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
"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
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
"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."