Pucks in Deep: How Finland asserted itself as the Clemson of international hockey

by Sam Stockton | 1/14/19 2:25am

Golden Finnish: How Finland asserted itself as the Clemson of international hockey

With a population of just about five and a half million (roughly that of the state of Minnesota), labeling Finland an underdog on a global stage appears obvious. And yet, not unlike Minnesota, Finland represents a hockey hot bed, second only to mighty Canada in rinks and hockey players per capita. I’m not sure what exactly the average person’s first associations are with the Scandinavian nation. Maybe it’s Nokia, the telecommunications giant whose bricks provided many of my generation with their first foray into the world of cell phones. Or perhaps it’s the endangered Saimaa ringed seal, one of few lake seal species in the world. For me, with ever-increasing certainty, Finland’s most notable export is its hockey players.

For the average American sports fan, the first championship moment of the new year came last Monday night, when Dabo Swinney’s Clemson University Tigers throttled the University of Alabama Crimson Tide for their second title in three years. However, for the hard core hockey fan, the first crown of 2019 rests on the heads of the Finns, who knocked off host Canada — the international hockey equivalent of Alabama — and the U.S. en route to their third men’s U20 World Junior Championship in six years.

The World Junior represents the premier showcase of amateur hockey talent, pitting the NHL’s top prospects, including both players who have been drafted but not yet cracked the NHL and those who will be drafted this June, in a best-on-best, 11-day tournament, comprised of a four-game round robin followed by an eight-team single elimination playoff. Every year, the World Junior provides fans with some of the most entertaining hockey played at any level. For elite players, there is usually just one opportunity to bring home a gold medal, and no one ever gets more than two or three shots at the title.

For the Finns, this month’s victory bore a greater resemblance to that of Swinney and Clemson than you might expect. That the Tigers are among the best teams in college football has been incontrovertible for several years now, by no means something they had to prove in the National Title game. However, conventional wisdom around the college football world dictated that Alabama belonged in a tier of its own with Clemson lagging at least a step behind. After last week’s beatdown of the Tide, Clemson proved that, like Alabama, they are in the business of winning championships and expect to do so annually. When Swinney took over the program in 2008, Clemson was a middling team in a conference better known for its basketball than for its football; now, the Tigers’ fun-loving, championship-winning culture represents a blueprint for every other school in the country.

In Finland, a similar transition has unfolded over a similar window. Traditionally, Finnish hockey evokes a pugnacious game, relying on high-intensity team defense to grind out wins against countries like Canada, the U.S., Russia and Sweden with superior top-end talent. Over the years, the Finns produced far more middle-six forwards and second pair defensemen than top-end, superstar talent. Of course, there have been a few notable exceptions, like Jari Kurri or Teemu Selanne, but, as a rule, the Finns have never been known for consistently producing elite players.

All that changed in 2009 when, having failed to win the World Junior since 1998 and the World Championship since 1995, the Finns convened a summit under the leadership of national head coach Erkka Westerlund, seeking to rebuild their hockey infrastructure from the ground up. Westerlund instituted radical changes to the training of young hockey players across the country, turning the program away from its traditional team-first approach and toward one that emphasized the development of individual players.

As Westerlund put it in a recent interview with The Athletic, “One thing we have tried to compete has been to focus on team play. Maybe we concentrated on it too much. There is so much unused potential in the individual, what we can do to improve the physical things and skill, hockey sense — but also mental qualities — and I think maybe we forgot in that case that we concentrated too much on how we play as a team. Not so much on the individual player and that was the change.”

Since this change, the Finns have earned two men’s Olympic medals, a World Championship, and three World Junior crowns. The driving force in this success has been a stream of highly skilled forwards now making names for themselves as premier NHL players. The 2016 World Junior-winning team alone boasted Mikko Rantanen, currently second in the NHL in points; Patrik Laine, renown around the NHL for a shot so lethal it has forced analytics experts to reconsider what they consider a sustainable shooting percentage; Sebastian Aho, a dynamic two-way centerman enjoying a breakout season in North Carolina; Kasperi Kapanen, who, like his father Sami, is as fast in a straight line as anyone in the NHL and has taken advantage of Toronto’s ridiculous center depth to become one of the league’s most dangerous transition players; and Jesse Puljujarvi, whose career has suffered a bit of a setback by virtue of Edmonton’s dreadful player development, but who nonetheless boasts a skillset that should make him a top-line winger before too long.

In this year’s run to gold at the World Junior, Finland once again relied heavily on elite talent up front, most notably left winger Kaapo Kakko. At just 17 years old, Kakko led the Finns with elite offensive talent and unique creativity. He finished his tournament with a flourish, netting the Golden Goal for the Finns with just a minute and a half to play in the gold medal game against the U.S. Thanks to his outstanding tournament, Kakko now has scouts questioning whether it might be him who hears his name called first in this spring’s NHL Draft.

Westerlund’s player-first revolution came to Finland at the perfect time. Now more than ever, hockey games are won on the strength of highly-skilled players making highly-skilled plays. In today’s NHL, every player dedicates his offseason not just to conditioning but also to spending time with skills coaches to improve his stickwork. The results can be seen in a league-wide increase in goals and now fairly regular features on coaches such as Darryl Belfry or Pavel Barber, who have earned acclaim for their work in honing the skills of the NHL’s biggest stars. In this new hockey reality, where the collective skill level is greater than that of any previous era, Finland has announced itself as a global power, on par even with mighty Canada in its production of elite players.

Of course, this is not to say that Finland’s climb is complete. Unlike Clemson, the Finns have yet to reach the international game’s highest peak, Olympic gold. Neither the Finnish men’s nor women’s team has ever won Olympic gold. With the NHL likely to return to the Olympics in Beijing in 2022, little Finland will get its chance to claim that prize before too long.