Oct. 31 isn’t a public holiday in Finland, but last year many kids had the day off from school.
The Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers were playing back-to-back games in Helsinki on Nov. 1 and 2, as part of the NHL’s Global Series, and as the Jets took to the ice at Hartwall Arena for their morning skate on Halloween, they were met by about 1,000 fans who’d bought tickets to the open practice. In the stands, one particular group of about 20 kids, many of them in blue No. 29 jerseys, start chanting “Lai-ne! Lai-ne! Lai-ne!” waving frantically whenever the Finnish star skated in their direction, hoping for some kind of response.
With 80 goals in his first two NHL seasons, along with a World Junior Championship gold medal in 2016 and his often-entertaining interviews, Patrik Laine has cemented himself as Finland’s most popular hockey sensation since Teemu Selanne. But Laine is far from the only young Suomi star in the NHL these days. Just down the hall from the Jets’ dressing room was the Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov, who posted a career-high 78 points in 2017-18 and finished fourth in Selke Trophy voting. “Our generation has a lot of good, talented young players that have already made it to the league,” Laine said. “And now we’re producing more and more young players from our juniors and our elite teams.”
More than 200 Finns have come over to play professionally in the NHL since Matti Hagman became the first to do so in 1976. From Jari Kurri to Selanne to the Koivu brothers, to goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Tuukka Rask, there has been no shortage of Finnish talent in the league over the years. But right now the NHL is in the midst of an unprecedented rush of young Finnish stars. Mikko Rantanen notched 84 points for Colorado last season, the most by any Finn in 11 years. This season, he’s vying for the overall scoring lead. Sebastian Aho started the season with a 12-game point streak for Carolina and has produced at a point-per-game rate since the start of 2018, mostly alongside countryman and Hurricanes teammate Teuvo Teravainen.
In total, a record six Finns, all under the age of 27, finished with at least 60 points in 2017-18. And it doesn’t stop there. This season, first-round picks Miro Heiskanen (No. 3 in 2017) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (No. 3 in 2018) have enjoyed solid starts to their rookie campaigns, while 17-year-old Kaapo Kakko has been turning heads in the Finnish League and is projected to be a top-five selection in the 2019 NHL draft.
Hockey officials in Finland don’t think this is just a wave of promising players coming into their own. They believe it’s a reflection of the country’s development system, which has undergone a number of small changes the past few years, all of which have helped groom the current group of elite players.
In 2009 the Finnish Ice Hockey Association held a symposium in Vierumaki, a town about an hour outside of Helsinki, where about 200 coaches and officials discussed next steps for the game in the country. In 2011, some of those ideas came to fruition. The association hired 26 skills coaches for players aged eight to 12 and full-time coaches for Finland’s under-16, under-17, under-18 and under-20 national teams. These teams normally play six to eight tournaments every year. In between, the national team coaches now go through film and determine strengths and weaknesses. They then visit the players’ club teams and give them individual feedback on their performance, including what they need to improve and different drills for them to implement in their training. Before these teams had full-time coaches, players would receive emails with sets of goals and training tips in between tournaments, but there were no individual visits to help implement these strategies. “Our national team players are under our eyes now, so we know what they’re going to do next in practice, next week in the games and next time when they go to a national team tournament,” said Rauli Urama, the high-performance director for Finnish hockey. “And at the same time, we can give all the feedback to coaches.”
Part of this development in coaching has also included a greater emphasis on improving individual skills, especially in junior, according to Jukka Jalonen, coach of the national men’s team. Before these changes, Jalonen said, junior coaches were more concerned about how the team was playing as opposed to the players themselves. Developing individual skills has led to a different style of play for the national teams. “The teams are now playing more active hockey in Finland in junior,” Jalonen said. “They are not only playing the trap or standing in the neutral zone, they are now trying to pressure the puck-carrier and pressure all the time, which means they have to skate more, so the skating improves during the games. Your end-to-end rush is getting better, and the players who are on offense, they have to be able to move the puck under pressure, and they improve in those areas of the game.”
Jalonen is the only men’s coach in the world not named Mike Babcock to have won a gold medal at both the World Championship and world juniors. The 2011 World Championship team he led to victory was Finland’s first gold in a men’s tournament since 1995 and served as an inspiration for some of today’s young Finnish stars. “That gave a lot of players some extra motivation for sure,” said Laine, who was 13 during the team’s championship run. “That was huge for Finland, the gold medal, and I think right after that we had a lot of success with our junior teams.”
Perhaps as a result of the 2011 win, Jalonen believes the country’s current crop of young talent has more confidence than previous generations. “The age I am now, 56, and some other older people, we have seen so many times when Finland has lost deciding games in World Championships, and bad losses against Sweden,” he said. “But those younger guys, they don’t recall those games…They respect their opponents, but still they think that they can beat anybody. There’s no nation or no players that are superior to them they think. They’re humble, but in the right way.”
Before making their way to the NHL, Finnish teens are now also getting more chances to play against men in the country’s top pro league. Over the past 10 years, the number of games played in the Liiga by skaters under 20 has nearly doubled. Laine, Barkov and Rantanen, as well as most other young Finnish stars in the NHL, all played significant stints in the Liiga as 16- or 17-year-olds. Urama coached in the Liiga from 2006 to 2012 and has witnessed this youth movement firsthand since his departure. “When I was coaching, there were just a couple of those young, really talented guys,” he said. “But now almost every team plays under-17s, 18s, 20s.”
Urama believes that a mix of talent and opportunity has led to the rising number of teens playing in the league. “Those players are good,” he said. “They are really good players. That’s the first thing. They have to make a difference to take that spot, and they totally do it. And, of course, when a couple young guys show that, other coaches start believing they can do it and give them opportunities to take a spot.”
Jalonen, who spent parts of 10 seasons as a coach in the Liiga, agrees that getting a chance to play in Finland’s elite league has helped develop young players coming to North America. “League teams are now giving more ice time to the younger guys,” he said. “The best young players can play the men’s game earlier than before, and it’s another reason why they’re progressing at younger ages. Those guys, they’re talented players, and when they get a chance to practice with men and play with men they improve very, very fast.”
Seven years ago, Anaheim and Buffalo kicked off the 2011-12 regular season with a game in Helsinki – the most recent time that NHL hockey was played in Finland before the Global Series. Ville Leino scored a goal on home soil in a 4-1 win for the Sabres.
In that ’11-12 season, Valtteri Filppula tied Selanne for the NHL lead in points by a Finn with 66. Lauri Korpikoski was the highest-scoring Finnish NHLer aged 25 or younger with 37 points. This time around, Finnish fans got to witness a little more local star power. Laine put up a hat trick in the first game against Florida and notched another goal less than 24 hours later. Back in North America, his Finnish peers were also putting on a show. Kotkaniemi scored the first two goals of his NHL career on Nov. 1, while Rantanen had a three-point game the next night.
This cohort of young stars is raising Finnish hockey to new heights, giving fans of every age something to cheer about – and giving NHL opponents all they can handle.