HELSINKI – Finnish Alpo Suhonen has done everything in hockey. He won a Finnish title as a player in 1971, but just five years later he was a head coach in the Finnish elite league, and another two years later, he was the head coach of Finland’s under-18 national team that beat the mighty Soviet Union in a European Championship final in Helsinki.
He was just 29.
He’s won two Swiss championships with Kloten, he was an assistant coach in Winnipeg, he was the Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach for two seasons before becoming the Chicago Blackhawks head coach, the first European head coach in the NHL. He then returned to Europe, coached in Finland, and in Switzerland, and returned to Kloten as the GM.
He’s also an art lover, he skipped military service in Finland and opted for a civil service - something that was frowned upon in the 1970s - he’s directed plays, he’s been the director of the Turku City Theater, and the CEO of the Pori Jazz festival. He's an author, and a Finnish Hockey Hall of Famer.
And most recently, after a recent reorganization of the Austrian Ice Hockey Association, Suhonen is Austria’s director of hockey.
“I’m in charge of everything that has to do with the sports part of the operations, from the men’s national team to all the junior national teams, to coaches’ training and education. I’m also the sports director of the Austrian Hockey Board, a joint organization for the league and the federation,” Suhonen says.
Now his task is simple. On paper at least. Suhonen is in Vienna to help take Austrian hockey to the next level, and to build the foundation of the nation’s game.
“The first thing we have to do is get the foundation right, and to work with the structure. We already have the pro league, which is international [with teams from Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, and the Czech Republic], and now we also have an international under-20 league, and later an under-18 league. We’ll also build a good second-tier league, which will also be international,” he says.
But in the long term, the growth must come from within. If Suhonen gets his way - and he’s used to getting his way - Austria will no longer be a part of a retirement plan for North American players.
“This year’s tournament is the first one in which Austria doesn’t have any naturalized Austrians on the team, no players with two passports. That’s a line we’ve drawn. Also, from now on, all coaches will be Austrian,” Suhonen says.
But while Suhonen is the GM of the Austrian team in Helsinki, his focus is not as much on today as it is on tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
“Realistically, the biggest work we have to do is with the kids that are 13 or 14 now. That’s when you have to start to work on your talent. There’s no replay button in life, so you have to work on what you have – work hard, and work right.
“The amount of hockey talent doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t have the physique to back it up, to play high-quality hockey for two hours. That’s when you can just play,” he says.
“We need talented players, we need good Austrian coaches, we need to amp up the quantity of training, and we need to develop the infrastructure,” he adds.
Easier said than done. Fortunately for Suhonen, and Austria, it’s not just words on a presentation slide. Next season will mark the start of a four-year project to which the organization’s main sponsor will invest four million euro, a million per year, and Suhonen plans to use some of that to find coaches for the national teams.
“That’s for the national teams from under-20 and down. The big problem we have is that our under-20 national team is in Division I, and our under-18 team in the Division II. The day our junior national teams are the top division, we’ll be what Switzerland is today,” Suhonen says.
“There are players on the Swiss team now that I coached in Kloten, and they were in the teens when their project started,” he adds.
While getting the foundation of the game right is important, it’s also time-consuming. Getting coaches educated, finding the talents, working with them, bringing up the junior national teams, it all takes time.
“In the short term, which is four years now, we hope to get the structure right and everything to work: the coaches, the young players’ training, off-ice training,” Suhonen says.
Also in the short-term, Suhonen, 64, will try to make himself redundant. He knows he’s in Austria to kickstart something good, but if he’s successful, well, why have a Finnish executive head the sports department?
How did he end up in Austria anyway?
“They called me up and asked me if I was interested in this. I think they had asked about me, and decided that I had the right qualities for the job. The president of the federation said they chose me because I’m experienced and stubborn,” he says.
“You know, I’m a bit of an anarchist,” he adds, after a pause.