WINTERTHUR – The history of women’s hockey in Finland can be summed up pretty easily – good, middling, good again. That middling patch was the result of a push by the Swedes thanks to goalie Kim Martin and forwards Erika Holst and Maria Rooth, but under Arto Seppi the Finns have experienced a resurgence that culminated last year with a bronze medal at the Olympics in Vancouver.
That team, however, is markedly different from the one here in Switzerland competing at the 13th World Women’s Championship. Indeed, ten players – half the team – are new to the senior roster this year, for a variety of reasons.
“Our captain Emma Laaksonen retired from the national team for at least a season to focus on her job in the stock markets,” Seppi explained. “Our leading defenceman, Saija Sirvio, is expecting her first child any day, and then we’ve had a couple of bad injuries. As well, we also wanted to bring some new talent to the World Championships.”
When half the team is new, timing is off, chemistry isn’t yet established, and young players haven’t had a chance to mature. As a result, for instance, the Finns lost to Switzerland the other day in overtime, a game they would normally have won over the last several years.
“It takes time,” Seppi emphasized, “and you have to be patient. Hockey is a results-based sport, but when you are a rookie and you come to the senior national team and play your first World Championship game, it’s always a big step. Some players adapt faster. We will see at this tournament who they are. In our first game, for instance, we scored five goals and four of them were scored by young players.”
Seppi understands the dual importance of the first WW after an Olympics. In the present, victory is important, but looking ahead, preparation is also a factor. “Of course, we want to win a medal here, but still you already have to be aware of Sochi in 2014, especially for Finland and Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, because we don’t have hundreds of athletes to choose from. We need to give your young players some time, and it might cost us some wins or even a medal, but we need to let those players show their ability. In the end, I think anything between third place and sixth place wouldn’t be catastrophic for us or the program this year. Our leaders back home know that if we are to have a good team in Sochi, we must start now.”
Seppi’s work in Finland has been nothing short of extraordinary. His enthusiasm for the game, the players, and the universal success of the sport is beyond question, and he realizes one half of his brain thinks “Finland,” while the other half thinks “world development.” But on a national level, he has been a godsend.
“We had 2,300 skaters in 2006,” he explained, “and we set a target of 4,000 for 2010. We reached that. We now have almost 5,000, and we will set a new target in May that we want 7,000 skaters by 2014 Sochi. We need the numbers to increase if we want to get better players, better talent, better coaches. Everything grows with the numbers.”
There is simply no hiding the fact that Canada and the United States are vastly superior to the rest of the world, and there has been a wealth of shared knowledge by the North Americans to help improve the game around the globe. Seppi has taken full advantage of that hospitality.
“We have had a great cooperation with Hockey Canada and later USA Hockey in the past few years,” he said. “We’ve copied a couple of good ideas, like Girls Hockey Day. We made a Finnish version of the Canadian model. We are all exchanging ideas, but we’re all struggling with small numbers.”
At the World Hockey Summit last year, Hayley Wickenheiser stressed the need for players to play top level competition more, something Seppi is in full agreement with.
“We started a system last year where the national team will play 14 games against midget boys teams all over Finland. We copied that from Canada, and we have that program in place until Sochi. These are extra games beyond what the team plays against women’s teams internationally. We have to start raising the level of play now if we want to be ready for Sochi. We can’t do it only a year before.”
Beyond that, Seppi has tried to get the best players in the country together for longer periods, to help develop their skills and their cohesiveness as a team. “We also did a little bit like what USA Hockey does in Ann Arbour and centralized out players for the U18 team,” he explained further. “We started a high-school program, about four hours north of Helsinki. It’s a perfect spot. You have everything. Last year, three players from there played on our U18 team, and one player is here, Niina Makinen. That team played in our women’s league and they will continue to do that. Next year, we’ll get five to seven players from there, and 10 to 12 the year after. We’ll never have everyone, but this will be a key factor to succeeding.”
Just as Seppi and the Finnish federation works with the North Americans, he also works with European teams and now with the IIHF’s Tanya Foley, the person responsible for growing and improving the game through the IIHF offices.
“The biggest thing with Tanya Foley and working with other federations is that we don’t have any issues which we can’t talk about,” Seppi related. “If you want to expand women’s hockey, you have to break down all the barriers, have no limits, and Tanya is a great hockey personality. She has done a great job so far with all those camps and mentoring groups that the IIHF is getting ready to launch this summer.”
And for Seppi personally, he also has a goal in mind. “My wife always says that I don’t work. I just do my hobby. I love my job – it’s my passion. I want to stay with the team and the program til 2019. I’ve told all my colleagues that we can host the World Women’s Championship then in Finland. All other years until then are taken. After that, I will go fly fishing.”