World-class talent development: The key factor for international success of Finnish ice hockey
2019 IIHF World Championship 2019 was a great success for Finland, which during the tournament defeated Sweden in the quartar final, Russia in the semi final and in the WC final the big favorites from Canada with 3 – 1. On the Finnish team, which primarily consisted of players from the Finnish league, there was one of the WC debutants in particular attracted much attention due to his performance in the WC: The only 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko from TPS in Turko. Already in the first match against Canada, Kakko showed international top class with two goals and in the second match against the WC hosts from Slovakia a hat trick from Kakko was the crucial factor in Finland’s 4-2 victory. All in all, Kakko scores 6 goals in the 2019 WC – an unique performance. A performance which makes Kakko one of the most attractive players at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft in a few weeks. There is no doubt that Kakko can become one of NHL’s biggest profiles in the coming years.
Kaapo Kakko is an excellent example of Finland’s world-class talent development in ice hockey. It is also the unique talent development, which is the basic for the Finnish success at the Olympics and the World Championships in ice hockey. During the last decades the Finnish men’s national ice hockey team – “the Lions” – has achieved a number of excellent results in international tournaments. In the 1995 Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships, Finland won its first ever gold medal in international ice hockey and this triumph was repeated in 2011. Within the last decade, “the Lions” has won two Olympic bronze medals (2010 and 2014) and two World Championship silver medals (2014 and 2016). These results are the reason Finland is considered a member of the “Big Six”, the unofficial group of the six strongest men’s ice hockey nations, along with Canada, United States, Czech Republic, Russia and Sweden. There are of course many explanations for Finland’s international success in ice hockey. Among these are a historical tradition of the game, an increasing professionalization and commercialization at the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) and the clubs, a strong national league (SM-liiga), great public and media interests, well-educated coaches, many ice hockey rinks and good facilities for physical training. But most importantly world-class talent identification and development, both in FIHA, clubs and sports academies.
Ice hockey – a popular game among children and youngsters in Finland
Football is the most popular sport and biggest spectator sport of many nations. In Finland football is also the biggest sport in terms of the number of players, but its popularity as a spectator sport doesn’t even come close to that of ice hockey. Today, ice hockey is clearly the most popular sport in Finland. After football and gymnastics, ice hockey is the third most popular sport of children and youngsters in Finland. More than 100.000 children and youngsters below the age of 18 play ice hockey. 38,900 children and youngsters – 3.400 girls and 35.500 boys – play ice hockey in an organized way in one of 348 clubs in the FIHA. This popularity is an important foundation for the competitiveness of ice hockey in Finland. So is the amount of training of the youngsters. As many as 71 per cent of children’s and youngsters’ club players train at least three times a week. In football, the corresponding figure is 47 per cent, and in athletics 20 per cent.
As with other Finnish sports, ice hockey is based on the voluntary work done in the sports clubs, both in the big cities and in the countryside. But there has always been a strong tradition for skilled and well-educated coaches, also in Finnish youth ice hockey. Many coaches are educated in the academic system and have many years of experience. In relation to the country’s modest population, Finland has many professional ice hockey coaches who are very well-respected in both Finland and abroad.
National training camps – a well-functioned scouting system
In the 1970’s the FIHA built a national ice hockey training center at the Finnish Sports Institute in Vierumäki, where camp activities were started. Each of the regions in Finland sent their own team to the camp and the federation gathered the national junior teams for different age groups from players if these teams. These camps gradually developed into the core of the junior training system of the Finnish top ice hockey. They were based on the camp of the best players of the age group, testing and national team operations of different age groups, as well as the development of coaches. Today, the camp activities for different age groups are still the core of the talent identification and development system in Finnish junior ice hockey. Off course, the basic development of these talented players is done in the clubs. But the federation scouts for the talented players and through regional and national events the best players are selected for the national team of the different age groups. The well-known event is the “Pohjola Camp” – an annual event at the Finnish Sport Institute gathers the best 14 and 15 year-old players from different regions. The “Pohjola Camp” has a history of more than 50 years and all time it has been a scouting camp. If a young player goes through all the phases of the system, he will have an experience of about 100 international games when he is 20 years old.
High quality of the daily training
There is a long and strong tradition of systematic research and analysis of the game, both at individual and team level. In particular, great emphasis has been placed on the physical part of the game and individual physical training has always been a priority in youth training. Likewise, players from an early age have been tested and the test results and the analyses based on them helped to screen and develop new top players, based on corresponding test results of other top players. Today, many clubs have hired professional physical trainers for the youngsters, so they can learn to train more effectively during the summer season.
The targeted and structured physical training is also the most important reason why many young players in Finnish ice hockey debut early in the SM-league which is among the best in the world. The physically demanding game in the SM-league makes great demands on the young players’ capacity in relation to both strength, endurance and speed.
Personal skills are crucial to an international career
Ice hockey is a team sport, but both club and national team coaches in Finland have increasingly focused on developing the individual player’s personal skills. Erkka Westerlund, who is one of the most winning coaches in Finnish ice hockey and the former head coach of the Finnish national men’s icehockey team (2004-2007 and 2013-2014) says it the following way: “During the last ten years we have focused on improvement of individuals. Allthough ice hockey is team sport we concentrate to develop individuals. It is crucial that the player achieves a good skating technique with a lot of tempo and direction changes. Likewise, the player must be able to deliver and receive the puck under pressure and at high speed. The player must also be able to shoot at the goal from different positions. Without surprising shots on goal – no victories. And finally, the player must have real good mental skills: The inner motivation is to train hard and fight back after adversity is crucial if you have to go all the way – through club matches and international matches in junior ice hockey, matches in the Finnish league and from there to KHL or NHL”.
The dream about the first Olympic gold medal
World-class talent development in the Finnish Ice Hockey Association and clubs is the main reason why Finland has achieved exceptionally good results at IIHF World U20 Championships and IIHF World U18 Championships in recent years. Finland has won WC gold medals for U20 at three out of the last six championships (2014, 2016 and 2019) and WC gold medals for U18 at two out of the last four championships (2016 and 2018). There are many reasons for great optimism for Finnish ice hockey and the nation’s pride – “the Lions” – also at the 2022 Olympics in Bejing. And probably Kaapo Kakko will be one of Finland’s largest profile in the fight for the nation’s first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey.
Jari Lämsä: “Lions on the Ice: the success story of Finnish ice hockey”, pp. 152 – 167 I: Svein S. Andersen & Lars Tore Ronglan: Nordic Elite Sport. Same ambitions – different tracks (Universitetsforlaget, 2012).
The Finnish Ice Hockey Association – http://www.finhockey.fi/