TALLINN/LYONS – He’s Estonia’s best known player and a Detroit Red Wings draft pick. Now big things are expected from Toivo Suursoo in Lyons, a move which should benefit both parties.
“There seems to be a big interest for hockey in Lyons at the moment,” says Suursoo about the challenge that awaits him at Lyon Hockey Club, in Division 1, the second tier of the French ice hockey championships. “I will also have opportunities to help the coach during practice, which is something that interests me.”
35-year-old Suursoo, who has signed a one-year deal with the team from the Rhône-Alpes region, checked in for the pre-season camp in August with the French season getting underway in September. The Lyon HC, who last season had an average attendance of 2,654 at their 3,200-capacity home rink, Patinoire Charlemagne, is harbouring high hopes for this coming season where the qualities of the versatile Estonian, who’s able to play in both defence and attack, will be a very valuable addition.
“I was looking for a player to manage the young French and Canadian guys I have in the team, and Toivo will be one of the most experienced players we have had in this league, so he will be highly respected by his teammates and will bring top scoring quality to the group,” says Lyon head coach Pascal Margerit.
Being an ice hockey purist in Estonia can seem like an uphill struggle. Surrounded by countries, all of which are battling it out in the top division of the IIHF World Championship – Finland, Latvia and Russia – an envious glance over your shoulder on your more illustrious neighbours is inevitable. But with a population of only 1.3 million, sparse resources are available for hockey. It can be understandable that Estonia will be playing in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A and that only few players from the Baltic country have plied their trade in top European leagues.
Toivo Suursoo is the exception. Born in Tallinn in November 1975, he was 15 when he took a decision to leave family and friends behind when Moscow came calling.
“I spent almost my whole junior career in Tallinn. It was Soviet time back then, and I was part of a special hockey school, where we travelled a lot and played games against teams who are now in Ukraine, Belarus and Latvia,” Suursoo said.
Determined to make it in the game after moving to Moscow, Suursoo fought homesickness and finished his studies in his new environment whilst showing promise out on the ice with Krylia Sovietov, the team of the Air Force, that lodged him together with fellow aspiring youngsters who only had to think of “eating, sleeping and practising”.
The hard graft soon paid dividends. Suursoo made his debut in the Russian top division as a teenager during the 1993-94 season and soon caught the eyes of Detroit Red Wings, who picked the left sided forward in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft as 283rd overall, so far the only Estonian to have been drafted by an NHL team.
The opportunity to play across the Atlantic arose quicker than expected when Suursoo during the 1994-95 season was part of the Soviet Wings, the farm team of Krylia Sovietov, that was unsuccessfully touring North America, and went 1-14-2 against teams from the now defunct International Hockey League (IHL). Suursoo then returned back to Russia where he continued his development in the Krylia Sovietov ranks until 1996 when TPS Turku from Finland came calling.
“Russian hockey started to have its problems with money after the Soviet Union fell apart,” says Suursoo. “The level in Finland was much higher at the time, and with Vladimir Yurzinov coaching there, it was a big step for me.”
Yurzinov’s eye for detail, tactical knowledge and his murderously hard training regime had paid dividends in making TPS Turku a domestic and international powerhouse. Arriving to south-western Finland as a 20-year-old, Suursoo’s stock soon was on the rise. He became “Topi” with the supporters and although losing the SM-liiga final series in 1997 against Jokerit Helsinki, Suursoo had earlier that year played his part in TPS Turku’s defeat of Dynamo Moscow in the inaugural European Hockey League final played on home ice with Suursoo scoring in a 5-2 win.
“My best years were in Finland. We played a lot of games, but still we never had a day off during the season and often practised twice a day. To me Yurzinov was an ice hockey professor. He knew exactly what you needed to work on, and he had an eye for players that would work well together,” says Suursoo.
After leading TPS to a disappointed 5th-place finish in 1998, the legendary Russian coach opted for new pastures. Suursoo followed suit. On the back of a fine individual season, scoring 22 points in 38 regular SM-liiga games, North America was Suursoo’s next port of call. Or at least that’s what he thought at the time.
But the Detroit Red Wings organisation had other plans. A recent link-up deal at the time between the NHL team and Swedish club Malmö sent Suursoo back to Europe as the Swedes were looking for new blood to turn the tide on the club’s ailing fortunes. After two seasons in the Swedish Elitserien he decided to have a proper go in North America.
Suursoo signed a one year, two-way contract with the Detroit Red Wings organization for the 2000-01 season and he headed to the AHL and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, who at the time were coached by an up-and-coming Mike Babcock. With 26 points in 51 AHL matches, Suursoo soon realized that playing in the NHL was never going to be more than just a dream.
"Maybe if another team had drafted me, it would have been easier to make it over there. To get a place in the first three lines of the Red Wings was impossible at that time, and I am not even the big guy who can fight, so claiming a place like that was going to be hard too.”
Returning back to Sweden for spells at Luleå and a second coming at Malmö, Suursoo clocked up a total of 165 games in the highly competitive Elitserien, before venturing east to Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in Russia. Since then Suursoo has continued to travel widely across the hockey world, playing in the Russian Far East with Amur Khabarovsk and Keramin Minsk in Belarus while also becoming two-time champion in Denmark and winning the Latvian top division once, to name just a few ports of call for Suursoo this century. Lyons will officially be the 18th team that Suursoo has played for in his pro career.
Suursoo hopes to return to his native Estonia, to try and inject the game with a much needed boost utilizing his wealth of experience at the top level. He admits that his relation to Estonia and its ice hockey federation has been thorny at times. He made his IIHF World Championship debut in the Division I in Slovenia in 2001 as a 25-year-old when Estonia finished bottom. But playing in bigger leagues with long, hard seasons often took its toll and the fear of picking up an injury kept Suursoo away from many IIHF World Championships, as did the feeling of not being welcome, something he feels has changed of late.
“When I was younger and doing well with my hockey, I felt many of the older players in the national team didn’t want me on the team. I wasn’t interested in negativity and listen to things going on behind my back, so I decided not to come. But as time has changed and with a lot more younger guys around there is a different chemistry in the team now.”
Suursoo returned to wear the blue-black-white colours of Estonia for their return to the IIHF World Championship Division I played in Kyiv in April. A tough group saw the Northern Baltic country return home with five straight defeats and dropping down to next year’s Division II Group A.
“After the World Championship in Kyiv I told the Estonian federation I would be happy to help them out,” says Suursoo. The Estonians will battle for promotion back to Division I next April in Reykjavik, Iceland.