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Finland abolishes restrictions on EU citizens, shrinks rosters by two

24.11.2008
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Ryan Keller is one of the Non-European import players in the Finnish league. Photo: Getty Images/Bongarts

HELSINKI – Officially, there’s never been any restrictions to how many non-Finns the Finnish SM-liiga teams are allowed to use. However, unofficially, there have been different kinds of restrictions – “gentlemen’s agreements” – over the years, as to how many imports a team can play, regardless of nationality.

For example, this season, Espoo Blues has four non-Finns on their roster: goaltender Bernd Brückler, defenceman Dale Clarke, and forwards Ryan Keller and Ben Eaves. In the SM-liiga, the team can only play three of them in a game, forcing the coaching staff to rotate the imports. (They also have Stefan Öhman, who has dual Finnish and Swedish citizenship).

Next season, the Blues can dress all four of them, thanks to the fact that Brückler is Austrian, an EU citizen. According to a recent decision by the board of directors of the SM-liiga, next year, teams may use an unlimited number of “EU players”, but the number of import players from outside the EU is limited to three.

The EU player definition includes players who are citizens of countries that have signed the agreements that govern free labor movement in the European Union.

At the same time, the board of directors of the SM-liiga also decided to cut the number of skaters a team can dress to each game to 18, down from this season’s 20.

Both decisions were made for financial reasons, the league said in a press release. This way, teams do not have to carry as many players on their payroll, and by opening the doors to EU players, the Swedes, Czechs, Norwegians, Slovaks, SM-liiga wants to help the clubs with creating a more competitive market place.

In other words, instead of overpaying a Finnish defenceman in a limited market, the teams can try to find a player in the larger EU market, which, in turn, would push the salaries down across the board. That’s the theory anyway.

The players, and the players’ association, weren’t happy to hear the news.

“The EU citizen rule is based on an existing legislation so we don’t and can’t have much to say about that,” Jarmo Saarela, the head of the Finnish Hockey Players Association, FHPA, said to Finnish T.V. station YLE.

“But we do think that the shrinking of the roster will create major problems, and we’re especially worried about the young players entering the league,” he said.

Saarela was skeptic about the financial implications of the decision.

“I don’t think that a smaller roster can have a big effect on the clubs’ finances. On the contrary, what can happen is that the first and second liners get even bigger salaries, and the third and fourth liners contracts where the compensation is tied to making the roster, and how much ice time they get,” he added.

There are those who can also see salaries being hiked up by the Finnish decision, as it opens up another market for EU players to play in as the Swedish Elitserien already has a similar rule for import players. Elitserien teams are free to sign as many EU players as they wish, but the number of others is limited to two.

Notebook:
  • Ilves Tampere lifted Raimo Helminen’s number 41 to the rafters on Saturday, making him the sixth player in club history to have his number retired. Helminen played 331 games with the Finnish national team, collecting 52+155=207 points, and winning the World Championship in 1995 as well as one Olympic silver medal, one Olympic bronze medal, four World Championship silver medals, and a World Championship bronze.
  • KalPa Kuopio signed Toni Mäkiaho who left Swedish Elitserien a few weeks ago. He played his first game on Saturday with Kalle Sahlstedt and Sami Kapanen on the first line. KalPa beat the Espoo Blues 3-0.
  • Jarkko Immonen of JYP Jyväskylä took the lead in the scoring race, thanks four assists last week. Immonen has 7+18=25 points in 26 games. KalPa’s Kapanen is second with 12+12=24 in 24 games.

Raimo Helminen was celebrated and his number 41 retired in Tampere. Photo: Ilves/Jouni Valkeeniemi

RISTO PAKARINEN   

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