As one of the first Finnish riders to make it big on an international level, Joni Mäkinen helped pave the way for the legions of his hyper-talented compatriots swarming the sport today. This humble guy from Järvenpää has left his mark with inspiring video parts and now continues his involvement with snowboarding as European Marketing Coordinator for CAPiTA, Union and Coal and we featured him for the dedicated page in Onboard issue 104.
Born in Järvenpää, 30km north of Helsinki, the young Joni was first introduced to snowboards when the local skate shop started stocking them. Like the rest of his buddies, he was immediately keen to see what this new sport was all about. It wouldn’t take him long to catch the bug. “I think it was 89 when my brother bought his board. I tried with that few times and I was hooked," he reminisces. “I bought my first board the following season."
About 15 minutes down the road from the Mäkinen home was a small ski hill called Talma (now a well-known production line for Finnish riders) and it was here that Joni, his bro, and buddies Aleksi Vanninen and ‘Pallero’ cut their teeth, hitting up the 55m-high hill as often as possible. Back then the Finnish scene was pretty small, as he explains: “Most of the people riding in Talma were from Järvenpää, so most of us knew each other. I guess it was similar scene in other resorts as well, but not sure because I mostly rode Talma."
Riding day-in, day-out inevitably resulted in the young Mak scoring his first shop sponsorship in 1992, but it was when his talent saw him recruited to the seminal Hammer team of the time that things really kicked off. “When I got hooked up by Hammer," he remembers, “me, Ami Voutilainen and Jesse Hyväri went to ride in the US. We really didn't have any plans so first we did two pipe contests and then decided to go ride in Tahoe. We knew that Aleksi was somewhere in the area, so we eventually tracked him down. He was filming with FLF for ‘Easy Rider’. He talked to the filmers and we got to go with them in the backcountry. After that, it was on."
Indeed it was on. His style and penchant for going huge, holding grabs for an age and taking to powder landings like a Finn to sauna saw his stock rocket, and along with Vanninen and Voutilainen helped turn the US industry’s wandering eye to Finland as a crackling hotbed of shred talent. The next few years saw Joni film with the major US crews of the time, enhancing his stature as a global rider. “I filmed with FLF for two years, but when I got hooked by Joyride they wanted me to film with Jamie ‘Mouse’ Mosberg, so I did, along with FLF. After that, I filmed with Whitey at Kingpin a bit, then few weeks with Mack Dawg. Finally, in 97 I started to film with Standard, for TB7." He went on to film for at several projects with Standard, further cementing his standing.
Joni is one of the most down-to-earth riders you could ever meet, so it is not surprising that when asked if he realised his career was inspiring the next generation of Finnish kids, he replies: “Nope, I just found it very strange that companies were paying me to snowboard". Though it was lost on him, according to Jussi Tarvainen, Mäkinen played a huge part. “Joni has been one of the most influential riders in Finland," he states. “Not just for snowboarding but to style in snowboarding itself. He set the standards and the rest have felt it as a heritage to continue that and push the limits of style. I think that's the reason why I think Finnish riders have the best style in snowboarding, because they are almost like obligated to have good style."
Although he may not have been aware of the legacy he was creating, Joni did feel obliged to keep in touch with the groms back home and help them out in the same way his peers had. “Without Ami [Voutilainen] I probably wouldn't ever have left Talma, so I wanted to help other kids to make their dream come true as well." And that he certainly did for many riders – talking to companies and trying to get them sponsors, or offering advice. “When Jussi [Oksanen] first started to film with Standard Films he couldn't land in pow," Joni confides. “After few days and lot of wasted film they didn't really want to shoot with him anymore. I told them that Jussi could school all of us in the park without question, so at least film some park stuff with him. They gave him another chance, and I bet they’re pretty pleased that they did now."
Oksanen himself is quick to acknowledge Mäkinen’s impact: “He was one of the first guys in Finland who was making a living out of just filming and that was always my dream. Joni also helped a lot of the guys in Finland to create this same dream for themselves, including me. He helped me to get filming with Standard Films and he also helped me to get a few sponsors along the way."
But after he had been riding for 12 years as a pro, issues with his last board sponsor resulted in a decision to close that particular chapter in his life. Although still loving the act of snowboarding, politics and injuries combined with the practicalities of finding new sponsors at 32 led him to bow out on a high note. But what to do? As he admits: “Part of me wanted to stay in the industry, but part of me wanted to get as far of it as possible". However, his long-running friendship with Blue Montgomery at CAPiTA snowboards, and his admiration of the brand, led to a position of European Marketing Coordinator for CAPiTA, Union and Coal being tabled. “It wasn't difficult to stay in the industry because I got to work with brands that I really like and believe in," he explains. Joni now puts his years of experience and knowhow into practice in a wide variety of fields, from PR to distribution to working with the team. Though he confesses that there’s “quite a lot of bullshit" on the industry side of the sport, Joni believes that the positives outweigh the negatives: “The main reason why I kept snowboarding after my first day on the hill is because it was fun, and that is the reason why I'm still involved in this industry."
And does he still get to strap in much? “I still get to ride quite a lot, but now it's mostly in Talma. There is no more pressure when I ride. I can do Methods all day long if I want (and quite often I want). I think I actually enjoy riding itself more now than I did when I was paid to do it."