Musical chairs in Finland

Five of the 14 SM-liiga teams have made a coaching change


Former Finnish national team coach Erkka Westerlund is part of the merry-go-round in the Finnish league this year. He now works for Jokerit Helsinki. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

HELSINKI – Hannu Aravirta is back behind the bench. The former Team Finland head coach was hired as new head coach of Kärpät Oulu on November 22, after the club board had decided to relieve Mikko Haapakoski from his duties.

Kärpät is currently 11th in the standings, four points from tenth place, which still qualifies for post-season. Haapakoski had been promoted to head coach last season, when the club fired Matti Alatalo.

Aravirta, in turn, had been out of a coaching post since his season ended with Modo in Sweden last season. A year ago, he was hired to Modo in January, and according to media reports, declined an offer to sign an extension with the club, to pursue opportunities in the KHL. But since a coach is only as good as his last game, no coach can afford sitting on the sidelines all too long.

Last season, Aravirta was available, because he was fired from Jokerit Helsinki in November 2009, and replaced by Hannu Jortikka, who made his second tour at the club. That ended on November 24, when general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen showed him the door and signed another former Team Finland coach, Erkka Westerlund, as the head coach.

Jokerit is eighth in the standings, eight points from sixth place, or, the quarterfinals.

Westerlund had left coaching after the 2007 World Championship, to take over as the principal at the Vierumäki Sports Academy. He subsequently took a leave of absence to be the director of coaching at the Finnish federation to then move on to a change committee for Finnish sports.

To then get back to coaching, with Jokerit.

The club now has three famous coaches on its payroll since both Jortikka’s and Aravirta’s contracts expire at the end of this season. Between the three of them, Jortikka, Aravirta, and Westerlund are behind some of the biggest success stories in Finnish hockey history: A world junior championship, a world championship, Olympic bronze and silver medals, nine SM-liiga titles, and nine other medals in the SM-liiga.

Jortikka became the fourth SM-liiga coach to get fired this season. In addition, Tappara Tampere has its third coach of the season in Sami Hirvonen, as Mikko Saarinen resigned in May, and his successor, Petri Mattila did the same just days before the regular season opener.

The reigning champion, Turku TPS, was the first club to pull the plug on their coach. Heikki Leime, who took over from Kai Suikkanen, who left for the KHL after the SM-liiga title, was fired in October when TPS was dead last in the standings and was in a 13-game losing streak.

(Suikkanen, by the way, was fired in early November in Yaroslavl.)

Maybe it was TPS’s decision to fire Leime that inspired the Pelicans Lahti to fire their head coach, Mika Toivola. The Pelicans had lost only five in a row, but also just four out of 15 when the club sent him packing.

Last season, three SM-liiga clubs fired their coaches. This year, the toll is four, and a couple of coaches may be nervous every time they get a call from their GM.

Firing the coach is not an unusual move by any means, even if the Swedish Elitserien still has the same 12 head coaches behind the bench as in the opening round games. (One GM has resigned, though). Every time a coach signs a long-term contract with a club, the management always stresses the importance of being patient, and building something big in the long-term.

Partly the coaches are vulnerable because it’s practically impossible to trade players in Finland – the clubs can only add new players, an expensive exercise, but also the one most clubs do first.

Kekäläinen had signed two defencemen, a goalie, and two forwards before axing Jortikka. Kärpät had signed three new forwards and a defenceman. Even TPS had added a couple of defencemen to their roster between the season start and the day that Leime was let go.

And if there still are no wins, or fewer wins than expected, the hammer falls on the coach.

It’s not the end of the world, though. Most often, they can still find work in hockey, in some capacity, like Alatalo, who’s now the development director at Lukko, or Toivola, who did TV work before signing with Pelicans.

Meanwhile, the musical chairs continue, and like in the old “Candid Camera” TV show, the coach shouldn’t be surprised if sometime, somewhere, someplace when he least expects it, someone steps up to his and says, smile! You’re hired!

To be fired.

  • The Finnish federation retired Raimo Helminen’s Team Finland number 14 in a ceremony held during the Karjala Cup. Helminen, with most national team games in the world on his record, 331, thanked his family, his teammates, and the fans, before his banner was raised next to Jari Kurri’s number 17 to the rafters of the Hartwall Arena.
  • Mikael Granlund is still suffering from post-concussion symptoms, and may not be able to play in the World U20 Championship in Buffalo. His HIFK coach, Kari Jalonen, was quoted in the Finnish media, saying, “he won’t be able to play before Christmas”.
  • Granlund was concussed in mid-October, when he tried to check an opponent, but missed and hit his face on the Plexiglass. He returned to the game and scored in a penalty shootout, but started to feel the symptoms afterwards.
  • Antti Pihlström, JYP, is on an eight-game point streak, the longest in the SM-liiga this season. He had seven goals and three assists in eight games and he scored five of those goals in four consecutive games.




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