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How Finland has emerged as a hockey superpower

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Some people were surprised when three Finns were selected in the top five of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. With a new player-development strategy now yielding results, that success is about to become commonplace.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Finland’s national men’s hockey team won its first World Championship with the ‘golden generation,’ headed by Saku Koivu centring Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen — dubbed the “Huey, Dewey, and Louie” line — in 1995. The team did not win another title on the international stage until 2011.

Despite the dearth of golds, Finland had an impressive medal haul. The country possessed nine other World Championship medals besides that 1995 gold: six silver and three bronze. Even more impressive is that in the last seven Winter Olympic Games (since 1994) the Finnish team has only been off the podium once, in 2002, and has five bronze and one silver in the best-on-best spectacle during this time.

Finland had produced good quality players over the past few decades, with a few stars like Koivu and Teemu Selänne sprinkled on top, but they have been more the exception than the standard.

New Era

Since 2009, Finland has won medals in all but two Under-18 World Championships, with three bronze, one silver and a gold earned earlier this year. Over the same period, they have won two golds in the World Junior Championship in 2014 and 2016, with players that have graduated from the U18 ranks. Most recently, the team appeared in the final of the Men’s World Championship, ultimately settling for silver.

Finland's success in nearly every international tournament of 2016 shouldn't have come as a surprise when you look deeper into the Finnish development system. It has been a long process, but the goals were achieved all at once with two golds and a silver this year. Now that the Finnish system has started to yield results, the world has begun to take notice.

Players such as Aleksander Barkov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Teuvo Teräväinen, and Sami Vatanen are established players, and Sebastian Aho and Artturi Lehkonen are on the verge of their NHL careers.

Finland saw three of its young players — Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujärvi, and Olli Juolevi — selected in the top five of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, with Henrik Borgström’s selection at 23rd making it four Finns taken in the opening round. When the final pick was made, 15 Finns had been drafted by NHL teams among the 211 total selections.

With top prospects like Kristian Vesalainen and Urho Vaakanainen eligible for the 2017 draft, Finland’s crop of talent is no fluke. It seems that there is no end to the flood of great talent from the Country of the Thousand Lakes.

As a small country, with a population of about 5.5 million, how can Finland develop so many quality players?

A shift to development

In 2009, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) convened a summit with all of the country’s key ice hockey personnel, hosted at the Vierumäki Sports Institute (mainly owned by the FIHA). Coaches, agents, scouts, team leaders, general managers, and others were all invited for what was essentially a brainstorm to revise their strategy on player development.

The main force behind this meeting was Erkka Westerlund, the head coach of the Finnish national team for two stints between 2004 and 2014, and the coach of Finland’s KHL team, Jokerit, for the past two seasons.

"It was Westerlund's idea that you'd have to start with the young players; by focusing on individual skill, to make sure the coaches supported the young players, and covered every possible area," explained Mr. Pekka Jalonen of Iltalehti, one of the biggest newspapers in Finland. "It was also important to teach them how to eat, to train responsibly (that includes to rest) ... in short how to be a professional athlete with responsibilities, and not to waste your natural talent. It sounded very good to all parties involved and it was agreed to follow the path that Westerlund had pointed out."

Mr. Timo Backman, sports director for FIHA, explains that "one of the first things we did after the meeting in 2009 was to hire full-time coaches for all the boys’ national teams. Previously we had never really had any full-time coaches for these teams, only for the senior national team.

"Why did we need full-time coaches when the team is only together about 40 days a year? What should the coach do the other 320 days?" Because now the national team coach is more involved in developing players.

"After a camp or a tournament the coach goes on the road and visits each and every club that had players present. He sits down with the player and the coach of their [league] team in order to work out together how the player did, and what to work on and develop before the next tournament."

With a system like that, there is a need for a full-time coach at every level. That much is obvious. Mr. Backman also explains that the coach talks with clubs outside of Finland, as well, if there are players in other countries, such as Vesalainen and Joni Ikonen who currently play in Frölunda, Sweden.

