The Lions – Finland’s national pride

On Friday night, the puck will be thrown in Nokia Arena Tampere for the opening match – Finland vs. Norway – at “2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship”. And now, 16 days of national celebration begin – not only in Helsinki and Tampere, which are the host cities of the World Championship – but throughout Finland, where the national ice hockey team – “The Lions” – is a national pride. A status that has been greatly strengthened through the title of World champion in 2019 and not least the Olympic gold medals in Beijing a few months ago. For decades, Finland has belonged to “The Big Six” – the unofficial group of the six strongest ice hockey nations, with the others being Canada, Russia, the United States, Sweden and the Czech Republic. But never before has Finland with a modest population of 5 million been ranked No. 1 in the World rankings.

Ice hockey – Finland’s national sport

Finland has – not least due to climatic conditions with frost and snow for more than half of the year – always achieved good international results in winter sports such as cross-country skiing, biathlon, ski jumping and ice hockey. For this reason, it is logical that ice hockey is Finland’s national sport. Football is also the largest sport in Finland in terms of number of players, but football’s popularity as a spectator sport does not even come close to ice hockey. Today, ice hockey is the most popular sport in Finland, both financially, in terms of spectators and media. More than 100,000 children and young people under the age of 18 play ice hockey, of which almost 40,000 children and youth – 4,000 girls and 36,000 boys – play ice hockey in one of the 348 clubs. This popularity is an important foundation for the position of ice hockey in Finland. The same is the number of weekly training hours among the youth players. More than 70 percent of all children and youth players in ice hockey train at least three times a week.

World-class talent development

The talent development in Finnish ice hockey, both in the clubs and the association, is in my opinion among the world’s best in team sports. In the 1970s, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) set up a national ice hockey training center at the Vierumäki Sports Institute, where regular training camps were held. Each of the regions of Finland sent their junior teams to the camps, and united junior teams within different age groups. These training camps gradually developed into the core of Finnish talent development work. The work was based on training camps for the best players, testing and development of coaches. Today, the training camps for different age groups are still the core of the talent work in Finnish ice hockey. This work is complemented by the basic development of the talents of the clubs. However, it is at FIHA’s training camps that the greatest talents in the different age groups are selected for the youth national teams. The most well-known training camp is “Pohjola Camp” – an annual training camp in Vierumäki, which brings together the most talented 14 and 15-year-old players from the different regions. If a junior player participates in the talent system from start to finish, he or she will have participated in more than 100 international matches before the player becomes a senior player. World-class talent development is the main reason why Finland has achieved exceptionally good results at the IIHF World U20 Championships and IIHF World U18 Championships in recent years.

Skilled youth coaches and high quality of physical training

Ice hockey is similar to other sports in Finland based on volunteer work in the clubs, both in the big cities and in the smaller cities throughout Finland. There has always been a strong tradition for skilled and well-educated coaches in Finnish ice hockey. Many coaches are educated at the University of Jyväskylä and they often have many years of practical experience. In relation to the country’s modest population, Finland has many professional ice hockey coaches who are highly respected and recognized – also abroad. There is also a strong tradition of systematic analysis and research in Finnish ice hockey, both in relation to the individual player and the team. Both clubs and federations have placed particular emphasis on the physical part of the game, and individual physical training has high priority in the training of children and youth players. Today, many clubs have hired professional physical trainers for the talents so they can learn to train more effectively during the summer season. The targeted and structured physical training is also the main reason why many young players in Finnish ice hockey make their debut early in the SM league, which is among the best in the world. The physically demanding game in the SM league places great demands on the young players’ capacity in relation to both strength, endurance and speed. Likewise, it is crucial that the young talents achieve a good skating technique with a lot of speed and change of direction. Likewise, the player at an early age must be able to deliver and receive the puck under pressure and at high speed. And then the player must also be able to shoot at goal from many different positions.

The dream of the NHL and the national team

It is the unique talent development that, in my opinion, is the basis for the success of Finnish ice hockey at the Olympics and World Championship. And it is also the unique talent development that is the reason why many young talents from Finland are recruited to the world’s strongest league – the National Hockey League. These include established NHL stars such as Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers), Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricans), Patrik Laine (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), who all debuted in the world’s strongest league as 18-year-old players. This season, there are more than 50 Finnish players in the NHL, where the play-off matches take place at the same time as the World Championship at home. For that reason, it will also primarily be players from the SM league and the Russian KHL league that head coach Jukka Jalonen has available on the WC team. The 59-year-old Jalonen has today achieved legend status in Finland, as he has now won two World Champion titles (2011 and 2019) and two Olympic medals – bronze in 2010 and gold in 2022.

Nothing but WC gold medals counts

The ice hockey fever in Finland is in these weeks gigantic ahead of the World Championship at home. This is not least due to the national team’s latest results: WC silver medals in 2021 after a narrow defeat of 2-3 to Canada in the final and Olympic gold medals in 2022 with a final victory of 2-1 over the favorites from Russia. Many find hope for a World Championship final – Sunday, May 29, 2022 – against “hereditary enemy” Sweden. And anything but a victory for the “Lions” will be a great disappointment for the proud nation far to the north.

Sources:

Jari Lämsä: “Lions on the Ice: the success story of Finnish ice hockey”, pp. 152 – 167 In: Svein S. Andersen & Lars Tore Ronglan: Nordic Elite Sport. Same ambitions – different tracks (Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 2012).

The Finnish Ice Hockey Association – http://www.finhockey.fi

International Ice Hockey Federation – https://www.iihf.com/en/events/2022/wm