JYVÄSKYLÄ, Finland – It had been decades in the making, and 17 years since the club’s last shot at the title, but now, the wait is over. JYP Jyväskylä, is the SM-liiga champion in 2009, after sweeping reigning champion, Kärpät Oulu, in the final.
The final nail to Kärpät’s coffin came in Oulu on Tuesday, when JYP grabbed the Kanada-malja (Canada Bowl) with a 5-2 win. The fourth game was a refreshing exception to a very low scoring final series in which JYP beat Kärpät 2-1 twice, and 1-0 once.
Jyväskylä, the centre of the region called Central Finland, is the source of many things. It’s a lively university city, famous for its sports department, its phycisists, it’s a home of many great ski jumpers, and it’s known for rally driving. So, sure, it’s famous for mostly sports, and even more so now that JYP is front and centre even in hockey, Finland’s number one sport.
Somebody with a great imagination might be able to turn all this into a big fairy tale, a rags-to-riches story, an underdog recreating itself and beating all odds to take on the giant.
And in a way, sure, it has been a great turnaround. It’s just that since earning promotion to the SM-liiga in 1985, JYP has never really been an extreme team. Never the last-place team, the punching bag of the league, and almost never the top team, either. On average, it’s finished 6.8th in its 24 seasons in the SM-liiga, winning the regular season twice.
But, sure, two seasons ago, JYP finished 12th, out of the playoffs. Then, Risto Dufva was brought in as the coach and Jarkko Immonen returned from his North American tour.
Dufva, a Team Finland assistant coach and a four-time champion of Mestis, the league one tier below SM-liiga, in his eight years as the head coach of Jukurit Mikkeli. Dufva first took his team from Division II to Mestis, and then to the top of that league, and while he had had offers to coach in the SM-liiga, he put his family's desire to stay first and stayed loyal to Jukurit.
Until 2007 when JYP came knocking. Dufva, a Jyväskylä native, had played with Diskos - currently named D-team and JYP’s farm team - and a season with JYP in the SM-liiga. Well, he only played three games and posted a modest 5.14 goals-against average.
That’s one more than JYP’s GAA in the final series.
“Getting an SM-liiga contract was a big deal, considering that I was a poor second division goalie at 20. But I practised, and practised, and basically forced myself into the league. For me, that’s a big story, but not to anybody else,” Dufva told the local paper about a year ago.
But if a poor second-division goalie can work himself into the bright lights, even if just for a second, surely a team of better players, working hard, and working together can do even better?
Sure, others may call it “robot hockey”, and fine, if people think that Dufva himself is boring and has no sense of humor. (He does. It’s the dry, witty kind.) He doesn’t care - as long as the team wins.
“This is professional sports and we have to adapt to its values, including winning. When you compete, you compete to win. You can’t always win, but you always have to do your best to win,” Dufva said in the same interview.
In the playoffs, Dufva, or the goalie still inside him, decided to prove wrong one of hockey’s old adages, alternating his goaltenders all through the playoffs. Sinuhe Wallinheimo, who posted the league’s lowest GAA (1.68) in the regular season, played six games, and Pekka Tuokkola ten. In the final series, Wallinheimo got the nod in the first game and Game 4 when it was time to close the deal, Tuokkola played Games 2 and 3.
Not only did JYP hoist the championship trophy, Tuokkola and Wallinheimo were awarded the Jari Kurri trophy as playoffs MVPs. It was the first time in the SM-liiga history two players shared the MVP honours.
Building a hockey team around a centre like Jarkko Immonen is easy. Immonen delivers points night in, night out, he’s a solid two-way player, a team player, and just the perfect boy-next-door kind of star for Jyväskylä, amused and bemused by his stardom. Last season, Immonen collected 63 points and finished fourth in the league scoring. This season he lost the scoring title in the last game of the regular season, and finished second with 64 points.
Playing alongside Immonen, his wingers Tuomas Pihlman and Antti Virtanen finished sixth and ninth in league scoring, respectively. The line scored 69 of JYP’s 168 goals in the regular season.
Five years ago, few people believed that JYP would ever win the title.
In fact, some five years ago, Pihlman, now the third member of the team’s feared VIP line (Virtanen - Immonen - Pihlman) was quoted as saying that “the hell will freeze over before JYP wins the championship”.
Now, that’s a great story. Poor devil.