Sunday, 26 May 2019

Bow To Our Finnish Overlords

If anyone asks you what the greatest country in the world is, I'm going to take a page out of Jeff Daniels' script for Will McAvoy on Newsroom and tell you that whatever country you name is not the greatest country in the world. That is unless you say "Finland" because you'd be right on a vast number of measures: World Junior Hockey Champions, World Women's Hockey Champions (save your breath, Americans), World Men's Hockey Champions, Happiest Country On Earth 2019, and destroyer of the ever-popular "fake news". They profess their love of saunas, they have amazing cuisine, and they wear a name on their uniforms that doesn't translate to "Finland" in any form. If any of this seems peculiar, it might be time to question our own system of beliefs because whatever they're doing in Finland, everything seems to be right.

Finland's men's team dispatched an NHL-heavy team of Canadians today by a 3-1 score to claim the gold medal at the 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championship while boasting a single NHL player on their squad - defenceman Henri Jokiharju of the Chicago Blackhawks. They featured three additional players who play in North America in the AHL - goalie Kevin Lankinen of the Rockford IceHogs, defenceman Niko Mikkola of the San Antonio Rampage, and forward Juho Lammikko of the Springfield Thunderbirds. They also have four KHL players on their roster - forward Veli-Matti Savinainen of Kunlun Red Star, forwards Sakari Manninen and Marko Anttila of Jokerit, and defenceman Miika Koivisto of Dynamo Moscow. In total, Finland showed up in Slovakia with eight players from what are considered to be the top three leagues on the planet, and beat Canada by 3-1 scores to open the tournament and close the tournament.

Bow to your Finnish overlords, folks.

The last country to sweep the World Championship podiums was Canada in 2007. While some will point and say that the Finns didn't sweep the podiums after USA won the Women's World Championship this past April, you're right as far as the record books will say. The vast majority of the hockey world knows otherwise, though, and I'm still on the side that Finland was robbed of a rightful gold medal after playing a masterful game against the heavily-favoured Americans.

Whatever the Finns are doing on the ice, it's working in a big way.

Some will say that Jack Hughes is still the odds-on favourite to be selected first-overall by the New Jersey Devils at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but you have to wonder if Kappo Kakko's performance at the IIHF World Championships has changed anyone's mind at the Devils' draft table. Kakko scored six goals and added a helper in ten games for Finland while Hughes didn't get the same ice-time as Kakko in amassing just three helpers. That's not to say that Hughes wasn't effective in his roles given to him by head coach Jeff Blashill, but it was pretty clear that the Finns brought Kakko for his offence while Hughes' exposure was more protected in his assignments. If you're the Devils, you may have to have a few longer discussions about what you need from the player who appears to be the next superstar alongside Hischier and Hall.

It became pretty clear that the Finns play with their heads up, play with speed, use positioning to find seams, and have enough skill to skate alongside any of the world's best at any of the tournaments. The positioning and speed seem to be their trademarks as the Finns at all three tournaments showed an uncanny ability to be where the puck was going before it got there as well as using their teammates to create openings and attack with speed with smart, precise passes. If the Finns are stressing the fundamentals of the game at all levels which it seems they are, this would be one of the major reasons why they're jumping past the "superpowers" to be on a level all their own in hockey.

The Athletic's Sunaya Sapurji took a look at how Finland was building its programs, and there is a lot to be said for how they're doing it considering all of the medals they've won in the last five years alone. As Sunaya writes, "there is no position-specific play until the age of 10" which allows all players to develop skills at all positions - even goaltending - until they're ready to take that next step in hockey, and every team regardless of level has a goaltending coach.
One of the keys to Finland's goaltending success is the fact that they have goalie coaches on every team — big clubs and small — at every age level. In addition to the coaches at the club level, there are also FIHA-appointed goalie coaches in each of Finland's eight regions that visit teams, run courses for coaches and help instruct goaltenders. And then, on top of that, there are two full-time FIHA goaltending development specialists who set areas of emphasis every season.

[Aki] Naykki, who is one of those two specialists, looks after the eight-to-13 age group and also goalies at the professional level. So even the smallest netminders in Finland get the same kind of attention as the pros. Between the regional coaches and the national ones, like Naykki and Niemela, there are always opportunities for club coaches and players to improve, ask for help or get new ideas. All visits from the regional and national instructors are free. There’s usually costs associated with the courses, but in most cases, the clubs pay for their coaches to attend.
That kind of training without the prohibitive costs associated with it is why Finland was seen as a goaltending factory for many years with players like Pekka Rinne, Noora Raty, Tuukka Rask, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Kari Lehtonen being a product of that system in the early days. Where Finland changed their system dramatically, however, was with their skaters, and this is likely the model that most other countries will be following sooner rather than later.
The same model exists for skaters, except that there are even more coaches and resources. In 2013, FIHA started providing the top clubs in Finland with a yearly subsidy to hire skill coaches to work specifically with children aged 10 to 14 — the prime time for skill development.

