HELSINKI – Ten days ago, in a Helsinki derby between HIFK and Jokerit, in the last seconds of Jokerit’s power play, Jokerit’s Semir Ben-Amor checked HIFK’s Ville Peltonen from behind, and when Peltonen was scrambling to get up, launched into an attack, hitting Peltonen several times. Peltonen suffered a concussion.
It was the second game of a back-to-back pre-season series that was filled with fights between these two teams. Just two minutes into the first period, HIFK’s Ilari Melart attacked Jokerit’s Jarkko Ruutu. Five minutes later, Ben-Amor jumped Peltonen, and several other fights broke out simultaneously.
Before the first period was over, there had been a few other fights, and HIFK’s Melart, Mikko Jokela, Juuso Salmi and coach Pasi Sormunen had been sent to the dressing room. Jokerit had lost Ben-Amor, Jani Rita, Ossi Väänänen and coach Tomi Lämsä.
In the second period, they were joined by HIFK’s Siim Liivik and Jokerit’s Ruutu.
The management of the European Trophy, a pre-season competition, handed Ben-Amor a five-game suspension, while Melart received a two-game suspension and Rita, Ruutu, Jokela, Liivik, and Salmi a one-game suspension, but the attack on Peltonen stirred up emotions in Finland.
The police announced it would investigate Ben-Amor’s act as an assault on Peltonen and a few days later, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association and the league announced that the SM-liiga’s disciplinary committee would also take a look at the game, since the teams in question were SM-liiga teams.
“The problem was that we didn’t really know whose responsibility this was, it being a pre-season game, but we’ll learn from that,” SM-liiga CEO Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen said to YLE on Tuesday.
“Our concerns were raised after last season’s Pelicans vs. HIFK game [in which the two teams collected 439 penalty minutes for fighting] so before this season, we gave the disciplinarian a bigger mandate, and we introduced stiffer suspensions for all matters that involve players safety,” said Vuorinen.
Meanwhile, a national debate on hockey violence was raging in the media. Whose decision was it to attack Peltonen? Did Ben-Amor act on his own, or did the coaches send him to do it? But also, is fighting a part of the game and do people understand or even care about the “code”?
“I’ve tried to tell people who don’t follow hockey closely that this is simply a game where emotions run high,” Vuorinen said on Tuesday.
“We make mistakes, just like people everywhere, but to start handing out long suspensions to get rid of fighting... we don’t want to totally change the game,” he added.
Nine hours before the disciplinary committee announced its decision, Iltasanomat, a Finnish evening paper, published on its website a video showing what took place on the Jokerit bench seconds before Ben-Amor hit Peltonen. The paper said it had used an audio specialist to filter out what was said on the bench, and deducted that Jokerit had pulled a player, Aleksi Mustonen, back to the bench, and sent Ben-Amor out instead when they saw that Peltonen hit the ice.
Somebody also yelled, according to the paper’s audio specialist, instructions to “kill” Peltonen.
On Tuesday, the league announced that Ben-Amor was suspended for 18 games. Juuso Salmi (HIFK) was suspended for 12 games, Melart (HIFK) six games, Liivik (HIFK) six games. Jokerit’s Jarkko Ruutu was suspended for four games, and his teammate Väänänen for one game. The SM-liiga has a 60-game regular season.
Jokerit was fined €40,000, HIFK €25,000. The coaches, Pasi Sormunen of HIFK as well as Tomi Lämsä and Tomek Valtonen of Jokerit, got an eight-game suspension.
“As a whole, these are the toughest suspensions in league history,” said Vuorinen.
“A player is always responsible for his actions. If we get more evidence on the coaches’ roles, the league can always get back to it,” he added.
Jokerit GM Jarmo Kekäläinen said his organization will have to take a long look in the mirror and learn from this.
“This shouldn’t happen. Sure there’s pressure but that shouldn’t be an excuse to go out and hurt people, or use language that some tapes show that we have used. We don’t approve that, as an organization,” he said, but added that both coaches will be back behind the bench after they’ve served their suspensions.
Jokerit also published a message from chairman Harry Harkimo on the club’s website, in which he denounced all acts of violence.
“Hockey is a game that embraces checking and toughness, but acts of violence are not a part of it,” he said.
An hour later, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest daily, announced on Tuesday that they wouldn’t renew their sponsorship deal with Jokerit.
“We don’t want to sponsor something that’s in full conflict with our values and goals,” said editor-in-chief Mikael Pentikäinen.
The Finnish league has had its share of controversies in recent years, and many believe and hope that the most recent incident works as a wake-up call.
“We need to end this nonsense,” said the Finnish association’s chairman and IIHF Vice President Kalervo Kummola.
The SM-liiga kicks off on Thursday with four games. One of them is HIFK vs. Jokerit.