For players based in North America, like Juolevi in Canada with the London Knights, videos and Skype calls are the way the coaches work if needed. No player is left behind because of his decision to develop abroad. With Jokerit in the wide-ranging KHL, there are not only several leagues, but multiple countries over different time zones for a national team coach to keep track of and work with to make the program work.

For the teams with Finnish prospects, getting an evaluation and a personalized contact with FIHA has benefited the program in many ways, not the least of which is generating a feeling in the country that all teams are important to the nation’s success, and that they are a part of the national team’s development. That creates a positive cycle that brings in more knowledge for the coaches and managers and more interest from all over Finland.

Success begets success

The move to commence the program was an important step, but the biggest boost was really after the 2012 World Championship that was hosted in Helsinki. The tournament netted a profit of €8.2 million, and that money was invested back into the youth development program.

In 2013, they used those funds to give a stipend to the top clubs in Finland to hire 25 skills coaches that work with players between 10 and 14 years of age. The clubs are required to pay the salaries, but FIHA gives every club the basic rate (approximately €30,000 per year), for an annual cost close to €750,000. If the clubs want to augment that, such as providing travel costs, phones, etc., they are allowed to do so. This also forms an umbrella system, as every club that gets this additional coach's help must 'share' the coach with even the smallest teams in the area.

The new plan is making the foundation of the youth development something that benefits all teams and players even further away from the spotlights of the big clubs. This makes sure that almost all of the junior-aged players in Finland will get access to a skills coach at an early age; something that should make an already skilled Finnish team even more of a threat in the future. It should also increase the chances for 'late bloomers' to succeed, as they still get access to skills coaches even if they don’t make the transition to the next level when their peers do.

The results of this strategy cannot really be known yet, as it has only been a few years and those youth players who have benefitted are not yet showcasing their talents on an international stage, but FIHA hopes that this will generate an even better success rate in the very near future.

"This meeting in 2009 and those skill-oriented coaches are the biggest reasons why Finland is getting players like Laine, Aho, Puljujärvi and many other rising stars," Mr. Jalonen states.

The program seems to draw on some lessons learned from the Finnish goalkeeping school, as it has worked in a similar way for many years. "In every club, there are goalie coaches who are doing nothing else but teaching young goalies. Usually these coaches are ex-goaltenders or at least they know everything about how to play and be a goalie," says Mr. Jalonen. "In some clubs, like Lukko in Rauma (a classic Liiga team), they give young goalies all the equipment free of charge. We all know how expensive hockey equipment is, and this is one way to give all the kids at least a chance to try their hand at being a goalie."

The economic loss of power of Liiga, and its effects

Mr. Tommi Hämäläinen, of Helsingfors IFK, points to another factor that might have sped up the development of young Finnish talent: the fact that the increased economic powers of other leagues in Europe — the KHL, SHL and NLA especially — has forced the Finnish teams to skip out on signing expensive foreign players. This has led to more need to develop players internally, and increased chances for young players to start playing professionally earlier.

Mr. Jalonen agrees with this, but also points to the fact that “there are more open places for young players, as Liiga decided to go from 14 teams to 15, and [was supposed to go] to 16 [Liiga has lost a team, the Espoo Blues, in the midst of this expansion]. Two years ago Sport (Vaasa) replaced Jokerit, but KooKoo (Kouvola) was a new team last season and Jukurit (Mikkeli) will be a new team next season. There are three new teams coming from second level to first level, and they will all need new players.”

Russia vs Finland - 2016 IIHF World Championship Ice Hockey: Semi Final Photo by Anna Sergeeva/Getty Images

Jalonen also thinks that it helps young players to develop faster when they can play tough games every night. "One example is Patrik Laine. He was too good to play with the U20 juniors last season. Playing with [the juniors] wasn't a competition for him; there was no challenge. But it is important to remember that a young player must have a good role within the team. He must get enough ice time and play some power play, too. If a young player is sitting on the bench, he is not developing, he is only watching older guys."

It's interesting to see that while the Finnish Liiga loses its economic competitiveness, the overall talent level has been relatively unaffected, and the league is firmly settled in the top three leagues in Europe, according to the rankings I compiled last season.

