VAASA, Finland - If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. This old wisdom is at best practice at Red Bull Salzburg, whose next generation this season has headed north to compete with one of the world’s finest.
All was not as it seemed as Finland's top under-20 division rolled on with one of its latest round of games during the second half of November. Apart from the usual suspects competing against each other, a far-flung visitor from Austria's RB Salzburg Academy had been welcomed into the fold during games played in Vaasa and Pori.
The Central European junior team will this season play a total of 12 games against the best Finland has to offer at U20 level in four separate long weekends of games held within a three-month period. Sharpening their skills in Finnish hockey marks a new chapter in the development for a crop of Salzburg players born between 1995 and 1999.
"We are very excited about this opportunity to play in Finland, which we have talked about as a measuring stick for our players," said Salzburg Academy's head coach Matt Curley as his players are tested to the limits in a national junior hockey program that enjoyed phenomenal success of late with Finland currently being reigning World Champions at both U18 and U20 level.
"Back home we now play in the Alps Hockey League, which is more of a pro league, where we face many older and established players who are a little bit stronger and more experienced than us," said Curley. "There we have been able to outskate teams by the time the third period comes around, but what I have been looking forward to in Finland is the fact that we are not going to do that here and will have to compete against guys our own age who are skating as well as we are and will be as hungry as we are."
Attempting to bridge the gap from junior to senior level for the next crop of Austrian players, Salzburg's Academy is as of this season fighting on two fronts. In the newly started AlpsHL with 16 teams including the second-tier of Austria’s senior club teams as well as teams from Italy and Slovenia, the Austrian youngsters are currently in mid-table. In Finland's U20 championship, Salzburg will not collect any points or be part of the total standings, while their Finnish opponents will have plenty to play for as the games against the Austrians will count in the total standings.
Salzburg has since the inauguration of their state of the art training centre in 2014 tried on a number of fronts to find the right formula to ease the way for their juniors into the senior team roster of the current EBEL league champions. They travelled across time zones competing in the top Russian junior league MHL during two seasons until the spring of 2015, before their jet-setting continued last season following the arrival of head coach Curley.
"We were all over the place last season. We spent time in both USA and Canada playing games, the Swiss U20 league, some in the Czech league, so ahead of this season were looking for something more stable to set a good foundation. Hannu Nykvist, who is our goalie coach within the academy as well as the pro team, had good ties with the Finnish association and from there it blossomed into this opportunity," said Curley.
Current team captain Raphael Wolf has played an integral part in the team that travelled wide and far during recent years. A towering blueliner who will turn 21 later this year month is full of praise of the latest initiative where his defensive skills are being put to a stern test.
"Finland is a new world for us and it's good to be here," said Wolf. "The hockey is different, the guys are quicker, they move the puck faster so you really have to be 100% focused and skate more," he said.
While in the past Estonian teams have made the short hop across the Gulf of Finland to play in leagues within the greater Helsinki region, opening up the top level of their U20 championship to a team from the centre of Europe marks a new venture for Finnish ice hockey. For Vaasan Sport, who played host to Salzburg's debut in Finnish junior hockey, the exchange is looked upon as something positive.
"It has been exciting for our club when you are not totally familiar with the opponent's game plan ahead of the game and then see it become clearer as the game wears on," said Sport's Team Leader Johan Hagstrom as his team, following their 6-2 win over Salzburg, got time to familiarize themselves more with their visitors both on and off the ice with Salzburg staying in Vaasa for one week.
"After this experience, we will be open for further exchange with other foreign teams, as we also have facilities to host visitors with our four ice rinks under the same roof," said Hagstrom.
Salzburg's short time spent in Finland appears to have paid dividends already. After getting adjusted to their new environment and in front of a wide array of player scouts, Salzburg started their Finnish adventure in Vaasa with three straight losses and a goal difference of 7-17. Less than a week later they travelled further down the West coast to Pori proving that they were not going to be any pushovers. After two narrow one-goal defeats against Tappara Tampere and Assat Pori, Salzburg recorded their first victory on Finnish soil with a fine 3-1 win over TPS Turku.
"Coming to Finland also means that a lot of responsibility is on us too in order to make sure we give the teams up here good games and will be competitive," said head coach Curley, who in the past coached the likes of Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk at the U.S. U18 national team and is now quickly becoming familiar with the level of Finnish junior hockey.
"I didn't know too much about the league before coming here, but I have been very impressed. Our opponents play with a lot of speed and energy just like the Finnish national team. But for us, our big focus is to continue to play with pace and energy which has given us success in Central Europe," said Curley.
Just as Salzburg appears to have hit form and come into their stride in Finland, they have now returned back home for league games in the AlpsHL. Their Finnish adventure is set to continue during the second half of January with games played in Lappeenranta and Rauma.