Women’s hockey saves town

Finland’s Mikko Mäkelä heads the Warner program

30.10.2008
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Mikko Mäkelä during practice with his women.

WARNER, Canada – How in the world did Mikko Mäkelä end up here? That’s the first question that pops up when you discover that the 43-year-old ex-NHLer from Tampere is now teaching at a women’s hockey school in an Alberta town with a population of 310.

Mäkelä has actually been linked to the Lethbridge, Canada, area for years. (Warner lies 65 kilometres south of Lethbridge.) The big left wing, who scored 265 points in 423 career NHL games, met his wife Janice there in 1987 while Team Finland was training for the Canada Cup. Later, he served as the head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2002-03 and 2003-04.

Mäkelä was invited to come to the Warner Hockey School as the Director of Hockey and head coach when the school’s previous coach, Jamie Wood, moved on in 2007. (Wood currently heads up the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s hockey program.)

The Ilves product admits that when he ran his first practice with the midget-aged girls (mostly aged 15 to 17), he’d never had any experience in women’s hockey before, and his expectations were modest: “The team was actually pretty good, and I was a little bit surprised that they could do certain drills with no problem whatsoever.” He decided to stay and hasn’t looked back since.

“I hope to take this program to the next level,” said Mäkelä . “We are one of the best programs for midget-aged girls in Canada. We’ve improved our facilities immensely. We have a beautiful fitness centre, a brand-new locker room, an NHL-sized rink, and so on. It’s competitive with any other program out there.”

In fact, the Warner Hockey School has saved this small town from extinction. There’s a regular academic school running from kindergarten to Grade 12, with 140 students, but it was on the verge of being eliminated due to cutbacks before the women’s hockey school was launched in conjunction by Wood in 2003. Now there are more reasons for people to stay and raise their children in little Warner. In fact, the town made the final five in the 2007 edition of the CBC Sports reality show, Kraft Hockeyville, which showcases Canadian communities that love this sport.

With a 15-1 student-teacher ratio, academic standards are high, above the Alberta average, and the hockey school is attracting bright prospects. Both elements are essential if your goal is to turn out players who can vie for spots on NCAA rosters.

A typical working day for Mäkelä  sees him arrive at 9 am and handle office work until 2:30 pm. He’ll hit the ice with the girls from 3 pm to 4:45 pm, and from 5 pm to 6:15 pm, it’s dryland training.

“I’m very excited about this team,” said Mäkelä . “We have a very young group. We have five girls in Grade 9, three in Grade 10, seven in Grade 11, and six in Grade 12. In the league we’ve joined this year, the JWHL (Junior Women’s Hockey League), the teams are U19, and they often have players who are representing Canada and the US at the U18 level. So they are typically way older than us, but we can still compete against them. That’s pretty amazing.”

Travel is a challenge both logistically and financially, since the other JWHL teams are located in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Calgary, plus US centres like Lake Placid, Vermont, Boston, and Washington DC. Nonetheless, Warner will take part in seven tournaments this season (three divisional and four league-wide). This is its second JWHL campaign. Previously, it competed in major midget women’s hockey in Alberta.

While the Warner school has yet to spawn any Olympians, it currently has two Finnish girls who play for their nation’s U-18 team: forwards Lotta Haarala and Niina Mäkinen. Forward Sarah Davis is currently on the radar for Canada’s U-18 squad, and defenseman Akane Hosoyamada and forward Mac Purvis have represented Team Alberta in provincial U-18 competition. The longtime head scout for Hockey Canada’s women’s program, Wally Kozak, has come out to run practices in the past, and Mäkelä  deeply respects Kozak’s knowledge.

“When girls come here, they know they’re coming to a high-end program, and they take the attitude that they want to succeed,” said Mäkelä. “They’re committed to doing drills to a T and staying focused, and it’s nice to see as a coach.”

If Mäkelä feels like inspiring his young charges with some memorable tales from his playing days, he’s got plenty of material to draw upon.

In the Finnish SM-Liiga, Mäkelä won the goal-scoring title in 1985 with 34 tallies, and he topped the 1992 points derby with 70.

He twice won silver at the IIHF World Championships (1992, 1994) and bronze at the Lillehammer Olympics. He vividly recalls scoring a goal in the gold medal shootout versus Canada in 1994: “I was thinking, ‘There are 3.5 million people watching this game in Finland and about 12,000 in the stands, and all eyes are on me,’” he said. “When I got back to the bench, I felt like macaroni. I was completely weak. I looked at Jari Kurri, who had scored before me, and I said, ‘How do you feel?’ He said, ‘I’m completely done.’” Luc Robitaille ultimately got the winner for Canada.

Mäkelä was named to the First All-Star Team at the 1985 World Juniors, where he gained some early renown by teaming up on a powerhouse line with Esa Keskinen and Esa Tikkanen. He then renewed his acquaintanceship with Tikkanen on a Raimo Helminen-centered line at that year’s Worlds in Prague.

What are Mäkela’s memories of the most famous pest in Finnish hockey history? “Tikkanen’s mouth and body were going the same way,” Mäkelä said with a laugh. “At the summer camps, the coaches basically had to take a hammer and knock him out at the end of the day. Then he was off again in the morning, like an alarm clock. Up and going. That guy had so much energy, it was amazing. When we had a break from the ice, he’d be playing tennis or basketball, or swimming. He was like a non-stop Energizer battery.”

Mäkelä says his proudest NHL achievement was making the New York Islanders roster in 1985-86, with that club just three years removed from its last Stanley Cup. Playing alongside Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and Denis Potvin was a thrill. He had his best NHL campaign on Long Island, too, recording 36 goals and 40 assists in 1987-88.

Now, the setting and the challenges are completely different in Warner, Alberta. But Mikko Mäkelä is still excited about helping the next generation of women’s hockey stars achieve its full potential. For more information, check out the web site www.warnerhockeyschool.com.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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