An axe to grind

Former giant Tappara treading water in attempt to stay afloat


Tuukka Mäntylä signed a ten-year-deal i 2009, with an option to play three seasons in another league. Photo: Tappara Tampere

TAMPERE, Finland – If it’s better to have loved then lost, than never to have loved at all, as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem “In Memoriam” in 1850, is it also better to have won titles and lost than never to have won at all? Or does the downfall just become even bitterer to take?

Ask a Tappara Tampere fan now. Once a giant in Finnish hockey, the club is now a perpetual underachiever, even if it’s only been eight years since Tappara - Finnish for “battle axe” - swept Kärpät in a best-of-five final, and claimed the club’s 15th Finnish title, second most in Finland, behind just local rival Ilves.

Since then, though, the club has only been in the medals once, bronze in 2008, but has made eight coaching changes. Nine, counting Risto Dufva, who signed a contract to cover the remainder of the season last Thursday.

The one to start this season - five games ago - as head coach was Sami Hirvonen. He took over the team last fall, when Petri Mattila had thrown in the towel after just a handful of games behind the Tappara bench. Mattila, in turn, had taken over from Mikko Saarinen, who had to step down, and Pauli Järvinen and Alexander Barkov coached the team through the rest of the 2008-09 regular season and the play outs.

Before that, there had been Rauli Urama, Jukka Rautakorpi, the 2003 coach doing his third tour, Kaj Matalamäki, Mikko Saarinen for a few games, and Mika Saarinen.

This season was to be Hirvonen’s second behind the bench, but with just one win in the team’s first five games, the Tappara management decided to make a change, especially when Risto Dufva suddenly became available, having been fired by JYP Jyväskylä after the team lost its first two games of the season. Hirvonen will stay on as an assistant.

Unfortunately for the Tappara fans, then, even the early years of the 2000s turned out to be simply a blip on the screen, an anomaly, instead of a return to days of glory.

And the days of glory were truly glorious.

Between 1974 and 1988, Tappara won eight SM-liiga championships, and added four silver medals. In other words, the club played in the SM-liiga finals 12 times in 15 years, including six consecutive years between 1974 and 1979.

While times have changed, and the players and the league have become professional, and owning an SM-liiga club became a business within “entertainment industry”, that golden era is still the backdrop for the story of Tappara.

Even that began out of misery.

Tappara had finished in the top three every year between 1953 and 1964, winning the championship three times. In 1965, the team was relegated from the top division, but it quickly returned there in 1966. The year after, the club was close to getting relegated again, but a win in their last game against Lukko Rauma saved them.

“That would have been the end of Tappara,” IIHF Hall of Famer Kalevi Numminen told recently.

He retired in 1969, and took over the team as head coach in 1970, and began to lay the foundation for the golden era. Numminen, a student of the game, took the players closer to being pros. The players got paid for each win, a loss only yielded a per diem, and they got to practise, and work hard.

Numminen, a student of the game, was also married to a real student of sports sciences, turned himself into a hockey professor. In 1970, the club made a five-year plan that culminated in a Finnish league title.

In 1972, the team finished fourth. In 1973, third. In 1974, second.

And in 1975, they won the SM-liiga title, and in the next 13 years, the club won eight championships.

“The foundation we laid carried the club for 15 years,” says Numminen.

It must be frustrating to be Mikko Leinonen, who saw the 1970s golden days from the ice level, as a star centre of the team. He’s now been the GM of Tappara since 1999 - with a three-year stint as the GM between 1993 and 1996 - and ultimately the one responsible for the coaching carousel of the past years.

It also means the pressure is mounting on the man who holds the record for most assists in an NHL playoff game. (Six, in 1982).

His latest move, to hire Dufva, is still only a band aid solution since Dufva’s contract only covers this season. But, it may be the best band aid on the market.

“We wanted to add experience to the coaching staff, and we got the best man in Finland,” Leinonen said at the club’s press conference.

In the last four years, Dufva’s JYP have won the SM-liiga regular season three times. JYP won the Finnish title in 2009, and added a bronze medal in 2010.

In the same time period, only one Tappara coach has had a winning record, Rauli Urama - now with Lukko Rauma - had a win percentage of 57 in his two seasons between 2006 and 2008.

Mikko Saarinen’s Tappara won its games 45.1 percent of the time, Sami Hirvonen’s win percentage is now 38.5. Only one Tappara coach since 1970 has had a worse record. Esko Niemi lasted only 11 games in 1984 when Tappara won just one of those games.

But Hirvonen can always take solace in the old hockey truism that coaches are hired to be fired. And that even Esko Niemi won a Finnish title in his career, even if he did that with KooVee, another Tampere club, in 1968, almost 15 years before his time as Tappara’s bench boss.

Just before the beginning of Tappara’s latest true golden era.

  • Mikael Granlund, who was sidelined for a couple of months due to a concussion last season, missed a game due to a whiplash he suffered in HIFK’s game against Tappara when Nestori Lähde checked him into the boards.
  • Ässät Pori defenceman Ville Uusitalo is the SM-liiga’s new leading scorer. The 32-year-old Espoo native is a real late bloomer who playing just his sixth season in the SM-liiga, having spent the first half of the 2000s in the lower divisions in Finland, Sweden, France, and Italy. Last season, Uusitalo collected 32 points in 59 games, and made his national team debut in the Euro Hockey Tour. This season, he has scored 1+9=10 points in seven games.
  • JYP made interim head coach Jyrki Aho, 37, the head coach when the club signed him to a two-year contract.





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