KUOPIO, Finland – Every fall, in every league, there are different media polls of which of the coaches will get fired first. This season, KalPa Kuopio beat the media by canning their head coach, Tuomas Tuokkola, two weeks before the regular season opener.
Last season, Tuokkola, 32, led the Kuopio team to the top of the regular season standings, but in the playoffs, the team got ousted in the first round, despite having a 3-0 lead against the Espoo Blues. With the Game 7 on home ice, no less.
Maybe that sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of the management, and going 0-2-2 in their first four pre-season games didn’t help the situation. On Tuesday, KalPa CEO Kimmo Kapanen announced that Tuokkola had been dismissed, and on Wednesday, his successor was introduced to the media.
“The board felt that their expectations for the season weren’t in line with what they saw happening so the decision [to dismiss Tuokkola] was made,” Kapanen said.
What made the decision all the more interesting is the fact that one of the board members is the majority owner Sami Kapanen, also the team’s captain.
Kimmo Kapanen didn’t have to look far to find the new coach, though, because Jari Laukkanen, the new head coach, was already standing behind the bench, as Tuokkola’s assistant. While he was surprised with the news of Tuokkola getting fired, he was just as ready to step up.
“I spoke about it with Tuomas and when he said that the management might offer the job to me, he also said I should absolutely take it,” Laukkanen told IIHF.com.
So he did.
Laukkanen, a fairly unknown name to the general public, says he’s up to the task. Even though he’s a rookie as a head coach in the SM-liiga, at 45, his time has come. As a player, he was a member of the 1987 Finnish under-20 national team that made Finnish hockey history by winning the nation’s first World Junior Championship. He also won the Finnish junior league scoring title, but had a hard time cracking the lineup of his club HIFK Helsinki.
Hard work is what Laukkanen is all about. As a boy growing up in Finland, he was just as talented a distance runner as he was a hockey player, and when it was time to train, it was time to train. Rain or shine.
“I don’t think we’re made of sugar,” he’d quote his father.
Laukkanen took the long way to the top as a player, carefully chipping away until all obstacles were gone. When he couldn’t make the HIFK roster, he spent a year in the second-tier league, and tore it up, scoring 55 points in 44 games – and then signed with HIFK.
After a couple of years back in his hometown, he found a home in Kuopio where he went to the SM-liiga final with KalPa in 1991 (but lost to TPS Turku). After another five years in Helsinki, he ended up in Kärpät Oulu in the Finnish second-tier league, and in 2000, Laukkanen returned to SM-liiga as captain of Kärpät.
Just as he worked his way to the world junior team and to SM-liiga, he’s paid his dues in coaching, spending the last ten years working with Kärpät’s juniors. In 2010, in his fifth year as head coach of the Kärpät under-20 team, Laukkanen coached his team to the Finnish title, beating HIFK 3-1 in the best-of-five final series. Laukkanen was named the league’s Coach of the Year.
Just a year earlier, Laukkanen had told IIHF.com how much he enjoyed working with juniors, and that he wasn’t looking to coach in the SM-liiga. Maybe it was the gold medal that whetted his appetite for coaching in the pro leagues, because when he was asked to be Hannu Aravirta’s assistant in 2010 – after Kärpät had fired their head coach Mikko Haapakoski, Laukkanen’s former coaching partner in the juniors – he didn’t hesitate.
“Once I made the decision to open that door, obviously being a head coach in an SM-liiga team was something I wanted to do at some point,” he says.
“It was a good half season for me, to get back into the SM-liiga world and see what had changed since I played in the league. Also, working with an experienced coach like Aravirta was a great experience, and gave me a lot,” he adds.
His philosophy is fairly simple: There are no short cuts.
“The head coach is the face of everything, towards both the players and the media. The everyday coaching, planning it, running it, is the same everywhere, but obviously I’ll be the one who bears full responsibility now,” he says.
“It’s hard to break down the game to an atomic level, nobody does that. We have a system, and the players know what is expected of them, but the situations on the ice are fairly simple, and some players just solve them better than the others. It’s all about hard work,” he adds.
That’s his medicine for KalPa’s woes. Hard work.
And you know what helps the medicine go down?
A spoonful of sugar. On Thursday, KalPa beat JYP 5-2 in a pre-season game in Jyväskylä in their first game with Laukkanen behind the bench.