VIERUMÄKI, Finland – Finland follows the example of the U.S. program for young male players in Ann Arbor and centralizes young female players in Kuortane. They’re not the only ones to use such a tool for their elite women’s hockey players.
The goal of the programs is the same. Bring prospects together and have them practise and play at a higher level against better opponents than in their category’s league to accelerate their development while offering them education. Being together may also have the nice side effect of more medals at the international level.
The United States’ National Team Development Program operates an under-18 and an under-17 team in men’s hockey. The result in the last six years: five gold medals and a silver in the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
In Finland it’s girls coming together in Kuortane, a 4,000-soul village in western Finland mostly known for the Sports Institute. They go to high school, work together in practice and play as Team Kuortane in the top female senior league SM-sarja where they had a 19-19 record. They also play exhibition games against boys’ teams.
Two girls who already played for Kuortane last season are also at the 2014 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp in Vierumäki.
“I have been one year in Kuortane. I like it. It helps me and everything is near from each other. You don’t lose time between going to school, to practice, home,” said goalkeeper Anni Keisala from Lohja.
“I’ve been in Kuortane for two years now. Everything is close together and we have a good time together in our team. We have a good team and a great group,” said Reetta Lindholm, a defender from Vihti.
In Kuortane they go three or four years to high school and make use of the sports institute that is also one of the training centres for the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.
“It’s an excellent spot. The players can go to school for three or four years and graduate. They have housing, they are able to practise as high-performance athletes, they have food, practices, three coaches,” said Arto Sieppi, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association’s director of coaching and responsible of high performance in female hockey.
The program is mostly funded by the association with the families paying part of the accommodation costs. Their head coach is Jari Risku, who is also the U18 women’s national team head coach. The strength and conditioning coach is Tommi Pärmäkoski, who left his job as personal trainer of Formula One World Champion Sebastian Vettel two years ago to work in Kuortane.
The inspiration came from men’s volleyball where Finland did the same step 12 years ago and had success, and from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor.
“It’s our high-performance program that started nine years ago and since 2010 in this form,” Sieppi said. “We heavily believe this is the Finnish way of helping young, committed athletes to combine school, normal life and high-performance practices.”
The girls have the challenge of playing against adult players. But they like to challenge the senior club teams.
“We are able to challenge the adults. For me getting the shots from them is like what I’m used to from playing against boys,” Keisala said.
Both for her and for Lindholm playing at the Olympics, winning a medal and playing college hockey in the U.S. is their dream in women’s hockey. Meanwhile they enjoy being in different teams mixed with top players from other countries at the 2014 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp and learning about off-ice practices and experiencing different drills.
“It’s always great to have new experience. We have a good spirit on our team. We are from many different countries and only two are native English speakers but everybody speaks a little bit English,” Lindholm said.
At the Olympic Winter Games the first players with the Kuortane experience were on the ice in Sochi. Sieppi hopes that six to ten players in PyeongChang 2018 will have gone through the system or started high school there.
The idea of bringing the best players of a category together and play better opponents is not new in women’s hockey. In some European countries with smaller women’s hockey communities it’s done through clubs in multi-national competitions including the IIHF European Women’s Champions Cup but also cross-border leagues.
In Slovakia a new project was started recently. After a centralization project with Slovan Bratislava had been stopped in 2012 a new project with the hockey club of the police, SKP Bratislava, and support from the Ministry of Interior over €130,000 per season has been launched. The team will play in the EWHL, an Austrian-based league that also includes teams from other neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Italy and Slovenia. The team will also play against U15 boys’ teams.
In Kazakhstan the best players have always been with Aisulu Almaty, which is virtually unchallenged in the domestic league and will now also join the EWHL as a guest team that will play all games on the road due to the long distances to the central European countries.
Hungary wants to go the same direction and have a centralized rather than a regular club team in the EWHL as of the 2015/2016 season.
However, the biggest and costliest centralization projects are those at the very top level, for national teams. That’s what Hockey Canada and USA Hockey do during Olympic seasons with exhibition games against international opponents and boys teams and to a certain extent also Russia. Sieppi thinks about a Finnish answer to this.
“We have to figure it out what will be the Finnish way. We know Canada and the U.S. will be going to centralize anyway and that many countries do good work for women’s high performance,” Sieppi said.
“We don’t have to do it the same way Canada or the U.S. do. They can pay their players salaries. We have to find the Finnish way and how many days we have to be together, whether they need to live together or can stay home from time to time.”
The challenge in most European countries apart from Russia is that most players are dependent on earning their income outside of hockey or that they’re studying. But the Finns want to find their way to do better than the fifth-place finish in Sochi and go back to medal standard.
“Most of our players are working, have full-time jobs, have families, babies and normal lives. We have to respect that and can’t force anybody but we only have three-and-a-half years before the Games start so we need to start planning it now and the players and staff who is dedicated know that it will come,” Sieppi said.
“We have to make sure that all the players who are willing and able to go to the 2018 Games are able to practise and play and live like high-performance athletes. If they don’t have that opportunity it will be a very high task to get a medal in 2018.”