The bigger areas will have two regional coaches instead of one and they are all paid full-time by FIHA. Back in 2009, FIHA mandated that all national team coaches would be paid as full-time employees. That means those junior team coaches like [Tommi] Niemela are very hands-on with development, travelling across the country and visiting clubs — not just focused on their team or age group.
This is precisely what a national hockey program should do - build the grassroots programs and foster learning and development as players get older. It's not about just providing funding for programs with volunteers. It's about having that national network of coaches working full-time towards a common goal - in this case, hockey excellence - with players of all ages while mitigating costs and reducing prohibitive barriers for all kids. Can Canadians say that Hockey Canada does this effectively? Can Americans say that this is happening with Hockey USA? My guess for both questions is "not likely" because we don't have these systems and resources in place along the way.

Some of that is likely due to the size of our respective countries as Sunaya illustrates in the article.
The fact that Finland is a relatively small country, means that the FIHA coaches are able to move around and bring a consistent message and developmental game-plan to every club.

Naykki estimates he visits all the teams in Finland a total of 70 times per year (roughly three times per team). When he visits a team, all goalie coaches from the big club and the smaller ones in the area come together to go through the plan, get on the same page and ask questions.
This isn't something that would be hard to overcome, and I know Hockey Canada tries to work these distance and size problems by letting the regional and local hockey governing bodies act as representatives for Hockey Canada's messages and goals. There are questions as to whether this works effectively or not, but it's pretty obvious that Finland's smaller size with the same person delivering the message across the country is working well for them.

Here's where I buy into Finland's success because this next part is, to me, paramount in getting kids not only interested in the game, but staying in the game at all levels.
In Finland, fun is paramount for retention because they can’t afford to lose any of their 39,000 junior-aged players. There are far too many other options for parents and kids to spend their time and money. And, like every other hockey nation in the world, that money has become a problem in Finland.

"If I had a kid who was playing ice hockey as a goalie I don't know how I could pay for that," said Naykki. "It's so expensive and they're growing up so fast that you have to buy everything again almost every year. It's a shame but we've tried to build some systems for that too … our goal is to make sure hockey is for everybody not just for rich people."

Equipment isn't that much cheaper for skaters either, not to mention the club fees all players must pay.

To that point, FIHA has a fund which allocates roughly $2.2 million (Cdn.) to families who lack the financial resources for hockey. The club teams apply for grants on behalf of the children who need it and FIHA gives the money to the clubs to pay for things like registration and equipment. In addition, many former club stars who have gone on to play pro hockey, have set up bursaries for low-income children through those clubs.

Some of top-tier SM-Liiga teams also try to help out when they can. [Miro] Aaltonen's former club Karpat Oulu, for example, purchased numerous sets of goaltending equipment one year and distributed them to smaller clubs in Finland's north. Boston Bruins star Tuukka Rask has also donated gear to his former club team SaPKo in his hometown of Savonlinna.
The emphasis on fun to retain the lessons taught is an age-old adage that you may know better as "a lesson taught with humour is a lesson retained". This is entirely the right way to be teaching kids hockey as the emphasis on fun rather than winning moves the goalposts in the right direction in a team game. You can't win unless everyone is pulling in the same direction, so teaching the game with an emphasis on fun actually makes everyone better.

Secondly, the idea of having professional players dropping in on former teams is something that never happens in North America with the celebrity culture we pin on athletes, but it would be something great to see more of when it comes to teaching younger athletes. Getting these multi-millionaire players to start bursaries to go along with the money that corporations and Hockey Canada puts out in trying to reduce the always-rising costs of hockey and equipment would also help in immense ways when it comes to the prohibitive costs for some families. While I totally understand that athletes are free to use their money however they like, it would seemingly be a small sacrifice to make to help the next generations of players from places like Deloraine, Manitoba or Plano, Texas or any other town become the next Crosby or Matthews or MacKinnon.

Another key in what makes the Finns so good? They're forced to learn from their mistakes and build off their successes through open dialogue with coaches. It's less restrictive than a coach rolling out a system and getting four lines to adhere to it. Instead, the Finns are "placing emphasis on having players think for themselves — even if that means failing and making mistakes — allowing them to be creative while still playing within a system. There’s more discussion between player and coach as opposed to players just being told what to do and where to go," and the results are showing on the podiums and in the NHL Entry Draft. 23 Finns were taken in the draft last season, up from 15 the year before. There's a belief that Kakko could be selected first-overall, and it's likely the Finns see around two dozen, if not more, players selected this year.

It's fairly clear in watching the Finns dismantle the Canadians for three-straight goals to win the gold medal that there's something special going on in Finland with their hockey programs. It has taken years to institute this type of coaching and development throughout the Finnish system, but the payoff is bearing fruit at each and every tournament that the Finns play. And while I'm not suggesting that we have a referendum on Canadian hockey and Hockey Canada's impact, it might be a good idea for Hockey Canada to really start asking more of their member hockey organizations to adopt some of these teachings. We did it before when we saw how the Russians played the game as Father David Bauer emphasized more fundamentals, skating, and stick-handling, and it might be time to hold the mirror up once again and ask if we're as good as we want to be.

That answer is, of course, no. The Finns are as good as we want to be. And that's why maybe we should be listening to them not just on hockey, but on a variety of topics. They're the happiest people, they research and dispel fake news better than most, and they're the winningest hockey people on the planet right now. For a country who doesn't wear their name on their chests, they sure should have those chests puffed out with pride.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

No comments: