former Averett University men’s soccer standout that he had been selected as part of the USA South’s 2018 Hall of Fame class, Kaartinen was surprised. After all, it had been 36 years since he graduated from Averett.

“Of course, it felt nice that someone remembers after such a long time ago,” said Kaartinen, who resides in Espoo, Finland.

Although it has been more than three and a half decades since Kaartinen finished his storied playing career at Averett, he’s far from forgotten. His 67 career goals still stands as the USA South’s record, and his 26 goals in 1980 is tied for the conference’s single-season bench mark. Kaartinen’s No. 20 jersey is no longer worn by an Averett men’s soccer player and hangs framed on the wall in the men’s soccer office. His name, bio and photos grace the Averett Athletics Hall of Fame interactive display in the Grant Center lobby. And then there are the banners for two conference championship and three NCAA Tournament appearances Kaartinen helped hang during his four years with the Cougars. His imprint on the program and Averett is very visible, even after all these years.

Kaartinen is one of seven members of this year’s USA South Hall of Fame class, which will be inducted during a private ceremony on Wednesday night hosted by Greensboro College. The public can watch the ceremony online, beginning at 5:45 p.m. View the 2018 USA South Hall of Fame ceremony.

​​​​​​​Kaartinen is the fifth Averett Cougar to join the exclusive group of USA South Hall of Famers since the conference began its Hall of Fame in 2010. Among those is his former coach Vesa Hiltunen, who was inducted in 2014.

Hiltunen is the sole reason Kaartinen ended up at Averett as a student-athlete, and in Kaartinen’s words, “He saved my life.” Kaartinen said he struggled in high school to succeed academically. After graduation and fulfilling his military obligations in Finland, he was playing for a club soccer team when Hiltunen — also a native of Finland — came to a practice while recruiting.

“I had nothing,” Kaartinen recalled. “I remember my thoughts that I would apply for a Finnish physical education university and I had put papers in. But in Finland it is very different than here. It’s very difficult to get into universities. I had just received a letter that I didn’t even qualify for the test. He came to the practice and we sat down and he came to my house and met with my mother. It was three or four weeks later that I left in a plane for the United States going somewhere where I didn’t know anything about it.”

Hiltunen helped start the men’s soccer program at Averett in 1976, and when he added Kaartinen to his roster in the fall of 1978, the Cougars rose to success very quickly. From 1978-81 during Kaartinen’s four years, Averett went 55-14-5. The Cougars won conference titles in 1979 and 1980 and made three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1979-1981. In 1980, Averett advanced to the national quarterfinals.

“Soccer was of course different at that time,” Kaartinen said Tuesday as he recalled his playing days. “It was just growing and the level of the teams varied a lot. Division III teams were easy for us and we played Division I schools and could play evenly with them.

“It was a big experience and it was the first time here that a team made it to nationals,” he said of Averett qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. “There was great excitement, but there was also great disappointment after you lose a playoff game. I remember how mad we were and how disappointed we were because they were all close games. … I think the best thing was that over our four years, we got better and got to nationals.”

​​​​​​​Kaartinen teamed up with fellow Averett Athletics Hall of Hamer John “Frenchy” Vigouroux during his four years as a dominant scoring duo at the forward position.

“He was also a strong person like I was and was dedicated,” Kaartinen said. “We always competed for goals. That was a perfect pairing. I think I was a better passer than John but he was straight forward and had speed. It was a great combination for four years.”

After his playing career was over and he graduated from Averett in 1982, Kaartinen continued his education with a master’s degree in business administration at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He decided to return to Finland, where he said he struggled to readjust to society after being in the United States for six years. After working at an advertising agency for a year, he landed a job with ExxonMobil in Helsinki in 1986. He worked there for nearly 20 years, met his wife, bought a house and had two sons. Yet, at the age of 45, he found himself frustrated with his job.

“I realized I’m not really a business guy,” Kaartinen said. “I’m not that kind of tough person to make a tough decision. Money didn’t interest me much. I talked to my wife that I needed some change. Luckily she supported me.”

After leaving ExxonMobil, his admiration for his former Averett coach made him want to get back into the field of sports. It wasn’t easy. After a few years, he finally found a position as the head of a big sports club in Finland. Yet, after four years there, he found himself looking for another job at age 50. After three jobs in sales, his luck changed in 2013.

“I got a call from the city of Espoo where I live and they knew me from sports because I had coached a lot,” he said. “With my kids, I had put in a lot of voluntary work coaching when they played soccer. The city of Espoo made a decision to buy the Icehearts program for certain kids. They called me in to see if I’d be interesting in being the first to take a group of kids in for 12 years. I was in heaven. I said, ‘Definitely.'”

The Icehearts program is an organization in Finland that works with selected kids who come from difficult home situations and uses sports to help build organized foundations in their lives. Each kid is a part of the program from the age of 6 until he or she turns 18.

After years of having jobs that he disliked, the Icehearts program was the calling Kaartinen needed maybe as much as the kids he would be helping.

“Since then, my life and my mental side — everything has just been positive and perfect,” Kaartinen said. “I love that job.”

​​​​​​​Kaartinen helps use sports such as soccer and floorball — Finnish indoor hockey — several times a week with the kids he works with through the program. Five years in, he has seven more years to go with his group. After that, he plans to retire.

Even when sports wasn’t a part of his work, athletics have always been a part of his recreational life. Kaartinen, who turns 60 on July 3, played soccer every year in Finland until he was 55.

“That’s a lot of games, but then my knees started to hurt,” Kaartinen said. “But it was also a blessing for me. I haven’t been missing it all. I have new sports. I play a lot of golf, swimming, cycling and walking.”

Although he’s been 4,500 miles away from the campus of Averett, Kaartinen still remains in touch. He tries to attend most Averett alumni events when representatives from the institution travel annually to Finland, and he has been back to Danville a few times — most recently in 2014 when Hiltunen was inducted into the USA South Hall of Fame before making the trip for his own induction this week.

Since arriving in town last Friday, Kaartinen has walked around downtown Danville and through Averett’s Main Campus. On Tuesday, he got a tour of the North Campus facilities — which didn’t exist during his time — including the newer Frank R. Campbell Stadium, the home of Averett soccer. Times have changed since Kaartinen’s teams played on Jack Kleinoder Field, where the university’s apartment complex now stands. But Kaartinen loves the positive direction of Averett and its athletics. And he has had some time this week to also reflect on the past, making the experience very special.

“All these old memories come back,” Kaartinen said. “I feel honored and really happy that I started something.”