How Finland dramatically revamped its program

Finland’s win at the World Junior Hockey Championship was enough to prove to Sam Cosentino that they’ve entered the upper echelon of hockey, right up there with Canada, USA, Sweden and Russia.

HELSINKI – Finnish fans hit the streets late Tuesday night after Kasperi Kapanen’s golden goal in overtime gave the home team a world under-20 championship, a tournament they’ll always remember.

Lost on the interlopers in the press is the fact that the Finnish hockey officials were deeply concerned about the state of their national program. And even harder to believe that their concern focused on the class of 1996-birthdays—yes, the group that made up the core of the team that just skated away with gold at Hartwell Arena, knocking off Canada, Sweden and Russia in consecutive games to close out the win, the path of greatest resistance. No fortuitous draw there.

You might think that the hand-wringing was without real cause, but consider this: Two years ago, Kapanen and the rest of the Finnish 96s lost to Sweden by the humbling score of 10-0 at the IIHF under-18s. Here’s a link to the gory details from that game.

The fact that the Finns were the tournament hosts that year just compounded the grief.

Not that it was just one bad game, either. The Finns also managed to lose to the Czechs and the U.S. in the opening round and hung on barely to beat the Swiss 2-1.

“Two years ago, nobody would have thought of (the ’96s) as a year that wins a championship,” said Goran Stubb, the longtime head of NHL Central Scouting Service’s European bureau.

In fact, Finnish officials looked at the ’96 group as an example of all that ailed the national program. They convened a summit, bringing in general managers of professional club teams, grass-roots coaches, former national team players and NHL scouts based in Finland. Everything was on the table and up for reconsideration.

So what came out of the summit?

Finnish national teams had long been regarded as overachievers on the international stage. You had to give it to a nation of five million—plucky underdogs, so the narrative went. The Finns achieved respectable finishes in tournaments simply because they played such a tight team game. They were, as the cliché goes, more than the sum of their parts.

But at the 2014 under-18s, the math didn’t work out for them. Even being greater than the sum of the parts didn’t give them a chance. They were humiliated by their hated rivals. To their credit Finnish officials didn’t put it down to a bad year, a bad group. They made changes. A lot of them.

“The national association decided that we had to give a lot more attention to individual skills and not just team play like before,” Stubb said.

If more than the sum of the parts didn’t get it done against Sweden at the under-18s, the Finnish solution was to build bigger, better parts.

The initiatives went beyond skills development and into talent identification.

“For a long time, a decision was made very early about which players were national team quality and which weren’t,” Stubb said. “Too early. The thinking was that all players develop the same … which just isn’t true. Sometimes players take longer, especially big kids whose skating takes longer. So now the players are judged every year. Because you don’t make it at under-16s doesn’t mean you can’t play at under-20s.”

The national age-group teams also decided to be more open-minded about ages—that is, to open rosters up to underage players. Traditionally, the Finns were pretty rigid on this count but without taking a more flexible approach, then the likes of Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, both 17, wouldn’t have been skating with the under-20 team … and Finland wouldn’t have taken gold and probably not a medal without them.

Finally, the Finnish association decided on continuity of national-team coaches, a complete contrast to Hockey Canada’s selection process.

“It’s not just players who learn from one tournament to the next,” Stubb said. “It’s the coaches. Having coaches who know the players is a key.”

Now you might say that what is working for the Finns won’t work for Hockey Canada. I’m sure that the folks at Hockey Canada will say the same. But full-time national age-group team coaches seem to be well within the resources of an organization several times the size of the Finns and with much deeper pockets.

There are a couple of reasons the Finns were able to make such sweeping and dramatic changes to their hockey organization in a very short time frame.

Size: The scale of the Finns hockey association is a fraction of Hockey Canada or USA Hockey. You only need to get so many officials and coaches to buy in and everybody knows everybody else. “Here, being small helped,” Stubb said.

Collaboration: There’s a lot of internal competition and schadenfreude in the North American hockey organization. The spirit of team play in Finland carries over off the ice. “Everybody wants the team to do as well as possible, no self-interest,” Stubb says. “We compete against others not among ourselves.”

You’re free to dismiss all this, of course. You’re free to think that Hockey Canada is a great organization that can’t be improved, that the state of the game in Canada is healthy, that the status quo is the state of the art. You can write off that the fact that Canada has one medal to show for the last four world junior tournaments. You can point to the quarter-finals and say that the Finns, for all their innovations, barely hung on to beat Canada and beat the Swedes in the semis and Russians in the final by the narrowest margin.

But just look at it this way: Did the Finnish team that beat the three hockey superpowers look like a squad that lost to the Swedes 10-0 in the spring of 2014? That’s the thing about taking a progressive attitude towards your national team program—it gives you a shot at making progress.