TAMPERE, Finland – Ilves Tampere is arguably Finland’s most legendary club. It’s to Finnish hockey what the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs are to the NHL, or Djurgården to Sweden or the CSKA to Russian hockey. Ilves has won more Finnish titles than any other club, and it’s also the home of such greats as Aarne Honkavaara – whose name is on the SM-liiga Best Goal scorer trophy – Risto Jalo, Raimo Helminen, Jyrki Lumme, Jukka Tammi, Mikko Mäkelä, and before them Lasse Oksanen, Reijo Hakanen, Jorma Peltonen, and Juhani Lahtinen.
The good old days of the 1950s and 1960s when Ilves won the Finnish title eight times in 20 years – and finished in the medals another six times between 1950 and 1970 – are long gone, in every way.
The 2010 edition of Ilves is parked to the basement of the Finnish SM-liiga, nine points behind Lahti Pelicans, with 14 games to go. The last-place team will have to qualify for its spot in the SM-liiga, in a playoff series with the winner of the Mestis, a division below SM-liiga.
That, together with the fact that Ilves’s last medal is from 2001, and last championship from 1985 and that since that 2001 bronze, its highest finish is sixth, in 2004 and 2006, was enough for the fans. A core group of a few hundred staged a demonstration a couple of weeks ago, leaving the stands for fifteen minutes, before returning to cheer for their team again.
“Ilves as an institution can be compared to religion,” Esa Kauppila, one of the fans present at a discussion forum the club’s management set up for the day before the planned walk-off, told Finnish broadcaster YLE.
The fans may have been faithful, but they weren’t happy with their Pope.
“We’re not out to get the team, our target is the board which we want to throw out. That’s why our protest only lasted 15 minutes, and we cheered the team even louder when we got back. The management hasn’t done a good job building the team,” Kauppila added.
At that point, Ilves was also in the middle of a nine-game losing streak and had recently announced coach Heikki Mälkiä’s contract extension.
For the older fans, Ilves’ recent troubles were a recurring nightmare. After the golden 1950s and 1960s, the club won the title in 1972, and a bronze in 1975, and then nothing for almost ten years. The troubles of another Tampere club, KooVee, turned out to be a blessing for Ilves, as KooVee’s best players, such as Risto Jalo, who would lead Ilves to the 1985 championship, switched teams.
In the following five years, Ilves won a bronze and went to the final once, but lost to TPS in 1990. In 1991, Ilves was tenth. Then ninth, eighth, almost bankrupt, seventh, and exactly ten years after the championship, twelfth, and had to qualify for its SM-liiga spot. The club had been on the brink of going bankrupt, but in just a few years, it seemed to be back. In 1998, Ilves went to the final again.
And in 1999, almost bankrupt again. Since the final, Ilves has finished 8th, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th.
Middle of the pack. But middle of the pack for ten years, while not exceptional, isn’t good enough for the fans. And in the Information Age, they can rally behind a cause very fast. Only this time, the Ilves fans’ frustration was not limited to collecting names on the internet or setting up a Facebook group against the management.
But whose team is it anyway? How far does and should the fans’ influence go?
Ultimately, it is often said, they are the ones paying for everything, and that gives them a stake in the issue. But the same logic hardly applies outside the sports world. It’s hard to throw an owner overboard. Even passionate consumers of any product or performance only have the choice of walking away.
And that’s the hardest thing to do when you’re a fan. So you suffer. Ilves fans can take solace in the fact that they’re not alone, of course.
According to media reports, AIK Stockholm’s soccer team’s coaches get quarterly visits from the most extreme supporter group – and pointers, strong suggestions on how to manage the team. Unfortunately, sometimes the fans attempts to get involved cross the line to harassment.
When AIK Stockholm’ hockey board wanted to go ahead with its discussions about joining the Russian KHL, the members got to vote about it (and got 80 percent of them behind the motion). They’re all in the same boat.
At the same time, in Sweden, 51 percent of a sports club must be owned by its members, which the Elitserien clubs see as an obstacle for development, as raising capital is more difficult when the prospective owner can never get a full majority, and control.
And without money, there’s no success. And without success, there aren’t happy fans. What else can the fans do except spread banderoles in the stands, or walk out – and return a short while later.
“I think it’s a natural reaction to want to voice their discontent when the team they’re supporting isn’t doing well in the standings,” said Ilves CEO Esa Honkalehto.
“I was relieved to hear that they were angry with the management and the owners. The team needs all the support it can get. Everybody’s aware of the problems, but the fans couldn’t present any better fixes than we have,” he added.
If history is any indication, Ilves will rise again. On the other hand, their last championship was built on another club’s grave. All the fans can do is wait. And hope for the best.
As always. Notebook:
- Last season’s leading goal scorer Jussi Makkonen is back in the SM-liiga. Having started the season in Dynamo Minsk in the KHL, Makkonen was then transferred to Frölunda Gothenburg in the Swedish Elitserien. Nine games later, the club was already shopping him elsewhere. JYP Jyväskylä grabbed Makkonen to play alongside Steve Kariya, his linemate in Hämeenlinna last season. Makkonen had a great homecoming, scoring two and adding an assist as JYP beat Ilves 3-2.
- JYP also added Antti Pihlström from Swedish Färjestad Karlstad to its roster, by signing the 25-year-old forward to a contract that covers the remainder of the season and next season.
- Jokerit signed two NHL veterans at the transfer deadline. Bates Battaglia and Michael Nylander signed with the Helsinki team for the remainder of the season. For Nylander, the stint is his third in the Finnish SM-liiga. In 1994-95, he collected 30 points in 16 games, playing for JYP, and in 2004-05, he played 23 games for Kärpät Oulu, and scored 5+15=20 points.
- Tappara’s Jori Lehterä has a seven-point lead in the scoring race. The 22-year-old centre has 13+31=48 points in 40 games. Kärpät’s Pavel Rosa has 42 points in 35 games. Ässät’s Marko Luomala has a hold on the Aarne Honkavaara Trophy with his 22 goals in 40 games.