HELSINKI – Finnish hockey fans best not blink, because the stars on the ice will be gone tomorrow. Either to the NHL or other leagues in Europe – or to retirement. A career Finnish leaguer is almost a thing of the past. Anybody who’s anybody – or close to it – will, at some point, make a run at other European leagues.
“It’s a bit of a concern for the Finnish league that they’re losing the top players,” Ilari Filppula told IIHF.com at the AHL All-Star game recently.
And not only to the NHL and the AHL. There are 33 Finnish players in the Swedish Elitserien this season. There are seven Finns in Switzerland. And 17 in the Russian KHL. That’s close to three full teams playing in those European leagues.
“It’s something to think about,” says Filppula.
It is something Finnish hockey people have been thinking about. The level of play has been a source of frustration to many, especially reporters, for years. But there’s not much they can do about it. Money makes the world go around, and of the major European hockey nations, Finland is the smallest. Not the poorest, just smallest.
The biggest stars of the SM-liiga this year are either youngsters like Joel Armia, Mikael Granlund, Teemu Pulkkinen, and Sami Vatanen – all four still teenagers – or veterans returning home, like Ville Peltonen. Among the league’s leading scorers are Perttu Lindgren back in Finland after a stint in the Dallas organization, Peltonen, 37, a second-generation HIFKer returning to his alma mater, Eric Perrin, 35, back with JYP where he played in 2002-03, before signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Jesse Niinimäki, 28, a former first-round pick in the NHL entry draft, trying to rescue a career.
“The Finnish SM-liiga is currently a development league, if you compare it to the top leagues that have more money,” says SM-liiga CEO Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen.
“We can’t compete with financial incentives, but measured by many criteria – not all, but many – the clubs, the organizations, and coaching are world class,” he adds.
You may think that for a development league, SM-liiga isn’t showing all too impressive results. At least if you look at how the NHL clubs have drafted Finns. In the last five years, only two Finns have gone in the first round: Mikael Granlund in 2010, 9th overall, and Riku Helenius in 2006, 15th overall.
But that’s only part of the truth, as few 18-year-olds have cracked the SM-liiga lineup. Every year, there’s a late-bloomer who finds his game, gets the attention of an NHL executive – or the head coach of Team Finland – and takes his game to another level. A few years ago it was Ville Leino, who won the league MVP award as a 24-year-old in 2008, before signing with the Detroit Red Wings.
Don’t forget that goaltender Tim Thomas was 31, and getting ready for another season in Finland, for his third team there, when he signed with the Boston Bruins. And now he’s a Vezina winner.
The problem for SM-liiga is that even though, for example, Helenius is already back in Europe, he’s playing for Södertälje in the Elitserien in Sweden.
The pay is better, and it may be exciting for a young player to live in another country for a while.
Still, the Finns, and the league hang on. In the European cup competitions, played under different formats and names in the 21st century, an SM-liiga team made the final in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Espoo Blues played in the Champions Hockey League semifinal in 2008-09. The leading Blues scorer was Sami Ryhänen with five points in five games. He ranked 18th among all players in the CHL.
“I think the Finnish league teams are better coached in their offensive play (than the Elitserien teams),” says Tommi Kerttula, CEO of Totalscouting, a company behind an advanced scouting tool.
“Don’t misunderstand me. There are great plays in Elitserien as well, but they’re probably more a result of the skills of an individual player than a systematic structure of the team’s offence,” he wrote on his blog on the SM-liiga website after his recent scouting trip to Sweden.
The Finnish hockey business is not huge. The combined turnover of the 14 SM-liiga clubs is about €78 million, not enough to crack the Top 500 companies list in Finland. The clubs get about half of their income from sponsorship deals and a third from the gate.
The average attendance in Finland’s SM-liiga this season is 4,789, a respectable number. Sure it’s down 200 from last year and about 500 since the league’s heyday in the late 1990s when the Hartwall Areena was new.
(Everything is relative, of course. The average attendance in Finland’s major junior league is 170.)
Even attendance is a bit of a good news, bad news story. The good news is that the attendance has been fairly steady over the years. In fact, in 1974-75, the year before the foundation of SM-liiga, a new league, the average attendance in the highest division in Finland was 4,231.
The bad news is, of course, that the attendances haven’t grown more than that in 40 years. The business has grown thanks to the bigger sponsorship and TV deals, and the fact that the number of games has almost doubled, from 36 in 1975 to 60 this regular season, and from no playoffs to a ten-team strong post-season.
Whether the hockey fans in Finland consider their beer glasses half full or half empty, for the clubs, the most important thing is that everybody’s bought one.
The good news is that hockey – and SM-liiga – has a place in the heart of Finland. If they play, they will come.