RAUMA, Finland – Certain cities truly are on the map – figuratively – only because of hockey. Like Winnipeg, Manitoba, or Brantford, Ontario in Canada, or Leksand, Sweden, only 6,000 people strong.
Or Rauma, a city on the Finnish West Coast, home for about 40,000 people and Lukko, the local hockey team.
Founded in 1936, the club – whose name is Finnish for “lock” – has had its ups and downs, but it cemented its place in the Finnish hockey elite in the 1960s when, led by Finnish national team legend Matti Keinonen, it won bronze (1966), silver (1962), and gold in 1963.
It’s been a long wait for the fans. The 1970s and early 1980s were just one long dry spell, with the team often parked in the basement of the SM-liiga standings, fighting against relegation, before losing the fight in 1983. The club bounced back the next year and started rebuilding its operations. Four years later, with goaltender Jarmo Myllys leading the way, Lukko went deep in the playoffs, but lost the best-of-seven final against Tappara Tampere in five games.
Being a small-market team in a small-market country poses challenges. Financial challenges. Sandwiched between Pori – the home of Ässät, a half-hour north of Rauma, but twice as big – and Turku – Finland’s fifth-biggest city 90 kilometres south of Rauma and where TPS has its base – makes it even tougher.
A small player has to be a little smarter, and more creative. In 1972, Lukko and other local teams founded a property maintenance and cleaning services company to help finance the local junior hockey operations. Since the 1990s, the SM-liiga team has been fully owned by the company, and Lukko has been able to compensate whatever losses the hockey operations have amounted to, with a little help from the group headquarters.
In 2007, it was €1.5 million in the red.
Thanks to the setup, Lukko has over the years had its share of great players in the line-up, both big-name players the club attracted with lucrative contracts – goalies Myllys and Petr Briza, defencemen Robert Nordmark, and Joni Lehto, and national team forwards Esa Keskinen, Juha Riihijärvi, Mika Nieminen, Jarkko Varvio, Timo Peltomaa, and Esa Pirnes – and players that came up through the club’s junior system – Kalle Sahlstedt, Kimmo Rintanen, Pasi Saarela, Tuomas Grönman, Janne Grönvall, and Janne Niskala.
And Petri Vehanen, a name that first appears in the Lukko lineup in the 1995-96, when he, then 18, dressed for one game. That was also the last time Lukko celebrated a medal after the season.
In the last few seasons, Vehanen, now 32, has emerged as one of the top goaltenders in SM-liiga. Last season, he posted a 2.41 goals against average with a 91.64 save percentage, having made his World Championship debut the previous year in Canada.
But, this could be the year for Vehanen, Lukko, and the fans.
After ten games, Lukko is still unbeaten in regulation time. It broke the league record for number of consecutive wins form the start of the season, now standing at seven. It now has eight wins in regulation, one overtime win, and one loss in a penalty shootout.
“One of the reasons for our strong start is that we played a lot of exhibition games. We’ve already played 21 games, have lost only two, so our run is much longer than these seven games in the SM-liiga,” head coach Rauli Urama told Finnish broadcaster YLE.
Urama, a Rauma native, and a Lukko product, returned to his hometown last season, after two seasons as the head coach of Tappara Tampere, because he simply wanted to get back home, and be able to spend more time with his family. At the same time, the club revamped its coaching system, set up a hockey academy for promising young players, and added several other new names to its coaching staff, including former Lukko captain, and a 1000-game veteran in the SM-liiga, Erik Hämäläinen.
“The Academy’s goal is to produce 2-4 new SM-liiga players every year, even if they won’t all be playing with Lukko,” CEO Timo Rajala told the local newspaper, Uusi Rauma.
“In addition, we’d like to see two to six Academy players in the different junior national teams every year, and one NHL-calibre player in three years,” he adds.
According to the new strategy of the club, its goal is to win the SM-liiga title by 2014.
But if all Lukko fans aren’t jumping up and down just yet, they can be excused. Lukko has had great starts before. Last season, Lukko was on top of the league standings after eight games, with a respectable 5-2-1 record, but finished 11th, out of the ten-team playoffs, losing sight of post-season in the last game of the season.
This year, Urama is sure to keep his and the players’ feet on the ground.
“We know that the season has just begun and that every team will also have its downs. We’ll have to be ready for that,” he said.
Not having a down would be a bigger shock for the fans – patiently waiting.Notebook:
- KalPa Kuopio’s Tuomas Kiiskinen has the lead in the league scoring race with 8+8=16 points in 12 games. The 23-year-old “Maltsev of Niirala” has improved his points total in each of his four seasons in the SM-liiga, hitting 39 last season. He’s now on pace to double that.
- Reigning champion JYP Jyväskylä seems to suffer from a bad case of post-championship depression. Depression, of course, caused by a losing streak that was the worst a reigning champion has had in 25 years, when it won just one out of its first eight games. The club recently signed forward Steve Kariya to bring more punch to the offence. Kariya, who won the SM-liiga scoring title in 2005 with Ilves, is now in his fourth SM-liiga team, having played with Ilves Tampere (2004-05), the Espoo Blues (2005-06), and HPK Hämeenlinna (2008-09).
- Kärpät Oulu signed 28-year-old Denis Shvidki to a contract that covers the remainder of the season. The former Florida Panthers’ first-round draft pick played last season for the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg and collected eight points in 37 games.
- Ilves Tampere, in turn, signed Junior Lessard to a contract that covers the remainder of the season. The 29-year-old forward split last season between the Chicago Wolves and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League, collecting 24 points in 62 games.