With the results from the Champions Hockey League, and the results from the league itself (even with the expansion it’s currently undergoing), it seems Finland is secure in its position mainly due to the amazing talent coming through the system. It remains to be seen if the young players coming through the Liiga ranks can revive Finland’s top professional league from an economic standpoint, as well.

The combined effects so far seem to be that the gap between youth team and professional club has become much smaller, and young players get exposed to the pro game at an earlier age, something that benefits young Finnish talent, and in the long run the Finnish national team.

Retaining talent

Mr. Backman points out that young Finnish players leaving to other leagues is a new problem. FIHA is trying to point out the success of "The Lions Road," as the new program is called, in progressing players through the ranks of Finnish hockey.

"If you leave in order to get an education at college, as an example, it’s a fantastic opportunity, but we work with parents, agents, and clubs to make sure a player chooses to leave for the right reasons. Finland is a small country and we only have our own players. North American leagues can take players from all over the world, as example, and if a player isn't progressing, they just grab another one. We, in Finland, have to work with every player we have to give him the best chance to succeed as possible."

A new generation, and a new mentality

In a conversation with Magnus Nyström, Finnish journalist Kaj Kunnas, one of Finland's most renowned journalists, brings up the new mentality of the millennials in Finnish hockey.

"The confidence has obviously changed. Finnish players today know that they are as good as everyone else in the world. Look at this year’s WJC. The Finnish stars that didn't have a full command of the English language? They weren't ashamed of that. Not at all. They had an aura that said 'I speak Finnish and if the reporter doesn't it’s their problem.' Case in point is the interview with Jesse Puljujärvi when he asked teammates to help with the translation to English. He wasn't bothered, his teammate wasn't bothered, they thought it was fun!"

Finland is changing, and in the case of the WJC team, they broke new ground. They changed the self image of a Finnish team, turning around more or less every game with a late charge, and they never stopped winning. The change in that confidence may be the lasting success of that Finnish gold medal.

"The confidence boost among Finnish hockey players must be tied into the overall success of Finnish hockey," Mr. Jalonen opines. "When things are going your way, it has a positive influence in everything around Finnish hockey.

“For sure it has something to do with the individual coaching. But also players are using a lot of outside counsel. Laine has a mentor, former player Mika Alatalo, who played in Luleå (1996-98) and for the Phoenix Coyotes (1999-2001).”

Mr. Hämäläinen points across the Atlantic. "It has become easier to believe in success, due to the previous success of Finnish players in the NHL."

How it all came together

What is clear is that a lot of credit goes to coaching, and specifically coaches like Jukka Jalonen, Kari Jalonen, Karri Kivi, Erkka Westerlund, and Lauri Marjamäki. They have the support of those who put them in charge, and they, too, gain confidence in their abilities just as the players have.

It is a relationship that is built on trust and support. By telling their young players to go out there and enjoy the game, to have fun, they are creating an atmosphere where players get the best chance to succeed, as a mistake is not something to dread, it is something you learn from.

By adding the mantra 'do not fear a loss, because you are at least as good as the other team,’ you are also changing the confidence of young players, and that is something that will benefit them their whole career. With the Finnish team in the WJC firmly believing ‘do what you can do best and you'll win’ and proving it right, the foundation of another Finnish generation has already been built.

In the end, success feeds off success. Finland made a brave decision and invested a lot of money — long term — to promote and expand its ice hockey team for success further down the line. With the success it is currently having, it is easier to invest more money, time and resources into the program, and more people and clubs are interested and want to be part of it.

With skills coaches at an early age, all kids get a chance to be noticed, and that will lead to more gems being found and to be developed.

Finland has started a snowball effect with their player development, and the fruits of those labours are only beginning to be reaped. The question is: how far will it take the Finnish Leijonat, and will the other national teams be able to catch up?

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EDIT: This article was edited as we originally included “most respected newspapers” in regard to Iltalehti. Many Finnish readers told us this was wrong, and therefore we decided to alter that part of the sentence.

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