TAMPERE, Finland – The people of Tampere like to think of their city as the cradle of Finnish hockey, for a good reason. The first game was played there, the first artificial ice was built there, and the first indoor arena was built in Tampere in 1965, in time for the World Championship it hosted that year.
The Hakametsä arena is still the home for the city’s two SM-liiga teams, Tappara and Ilves. Entering the arena, Tappara players go to the left, Ilves players to the right, and hardly does anyone ever cross that line.
But the city’s hockey fans haven’t been spoiled with too much success lately. Tappara reached the final three years in a row in 2001-02, winning title in 2003, but a seven-year-wait may seem long for a club that won five championships in the 1980s. And Ilves, the club with 16 Finnish titles, hasn’t won the championship since 1985. In fact, that’s their only SM-liiga title, as the league was formed in 1975.
Last season, Ilves reached the bottom when it ended up in the relegation series against Jokipojat, the winner of Mestis, the division below SM-liiga. The winds of change had been brewing for a while, but last spring, they turned into a mild storm.
The CEO left, former Finnish national team coach Raimo Summanen was hired to write up an analysis of the club’s situation, with recommendations, a new director of sports operations was hired, a new coaching staff was put in place, and for this season, a new team was built.
“We want to do things in a different way. For years, Ilves has fired a lot of players in the spring and signed new players to take their places. Some years, the club has been building a fast team, other years a hard-hitting one, and wasted a lot of resources. We just can’t afford that,” says Seppo Hiitelä, the new director of sports operations, and the head coach of that 1985 team.
“We can possibly turn this thing around fairly quickly because we’re talking about a game after all, and sport is all about developing players. That’s what we want to focus on now,” he adds.
Players like Joonas Rask. Last season, the 20-year-old forward played 43 games and collected 19 points. He also represented Finland in the 2010 IIHF World U20 Championship. This season, the younger brother of the Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, is a little bigger, and hopefully a little better.
“Of course it helped that I got to play those games in the SM-liiga last season. I’ve added a little muscle on my body over the summer, so that the defencemen can’t throw me around as much as last season,” he says.
This season, Rask has three goals in six games, and Ilves six points in six games, enough for 11th place in the SM-liiga. But the season is young, and anything is possible.
Last spring, Rask also played with the Ilves major junior team during the playoffs, and helped the team to bronze medals. Ilves has traditionally had great junior teams - and the club’s alumni include several high-quality players.
Unfortunately, not all with Ilves. Like Perttu Lindgren, currently on top of the SM-liiga scoring, plays for Lukko Rauma.
“The junior organization has probably done a better job than the SM-liiga organization. But we can improve on all fronts,” admits Hiitelä, who says that he won’t give the coaching staff free reign on how the team should play.
“I respect coaches, and always will respect coaching, but as the club’s representative, I have to think of continuity, as well. A coach is always looking for a new job elsewhere, and may not have the patience with the young players that is required. Ilves has to be patient,” he says.
This season, 14 players on Ilves’s 31-man strong roster were born in 1990 or later, and only four have turned 30.
“We have to be better by our third season, that’s our goal. We won’t get our credibility back right away, so we have to keep working consistently now. Of course, we’ll take every game seriously, in the moment, but we’re also building our future,” says Hiitelä.
To be as glorious as the past.Notebook:
- Jokerit forward Jani Rita tore a muscle in his chest in a game against Kärpät Oulu, and his season may be over. The injury requires surgery, and a six-month long rehabilitation.
- Perttu Lindgren has started the season with a bang, collecting a point in each of Lukko Rauma’s six games. His 3+6=9 points lead the league.
- KalPa Kuopio signed Czech forward Pavel Brendl to a short-term contract that will be up by the first national team break. Brendl is expected to bring some valuable scoring into the lineup for KalPa. The team has scored just 11 goals in six games.
- JYP Jyväskylä has also scored just 12 goals in five games, but on the other hand, the team has had three straight shutouts, in games against Ässät Pori, TPS Turku, and the Espoo Blues. The SM-liiga shutout streak team record is 259:28 minutes, by TPS in 1997. JYP is just 26 minutes from it.