Estonia celebrates steady progress
by Andy Potts|01 MAY 2022
Estonia's captain Robert Rooba applauds the fans after his team's game against Japan in Division IB in Tychy.
photo: Michal Chwieduk
Estonia is one of the quiet success stories of world hockey. Far from the biggest nation in the sport, the Baltic state has consolidated its position in Division IB in recent years. Under the guidance of head coach Jussi Tupamaki, in post since 2015, the team got to within one game of gold in Kaunas in 2018. This time, it played for bronze in Tychy.

In the end, Sunday's game against Ukraine ended in a heavy loss and the Estonians finished in fourth. However, the outcome did not entirely reflect a tournament that included battling losses against Poland and Japan, plus a win over Serbia - and all with a much-changed roster. The country’s all-time leading scorers, Andrei Makrov and Alexander Petrov, have retired and a combination of injuries and other issues prompted Estonia to hand World Championship debuts to 11 players here.

And, in the absence of Makrov and Petrov, there are new leaders on the team.

Robert Rooba, 28, is captain of his country for the first time in Tychy. He’s one of just a handful of full-time professionals on the team and last summer he became the first Estonian player to feature in the KHL when he joined Severstal Cherepovets. He was quickly joined by Kristjan Kombe, his line-mate on the national team, who had a handful of games for Jokerit Helsinki. In addition, Robert Arrak and Vadim Vasjonkin played under Tupamaki in Poland with Torun this season, but the rest of the team largely comes from the semi-pro national championship or the lower levels of Swedish or Finnish hockey.

Rooba believes in leading by example. He tops Estonia’s scoring with four goals and, perhaps more importantly, he’s carved himself a career at a high level. His KHL experience was prefaced by several years in Finland, including a Champions Hockey League win with JYP.

“I hope I’m a good example that you can come from Estonia and, if you put in all the hard work, you can get somewhere in the hockey world,” Rooba said. “We are a very small hockey country and there aren’t many of us playing professional hockey, so I’m just trying to set an example for the younger guys. I want to show them that everything is possible, and they just need to work hard and believe in themselves.”

Not all of Rooba’s advice draws on traditional hockey wisdom. Multi-lingual – he speaks Estonian, Finnish, English and Russian – he also urges young players to stick with their studies, knowing that language skills can open doors to valuable opportunities outside of Estonia. 

And language skills undoubtedly helped to make the transition to the KHL. He admits that it was new learning curve, taking him out of a comfort zone in Finland. Helping unfancied Severstal make the play-offs proved a memorable experience, even if he ultimately missed that post season campaign when he left Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.

“It was an interesting year,” Rooba said. “It was a huge dream for me to play one day in the KHL. Of course, everything changed at the end of the season and that’s a sad way for it to finish. 

“But from a hockey point of view, it was a great experience to play there; it’s always great when dreams come true.”

For Tupamaki, too, his captain’s progress makes a big difference on Team Estonia.

“This is the most important thing right now [for Estonian hockey]: where do the players work on a day-to-day basis?” he said. “Right now, the biggest thing is finding good places for our talented young guys to play.
“I have a couple on my team here in Poland and that was always a big thing for me to get to develop them. But right now, the most important thing is to get them into good leagues, whether that’s the youth leagues in Finland or Sweden, or as pros.”

It’s a slow process, but the results are starting to show. Instead of coming to Division IB looking anxiously at the relegation trap door, Estonia now believes it can compete at this level.

“It’s a really big step forward,” Tupamaki added. “We have 11 first timers here at this tournament and we’ve been competitive in every game. I think that shows we have made progress.

“Even when we don’t have our strongest team, we can still compete.

“In Kaunas we had basically the best possible team for us at the time, maybe one player was missing, and we got to the gold medal game. This year we played for bronze with effectively two lines missing, so that’s a really big step.

“But this is how it should be. Countries that move forward find that when they are missing a couple of players it doesn’t affect them that much. Our goal has to be to get that core of quality players in Estonia.”