Ice hockey conquering Europe
Image size 21 Kb As a sport originally played on naturally frozen surfaces, ice hockey has traditionally been strong in the Nordic countries, especially in Finland. It is far and away the country's most popular team discipline and attracts the largest numbers of spectators. It is also the first discipline in Finland to have become clearly professional at the top level.

As is the case with sport generally, ice hockey is now in the throes of a major transition. Amateurism was finally laid to rest at the Atlanta Olympics and the power of that awesome trinity sport, business and media (mainly television) was clearly demonstrated. The interplay between these three forces is becoming more clearly anchored in modern top-level sport with every day that passes.

Ice hockey is strongly positioned within this development of sport. Having long ago been transformed from an outdoor game to one played in comfortable halls on a relatively small rink, it is very telegenic. In addition to that, it boasts all of the features of good sports entertainment: speed, force and aggressiveness, individual virtuosity and the tactical refinements of a team game.

In the European countries where ice hockey has traditionally been strong, the burgeoning role of business and media has forced the sport to adjust to new circumstances. Following the so-called Bosman case concerning transfer rights in football, the European Union has also put an end to transfer payments made to ice hockey clubs, forcing those in, especially, Sweden and Finland to revise their entire strategies. Those are the countries in which the sport is particularly strong at the junior level, just as it used to be in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

In the other European ice hockey countries, whose national teams never do well in world championship competitions, league games nevertheless attract at least as many spectators as in, for example, Finland, where this is the most popular discipline of sport. However, potential TV audiences are vastly greater than in the Nordic countries with their small populations. Naturally, this aspect affects the willingness of the business world to cooperate.

That has brought us to the present situation, which in Finland's case could be described (somewhat simplistically) as follows: hard work on the junior level is producing an abundant crop of good players to meet the needs of richer clubs in bigger European countries. The same situation has existed for a long time in relation to North America. The absolute cream of players from Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland are attracted to the professional National Hockey League, in which European players represent a bigger and bigger proportion each year.

Managing Director Urpo Helkovaara of the Finnish national ice hockey federation sees the international transition in which the discipline now finds itself as both an opportunity and a threat. "I'm a supporter of international ice hockey leagues, but they should not sap the strengths of national leagues," he says.

1996-97 will be the first season of the European Hockey League (EHL). A score of teams from several European countries will be taking part, with the games timed to alternate with those played in national leagues. Time will tell whether Europe can produce a professional league capable of competing for the best players with even the American one on which it is modelled.

The influence of business and the media is also making itself evident within Finland as the scales swing further and further in favour of the major economic centres. Since as far back as 1988, either Helsinki or Turku has held the Finnish championship, and that situation looks like repeating itself in the current season as well. Small-town clubs that do an excellent job (through voluntary effort) of developing junior talent are not able to keep players, who are attracted by the big money that they can earn with the major clubs. Transfer fees used to have a dampening effect on the flow of players and helped keep the budgets of the "nursery clubs" in some kind of shape.

"A nursery club deserves compensation for the players it trains. I am certain that there will be some system of compensation for player transfers in the future," says Helkovaara.

It is undoubtedly a question of life or death for Finnish ice hockey. Small countries and also small towns must be able to continue their valuable work of fostering talent. The only way to achieve this is to build up a national league of a standard high enough to preserve motivation. Otherwise, development of juniors will dry up in countries with a strong ice hockey culture, which will also narrow the base from which the rich clubs recruit their players. A handful of big cities can not on their own sustain an ice hockey culture that attracts the participation of tens of thousands of youngsters. The creation of such a culture in the new ice hockey countries would take decades of effort.

To date, smallish towns in the strong European ice hockey countries have been able to maintain teams of a pretty high standard. The best examples in Finland are Rauma and Hämeenlinna, each with about 40,000 inhabitants. The Rauma team is the third Finnish one in the European league, along with Jokerit of Helsinki and TPS of Turku, and Hämeenlinna plays in the Europe Cup. Indicative of the trend of development is the fact that Helsinki and Turku have been given a place in the EHL competition up to the year 2000, but the third Finnish team will be named on a year-to-year basis.

That the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation has been entrusted with arranging the 1997 World Championships shows that the small ice hockey countries are well positioned to remain a highly competitive factor.