2015-2016

2016 -
Finland Poised for Triple-Gold Feat
19.05.2016. Robenhymer, Julie. New York Times

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- With the quarterfinals of the men's hockey world championship set to begin here and in Moscow on Thursday, eight teams are still in pursuit of gold. But only one has a chance to become the first country to earn triple gold.

Having claimed the under-18 and under-20 world championships this year, Finland is in a position to sweep this year's events with a win at the men's level this weekend.

Finnish hockey officials credit a change in the coaching philosophy of their development program for players ages 15 to 20.

In 2009, the national federation realized it was falling behind in player development. Canada, Sweden, Russia and the United States seemed to be producing more and better elite players.

"We invited everyone to the Sports Institute in Vierumaki -- agents, scouts, national team coaches, club team coaches, basically anyone who is involved with player development -- to figure out how we could do things better," said Timo Backman, sports director for the Finnish Ice Hockey Association. "There was this big division between the club teams and the national team, and as a result of that symposium, we realized we needed to work together more."

Four years ago, the federation hired four full-time national team coaches who work with the club coaches and the top players.

"Now we are all talking the same language," Backman said.

Along with improved communication regarding player expectations and development progress, the Finns also changed the way they approached the game.

"Because we are such a small country and we didn't have many good players, we had to focus on playing as a team with a strong defensive game, but after that symposium, we started focusing on making the individual players better so that we could also make the team better with more skill," said Matti Nurminen, general director of the Finnish association.

Backman said that after tournaments, national team coaches show videos of each player to his club coaches and explain what the national team would like the player to work on for the next tournament.

"Now the club coaches feel like they are part of the system," he added.

Finland is seeing results in a big way, not only with the two gold medals it has earned this year, but also with the 18-year-old prospects Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, who are expected to be among the top five players selected at the N.H.L. draft in June.

Laine, Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho finished first, second and third in scoring at the world junior championship in January, forming the most dominant line in the tournament, with 44 points in seven games.

"Every once in a while, such players come through a small country like ours, and it's great to have them," Nurminen said. "We need to have the stars for the promotion of the game -- also for the medals, obviously -- but what is more important is to have 50 very good players in each age group because we will not have stars like them every year. This is why development is so important."

Finland has had two players selected second over all in the N.H.L. draft: goaltender Kari Lehtonen in 2002, by the Atlanta Thrashers, and center Aleksander Barkov in 2013, by the Florida Panthers. Laine, who is currently third in scoring at the world championship, with six goals and four assists in seven games, is quickly closing the gap between him and Auston Matthews, an American who is the consensus top pick in this year's draft class.

The impact of Laine's success is creating a ripple effect in Finland.

"It doesn't matter if he goes No. 1 or not," Nurminen said. "Everyone has been talking about it for the past 10 months, and they will be talking about it for at least a few more. It's been great promotion for our game, and if he becomes the first Finnish player to be selected first over all, that would make it even bigger."

Backman added, "That would definitely make headlines in all the Finnish newspapers, and every kid would notice, and if they aren't playing hockey, maybe they will start."

Aho, 18, who was drafted last year in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes, is also representing Finland at the world championship in Russia. Puljujarvi is recovering from a minor injury sustained at the under-18 tournament last month.

The final rosters of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey will be announced May 27, and these teenagers have given Finland's general manager, Jere Lehtinen, a lot to think about.

"When we started thinking of players, we didn't even dream of having them on the list, but after world juniors we thought maybe there's a chance, and now they're here and they're playing very well," he said. "They are showing that they can play at this level and, more importantly, that they can have a good impact and they are definitely on the list now. They are making it hard for me to say no."

Jarmo Kekalainen of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the first European general manager in the N.H.L., said that the attention to detail by the national team coaches at the junior levels had given players across the board a new level of confidence and that would lead to even more success.

"Finland has always had a strong team concept -- good structure, good defense and good goaltending -- but now we are seeing a lot more skill with these young players, and it has allowed the team to play with more confidence in the offensive zone and not just hope for the best," Kekalainen said. "The attitude now is that we know we can win any tournament we participate in. We used to just think that we could, but now we know that we can."

Finland, which finished atop Group B after a 4-0 victory over Canada on Tuesday, continues its quest for triple gold with a quarterfinal game against Denmark on Thursday.

"This is a country that loves its hockey teams," Backman said. "We have to do our best to make sure they are successful."

 
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