TALLINN – Following a 26th-place finish overall in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program – the highest position for a decade – Estonia steps up its efforts for a brighter future by honing neighbourly ties while tending its grassroots.
A fourth spot at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Belfast and positive displays from their respective U18 and U20 national teams capped off a fine 2016/17 season for Estonian ice hockey.
With 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of Estonia first winning independence as a nation state, the Estonian Ice Hockey Association now aims at building on their improving results ahead of a landmark season.
“At our association we have two goals: spreading the popularity of the game and our national teams to give play as good as possible and be an aspiration for our young players to want to represent their country,” said Rauno Parras, President of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association.
Parras, a former player who stepped into his current role in September 2014, has since tried to re-vitalize the game and stir up interest in a Baltic nation surrounded by neighbours competing at the highest level.
One such recent initiative saw the Kontinental Hockey League temporarily roll into Estonia's capital Tallinn. At the end of last year, Latvia’s Dinamo Riga headed north to relocate two of their KHL matches inside the new Tondiraba Ice Hall. With fans flocking to get a glimpse of top-level hockey on their home patch, there are now hopes that this could be turned into a regular event.
In the wake of this success, the Estonian Ice Hockey Association has teamed up with its counterparts in Latvia and Lithuania to announce the creation of a Baltic Challenge Cup tournament. Three tournaments on senior level have been pencilled in to be played during the upcoming season in a concept which for years has been in place for a number of other team sports across the Baltics.
With the first Baltic Challenge Cup set to take place in Tallinn 25-27 August, it will also include the curious addition of Sweden's Hammarby. Playing in Sweden's third tier, the Stockholm-based team will travel across the Baltic Sea to lock horns with Estonia, Lithuania and a Latvian team with players composed from the top Latvian league in Tondiraba Ice Hall. This move comes in the wake of a Swedish-based consortium being announced as the Baltic Challenge Cup's main sponsor with an aim to further pursue Swedish interests in hockey development in the Baltics.
But while neighbours in the south and west are looking to develop closer ties with Estonia at a senior level, it is across the Gulf of Finland where the crucial stage of Estonian player development is gathering pace. With Finland's capital Helsinki only 80 kilometres away, frantic ferry crossings have been the norm for years with Estonian youngsters playing against Finnish opposition in growing numbers. Last season saw three Tallinn-based clubs – HC Panter, HC Vipers and HK Tornaado – altogether field an impressive eleven different teams in the Finnish junior set-up involving players born between 2000 to 2008.
“During the last season we also for the first time started to play matches further afield from the Helsinki region with a team of older youngsters,” said Parras. “The cooperation with Finland is very important for us. Our kids get to play against players the same age and on a competitive level. When our most promising players then seek an even higher level, we will be able to move them on to other clubs across Finland to continue their development,” Parras continued.
Estonia's poster boy in hockey, 23-year-old Robert Rooba of JYP Jyvaskyla, is perhaps the best-known example of a player who began his ascent with an Estonian junior team in Finland and has since carved out a career over there. Behind Rooba an ever-growing number of compatriots have since gone down that same well-trodden path with Finland's impact being very visible at the Estonian national team that next season will be coached by Spiros Anastasiadis, who will double up coaching various Estonian national teams and his work with the University of Lethbridge team in Canada. During last season the senior team competing in Belfast fielded half a dozen players plying their trade in Finland. The numbers were even higher at junior level. Estonia's U20 had nine Finnish-based players on their roster, while there were eight playing in Finland on the U18 team that finished a fine second in the U18 World Championship Division II Group A played in Gangneung at Korea’s facilities for the upcoming Olympics.
While players venturing abroad in greater numbers will raise the prowess of its national team, there are still a number of challenges facing its domestic game.
“In Estonia we have nine ice hockey clubs but the ones in Tallinn and Narva are in this respect far ahead of the others, so in the Estonian championship we don't have a lot of players and the level is very shifting,” said Parras of a country with a population of just 1.3 million.
In an attempt to try to capture the interest of a new generation, the Estonian Ice Hockey Association has looked into the rear-view mirror and re-launched local school tournaments targeting kids between 6-10 years. “Kultlitter”, or Golden Puck in English, was previously played until 1991 when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union with Parras himself having had fine memories from taking part in the tournament as a youngster.
With the Estonian Ice Hockey Association providing all the necessary equipment, games are played for 20 minutes across the third of the ice surface. Played across Estonia last season, valuable ground was broken in the southern part of the country, with one of the tournaments held in the newly covered ice arena in Viljanti in an initiative set to continue to grow come next season.
With plenty of positive initiatives in place, Parras and his colleagues are now getting ready to roll up their sleeves to continue work towards a more prosperous future of the Estonian game where Finland is set to continue playing a vital part.
“My wish is that we one day will have all our youngest teams playing in own leagues in Estonia, while our three oldest age groups at junior level would form kind of national teams and could play in Finland,” said Parras, who hopes this could also help even further strengthen the national teams but also benefit the domestic Estonian championship.
“If each season around 20 players who played in Finnish junior leagues would move back to Estonia, play either in our domestic league or further afield if they are good enough, then this would give us enough players to select from for our national team and move us upwards because that is the direction we want to head,” said Parras.