MIERCUREA CIUC, Romania – Almost 20 years since making Malmö the top team of the continent, Timo Lahtinen returns to European club competition in Transylvania where the Finnish disciplinarian has found hockey values close to his heart – with an adventurous twist.
"In Sweden and Finland only money talks these days. The rich teams are winning, the poor ones are stuck at the bottom. Here you can teach something out to your players, and they are ready to work hard with no complaints, so it's an interesting place to work in," says Timo Lahtinen, head coach of HSC Csikszereda ahead of the first round of the Continental Cup, played on home ice in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania, between 28-30 September 2012.
For a three-time championship-winning coach of Sweden's Elitserien and with a European Cup trophy to boot, Miercura Ciuc might be miles away from the bright lights of the top divisions of Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Germany where Lahtinen previously plied his trade. But following four years out of the game, the pressing matter on his mind when he first set his foot in the coldest town in Romania at the end of 2008 was if he still had the winner inside him?
The answer wasn't long in coming. Winning 30 games in the regular season and ending the playoffs undefeated to guide Miercurea Ciuc to the inaugural Hungarian/Romanian Championship, the MOL Liga in the 2008-09 season, was a testament that the Tampere-born coach had not lost an iota of the competiveness. That had been the driving force throughout his illustrious career.
Impressed by the players' work ethic and eagerness to learn from a seasoned professional, the Finn vowed to return, until Miercurea Ciuc folded during the post-season of 2009 which postponed the Finn's second coming to Transylvania for another three years.
That the coaching abilities of Lahtinen trickled to Romanian's coldest town and earmarked him as the prime candidate to steer a newly started club to instant success, can partly be explained by the increased globalization and convergence of the hockey world.
Another important factor was the Finn's international outlook, nurtured already during his playing days when the left-sided forward not only ventured to southern Europe, but also became a South African champion in 1975.
"I was in Italy at the time, when a Canadian player told me about his experiences playing hockey in South Africa. So I sat down, wrote to the club and sent away the letter for Johannesburg," he says on how the Finnish lion became a Jungle Jet, an eye-opening experience blighted by the segregation in the country.
"The apartheid at the time was terrible, it was really hard times for South Africa," he says, recalling buses, shops and bars that were either available to you or not, depending on the colour of your skin.
"I also clearly remember one the janitors we had at the ice rink. I used to try and speak to him, but I could see on his face how scared he was to talk back to me."
Lahtinen's team, the Jungle Jets, consisting predominantly of Canadian players competed in a Johannesburg-based three-team league against the Swiss Bears and Holiday Inns, formed by players of Switzerland and Austria respectively.
Surprised by the interest for the sport and the quality of the players, Lahtinen's lasting ice hockey memories from South Africa are enough to fill a book – including a bizarre post-match incident which nearly ended up in a tragedy for an opponent.
Lahtinen recalls: "We were losing a league match, but somehow managed to rally back and turn the game in spectacular fashion. The next day I bought the local paper and found a story about a player that had been shot during an ice hockey game in Johannesburg. It was then I realised it was the very same game I had played in."
The details of the incident remains murky. It appears that straight after the game, a man connected with the losing team had entered the locker-room of the opponents of the Jungle Jets. The pen gun the man had been holding in his hand accidentally dropped to the floor, making it to go off and strike a bullet to the side of the throat of one of the players.
"I went to see the player in question at the hospital, but he didn't want to talk about what had happened," says Lahtinen. "Luckily he recovered from the surgery he required and then finished playing hockey altogether, and by now I assume the matter is prescribed."
With the short South African hockey season coming to an end, Lahtinen returned to Italy for a brief stint at Cortina, then a regular winter haunt in North America, before southern Sweden awaited in the late 1970s, which has since been his adopted home and also where he tasted most success in his coaching career.
Diligently building up a reputation as an up-and-coming coach, with a meticulous eye for detail and a firm believer in hard graft, the self-confessed advocate of disciplined hockey became a Swedish championship winner with Södertälje in 1985.
He was then instrumental in Malmö's phenomenal success, when he during his five seasons at the helm of the club. He guided his adepts from the second tier to two Swedish championships in 1992 and 1994 and an European Cup trophy as he formed a highly-effective unit from a group of players with undoubted individual skills.
"It was the best time of my coaching life, and we had a fantastic team, perhaps one of the best in European hockey ever, with guys like Raimo Helminen, Robert Svehla, Peter Lindmark, Mats Näslund, Mikko Mäkela and Peter Andersson," he says.
Departing for Lugano in Switzerland following Malmö's second Swedish championship, reaching the same unprecedented heights as he did in Southern Sweden was always going to be hard to equal or surpass. A promising start at Stockholm club AIK was followed by short stints at Jokerit Helsinki in Finland and Kölner Haie in Germany before his last high-profile job at Södertälje in Elitserien ended barely midway through the 2004-05 season.
In July 2012, more than three years after Lahtinen first left Miercurea Ciuc, he made his return, this time signing up with HSC Csikszereda, previously called SC Miercurea Ciuc, with proud roots dating back to 1929.
With a roster of predominately local players and an increased emphasis to try and give promising juniors a chance to shine on the first team, Lahtinen has so far been impressed by the increased quality of the seven-team MOL Liga, where the recent addition of a Slovak team, Ice Tigers Nove Zamky, has given the former Hungarian/Romanian league an extra competive edge.
"The MOL Liga has improved by 40 per cent since I last coached here. The teams are better, the players are individually more skilled and the situation is far different than it was back in 2009," says Lahtinen, who also sees reaching the next round of the Continental Cup as an important step for his players to gain more experience from competitive games against foreign opponents.
"We will be playing seven matches in ten days, and the Continental Cup will be at the end of this intensive schedule. But it is a very, very important tournament for us and for our progress and we are giving it all," says Lahtinen.
The first round of the Continental Cup is played at the Vakar Lajos Ice Hall in Miercurea Ciuc, Romania, 28-30 September 2012.
The tournament winner from the participating teams – HSC Csikszereda (Romania), Vitez Belgrade (Serbia), Baskent Yildizlari Ankara (Turkey) and Maccabi Metulla (Israel) – will advance to the second round, played in Landshut, Germany, 19-21 October 2012.Click here for the schedule of the event.