LAHTI, Finland – There’s not a fan, or a GM, or a coach in the world, who doesn’t think their team gets better over the summer. The young players have matured; the veterans have… matured like good wine. Their test results show that they’re in the best physical shape ever.
Most of them are in for a disappointment, because building a team, and turning things around is very, very difficult.
That’s why the Lahti Pelicans’ success this year is so astounding. Last year the Pelicans collected 17 wins in their 60 games, finished 14th in a 14-team strong SM-liiga, and ended the season by playing for the spot in the top division against the winner of the Mestis, Vaasa Sport.
This season is a different story. Right now, Pelicans is second in the standings, one point behind KalPa, but with a game in hand. They have a 13-4-2 record in their 19 games, their goals for (62) is third highest in the league and their goals against (32) the lowest.
Goaltender Niko Hovinen was a member of Team Finland last season, and has taken another step forward. His 93.71 save percentage is fifth in the league. Ryan Lasch, the team’s leading scorer is sixth in league scoring with 18 points in 19 games.
Excellent, but not mind-blowing.
For example, HIFK Helsinki has two players with ten goals in 18 games. Of the 15 HIFK players who have scored this season, nine have scored two or less.
The Pelicans’ leading goal scorer Max Wärn has seven in 18 games, but of their 17 goal scorers this season, just six have two or less.
Somehow, the Pelicans get the job done together.
Compared to last season, it’s like it’s a different team. And with nine new players - four of their top five leading scorers this season among them - and a new head coach in Kai Suikkanen, it sure is.
But it almost didn’t happen. The Lahti team had already shook hands on a deal with HIFK coach Kari Jalonen in January, but during the playoffs, Jalonen told Pelicans GM Ilkka Kaarna that he wouldn’t be signing with them after all. Kaarna, outraged, threatened to sue Jalonen for breach of contract.
“We can prove that Jalonen has acted on our behalf since January, this is an open and shut case,” he told Finnish media.
Six days later, Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod announced that it had signed Jalonen to a two-year-deal. Later on the same day, the Pelicans announced their signing of Suikkanen to a one-year-deal.
Suikkanen, a former Team Finland player, with one World Championship and one Olympic tournament on his record, is the hottest coach, or hockey personality, in Finland. Anything he touches now, turns to gold.
After he retired from playing in 1991, celebrating the Finnish championship with Jalonen, Suikkanen left the game and joined the organization of Oulu Lippo, the Finnish pesäpallo - a baseball-like game - team in his hometown.
What was supposed to be a couple of years, turned into seven, and another business venture followed that. And then hockey came calling back. First it was just a nagging thought in the back of his mind, but finally, he couldn’t resist it anymore and in 2003, eight years ago, and 12 years after his retirement from the game, he called Kärpät Oulu to see if they organized coaching classes. They asked him to become assistant coach for the major junior team.
A year later, he went further up north, all the way to the Arctic Circle to be the coach of the Rovaniemi team in Finland’s third division. Two years as a head coach who did everything, he decided he was ready to try his hand on the next level, and took over Kajaani Hokki in Mestis, the second-highest division in Finland.
Hokki won the Mestis title in his first year.
The year after that, they went back to the final, but lost the best-of-five series to Turku TuTo in four.
And the year after that, just a couple of months into the season, he got a call from TPS Turku. Head coach Hannu Virta, also a member of the 1991 championship team, was fired, and Suikkanen took over the team that had won just six of their first 18 games. Suikkanen’s team collected 15 wins in the remaining 40 games, and grabbed the last wild card spot in the playoffs, finishing tenth.
The year after that, TPS finished sixth in the standings, but went on to win it all, as the first team ever to do so after finishing lower than fifth in the regular season.
Suikkanen signed a two-year deal with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL in 2010, but was fired in October. In May, he charmed the people of Finland as an analyst for YLE at the IIHF World Championship which Finland won. Pelicans owner, and goaltending coach Pasi Nurminen was one the team’s assistant coaches.
Then it was time for Suikkanen to get to work with Pelicans, and - voilà - the team won 11 of their 13 pre-season games.
“It’s a little bit comical, but flattering, that people seriously think that last year’s last-place team could finish in the top 4, or top 6. It’s not realistic,” Suikkanen said in September.
But there they are, sitting on top of the SM-liiga standings, as the number 1 team in the league. The expectations are getting higher in Lahti, a city that has never seen the local team, under any name, finish higher than fifth in the SM-liiga.
There’s magic in the air.
- Riku Helenius, 23, has had a few rough years. In 2008, he played in the World Juniors, then signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and played for five different teams in three different leagues in 2008-09. After a year and a half in Sweden, Helenius is back in Finland, and seems to be finding his game again. He’s recorded three straight shutouts, and has a league-leading 1.46 goals against average in his nine games for JYP Jyväskylä.
- Ässät Pori’s Tomas Zaborsky has the lead in the goal scoring race with 15 goals in 20 games. His 20 points in 20 games are third most in the league. KalPa’s Matti Kuparinen is the SM-liiga’s leading scorer with 22 points in 20 games. Kuparinen was also named to Team Finland for the first Euro Hockey Tour tournament in Helsinki on Nov 10-13.
- Lahti Pelicans signed head coach Kai Suikkanen to a contract extension that will cover the 2012-2013 season.