DONETSK – Only 19 but already in his fourth senior World Championship. A heavy shift will be required from Robert Rooba in Estonia's relegation decider with Lithuania for a place in next year's Division I.
Despite failing to clock up a win so far, newly promoted Estonia has been a breath of fresh air in this year's World Championship Division I Group B. Making up for their defensive frailties, the Baltic nation has stormed forward with relentless vigour and found goals easy to come by in their four games so far at the Druzhba Ice Palace in Donetsk.
Missing stalwarts such as lethal marksman Andrei Makrov and inspirational defenceman Lauri Lahesalu to name just two, Estonia have been looking for new heroes to step up and lead the line. One such player is Rooba, who made his senior World Championship debut for Estonia in 2010, and who today is the assistant captain while still being a teenager.
"We entered this tournament as a bit of outsiders. Everone expected to beat us with big scores, but that has not been the case," said the 191 cm and 93 kg Rooba ahead of their relegation showdown with their Baltic counterparts Lithuania during the final day in Donetsk. "I think we have done well, and we have a great feeling in the camp that there is nothing to lose."
Despite his tender age, Rooba is not only one of Estonia's natural leaders out on the ice, but also one that keeps the strong link between the sibling nations Estonia and Finland alive.
In early July 2011, Estonia arranged a homecoming of three of its finest hockey exports where the fruits of their labours were on show. On display inside a flash city centre hotel in the capital, Tallinn, were Finland's 2011 replica World Championship trophy, a 2010/2011 Finnish SM-liiga cup and that season's U18 Finland championship award. Accompanying the shiny accolades were its respective winners; Leo Komarov, Siim Liivik and Rooba – all three born in what today is Estonia.
They had all ventured down a well-beaten path following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Thanks to its geographical proximity and linguistic ties, Finland rapidly became a popular destination for Estonians following the Northern Baltic nation winning their independence back in 1991.
Komarov and Liivik are both schooled in Finnish hockey and have both represented their adopted country at various international levels after relocating to Finland in their formative years. Rooba began playing hockey in his native Tallinn, heavily inspired by his father Jüri, a former defenceman in the Estonian league who today also works as head coach of Estonia's U20 national team and HC Panter/Purikad in Estonia's top division, Meistriliiga.
In search for competitive matches, Rooba was part of an Estonian crop of juniors all born between 1992 and 1993 who regularly made the short hop across the Gulf of Finland to play in the Southern Finland junior leagues. Following two seasons in the Tallinn-based junior team Purikad, which also included Ken Kuusk, Jevgeni Missenjov and Maksim Borovikov who all play with Estonia in Donetsk, Rooba decided that his continued development would benefit from relocating to play in a foreign junior league.
"Many of my teammates started to try and find junior teams abroad, so I decided to give it a go too," Rooba said. "I went on a try out with the C-juniors of Kiekko-Espoo outside Helsinki, but already after the first day, the Espoo Blues approached me to tell me that I was in the wrong place and that I should come to them instead. After one week I made the decision that my next step would be playing for the Blues, so we decided to move to Finland and I've been there five years now."
Moving to the outskirts of Helsinki together with his father, Rooba joined one of the most highly acclaimed junior set-ups in Finland. Following two seasons with the Blues juniors, he was 16 when he received a call up from the Estonian senior national team, who were seeking promotion from the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division II Group B held on home ice in Narva.
Under the guidance of Finnish coach Ismo Lehkonen, a straight talker famous for blooding youngsters, Estonia vanquished their opponents on their road to promotion with Rooba scoring five points in five games in his senior world championship debut.
"I was a very young boy then and it will last in my memory for a long time. Lehkonen was a very demanding coach, but it was a great experience and I've learned a lot playing for a team that included many players that are no longer with the national team," he said.
Estonia and Lehkonen amicable parted after only one season. The Finnish coach had seeked to significantly raise the bar for Estonian hockey in a very short time. But with the Estonian federation not having the means to follow suit, they have since tried to rebuild hockey at their own pace. But with the financial resources being very different between Finnish and Estonian hockey it is a process that will take to implement one step at a time.
Across the waters, Rooba has been making similar steady progress since that first World Championship tournament four years ago. Winning the Finnish B-junior Finnish championship in 2010/11, the A-junior silver medal in Finland the same year as well as 2012/2013, he is now eager to aim higher ahead of next season when he will be joined at the Blues by the aforementioned Liivik, a 25-year-old 2010/2011 SM-liiga champion with HIFK Helsinki, who recently signed up with the Espoo club, while 20-year-old Riho Embrich, a Tallinn-born defenceman, will make the Estonian-born contingent around the first team of Blues to three.
"I've taken a small step at the time, making my way from C-juniors up towards the first team," he said. "What is left now is to get into the first team. Of course I would have hoped things would have gone a bit faster and that I would have played sooner in the SM-liiga, but that is not so easy when you are coming from Estonia and ending up in such a big hockey country as Finland," said Rooba, who has made the odd senior SM-liiga games for Blues since his debut last season and then joined Lahesalu, Vjatseslav Kulpin, Olle Sildre and Toivo Suursoo as the fifth Estonian territory-trained players featuring in the Finnish top division.
Rooba, who last summer attended an Igor Larionov hockey camp in North America with great success, was soon after invited to a Detroit Red Wings' prospect camp following the footsteps of Suursoo, the first Estonian-born and trained player so far to have been picked in the NHL entry draft as 283rd overall in 1994. He spent one full season in the AHL before returning to Europe to carve out the rest of his career.
But with Rooba still learning his trade, he now hopes to close the account on the current season on a high. A victory against Lithuania is required to ensure survival in the Division I Group B, a scenario Rooba believes is more than realistic for his team to achieve.
"We now need to improve our defensive side and not concede so many goals," said Rooba. "But we have a good attack with good goal scorers and we scored four goals in the first game against the Netherlands, which should be enough to win a game. I believe in our team."