"Each player at our club is so to speak a"rough diamond". We really care about them and try our best to make them better. That´s a big difference compared to abroad where you need to be better than the local players or else sit in the stands or be let go as no one has time to develop you," said Mart Eerme, head coach of HC Panter.
Tallinn-based club HC Panter joining the Latvian league OHL for the 2023/24 season hopes to set Estonian hockey on a new course. Having outgrown battling just for domestic supremacy, HC Panter will be Estonia´s sole participant in the OHL. Including five teams from Latvia and three from Lithuania, the OHL has now turned into a joint Baltic effort. The step-up in quality has immediately been felt by the Estonian newcomers.
"Playing in the Latvian league is the goal we´ve been working towards for four years. Having just played a few league games so far, many of our players mentioned how these fast-paced games are similar in quality to those when representing Estonia. In the past it has been a huge challenge with Estonian league players quickly adapting to a much higher pace when joining our national team," said Eerme.
Being able to play regularly against good opposition from your home patch made Estonian players abroad take note. One key player deciding to go full circle and return to his native Tallinn was 22-year-old Rasmus Kiik.
"I felt that HC Panter was the right step in my career. Being the first Estonian team to play in the OHL I think will also be a good opportunity to develop hockey in Estonia," he said.
Kiik´s early career trajectory follows a well-beaten path for an Estonian prospect. He recalls being around "six-seven" when first started travelling across to play in Finland. In 2014 he decided to stay put in Finland. Developing at first with the TPS Academy in Turku, he skated for a time on the same team as current NHL players Kaapo Kakko and Matias Maccelli.
"In Finland, I quickly understood what professional sport means and how intense the competition is already from a very young age. As I was never the most skilled player I remember from my junior years that I had to do a lot of work. " Kiik said.
"I basically started my career at HC Panter so coming back to Estonia has been very pleasant. Last season in Mestis with TuTo I was mostly the 13th attacker with little playing time and no chance to prove myself. Here at HC Panter, I play a bigger role and definitely want to lead by example to both younger and older players. But I also understand that with a bigger role also comes more responsibility," said Kiik.
Fellow Estonian national team players, 22-year-old Nikita Pusakov and Andre Linde, 24 followed suit from Finland to become a part of HC Panter´s ambitious plans. Kiik is now skating on the same line for HC Panter with fellow national team players Linde and team captain Kevin Parras. With seven players on the current HC Panter roster most recently represented Estonia at the 2023 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B, it is a set-up the national team also hopes to reap their rewards from.
Battling on two fronts this season, HC Panter remained faithful to the Estonian championship where mainly its U18 players will play men´s hockey. A win-win situation for all parties involved as the amount of games is expected to double for most players compared to last season.
"To develop our players we need more games versus better opponents. Having a good first team playing at a good level is part of the development plan for the club. But it is also important to create an environment for our own juniors to continue playing ice hockey at a serious level," said Eerme.
"Our goal is to play the post-regular season games. But for now, the main aim is to play good, fast, puck-possession hockey. I hope our younger players will step up while the ones who returned home will realize it was a smart decision. Hopefully, more local players then want to follow in their footsteps. But it´s also important for players to be able to use the Latvian league as a springboard and be successful in other leagues as well," said Eerme.
During the 2007/08 season another Estonian team, Tartu Big Diamonds competed one season in the Latvian league before ceasing operations due to financial constraints. HC Panter also previously experienced their very own season-long foreign adventure. In 2005/06, they competed in the Finland´s 2. Divisioona, equivalent to the fourth level of Finnish hockey. This time around HC Panter is adamant to be around roaring in their new international environment on a long-term basis.
"With our team consisting of youth players, amateurs and semi-professionals, the budget has doubled from last year," said HC Panter´s board member Meelis Luht. "We came to play in the Latvian league as we have long-term plans for it. This is not a one-year project."