It took me a while to finish this off, but here it is. The last of the seven major European professional hockey leagues, Finland's SM-Liiga. Why'd I wait for this date specifically in the end? Well, today's the day the season launches. If you're watching any of the action today, hopefully this is helpful. The whole series is now linked on the sidebar... and I'll be doing an additional one just for good measure. Enjoy the actual hockey season!
Right from the moment the first hockey games were played in Finland back in the 1920s, Finns fell in love with the sport. Shortly after the first national championship in 1928, Finland was admitted into the IIHF and the Finnish Ice Hockey Association was formed. As a cold weather country, it was a natural fit: Southern Finland sees three to four months of winter, while the north can see up to seven months of snow cover. So despite being late to pick up hockey (after Sweden, Switzerland, or Bohemia/Czechoslovakia), and having a small population, Finland quickly developed a national program and a passion for the game. Today, Finland boasts the second highest per capita participation in hockey in the world, only behind Canada (and not that much). And it's done wonders for their nation in other pursuits as well.
In the 1970s, Finland was a minor hockey power, and players were making the trip over to North America to play professionally. The first NHL player from Finland was Matti Hagman, who had the unfortunate luck of being drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1975... when infamous Europhobe Done Cherry was the head coach. Hagman played a full season under Cherry, scoring just 28 points, and was dealt after playing 15 games in the 1977-78 season to the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA. In the WHA, he was a point per game player, but he returned to Finland the next season, a time in which he apparently conceived his son, Niklas Hagman, currently playing for the Calgary Flames. Hagman would then return to the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, where he served as a mentor to a young Jari Kurri, while having back to back 20 goal seasons. Perhaps to make amends for Cherry, the Bruins recently signed a transfer agreement with JYP, something that the Dallas Stars have done with Ässät in recent years as well.
This sudden ability for Finnish players to play professionally was a driving force in the creation of the SM-Liiga in 1974. The league's first season waited a year (1975-76) and featured 10 teams. It was Finland's first ever professional sports league, reflecting the fact that hockey had become the most popular sport in the nation in just fifty years. The league also introduced playoffs to determine the national champion, which helped increase revenues. The advent of true professionalism in the SM-Liiga (which is short for Suomen mestaruus Liiga, or Finnish Championship League) didn't occur immediately, as teams only paid the top players reasonable wages while the younger players were still essentially amateurs. By the mid-1990s, all players were all able to make a living off of their SM-Liiga salaries.
Join me after the jump for a breakdown of the teams.
||Championships (most recent)
||Helsinki Ice Hall
||Oulun Energia Areena
As you can see, there hasn't been the massive domination from the capital area that we've grown accustomed to seeing in other nations. Finnish hockey was born in Tampere, the third largest city in Finland, and the city accounts for a very high percentage of the total championships won. The Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame is even located there, the first of it's kind in Europe. The two SM-Liiga teams that currently play out of Tampere, though, aren't as big of powers anymore. Kärpät went on a strong run in recent years, winning 4 of 5 championships, before JYP won in 2009 and then TPS last year. To read my Champions Series piece on TPS Turku, click here (it's one of the most popular pieces in Puck Worlds history, showing the great passion of Finnish hockey fans, plus a big thanks to their official website for promoting it).
The teams play for the Kanada-malja, or Canada Cup, a gift from Finnish Canadians in the 1950s designed to help spur interest in the sport back home. The Kanada-malja has only been awarded as the national championship trophy since the SM-Liiga was formed, so the numbers of Kanada-malja championships reflects the modern, professional history of Finnish hockey. TPS leads the way with 10, followed by Tappara with 8 and Kärpät and Jokerit with 5. So even under professional rules, Helsinki/Espoo hasn't been able to dominate the league.
In 2000, the league became closed to adding teams via relegation/promotion, though KalPa was been admitted into the league (in 2004-05) after winning the lower Mestis divsion. The league then expanded the playoff format to 10 teams from 8, in order to keep teams near the bottom of the standings from selling their top players to the top teams for the playoffs. The threat of relegation was no longer there, so NHL style mid-season trading had become the norm. As a final act to prevent this possibility, the league re-opened a relegation/promotion system in 2008-09, and now the last place team has to play the top Mestis team in a best of 7 series to earn a spot in the SM-Liiga.
For this coming season, the season has been expanded to 60 games, the highest total in Europe. Each team plays each other 4 times, plus added regional rival games, and this season, a weird twist. I'll let Wikipedia explain it... it's quite bizarre:
For the 2010-11 a new addition was introduced. In January of 2011, each team will play 2 games (1 home, 1 away) against the same opponent. The match-ups will be decided by a system where the bottom (14th) placed team at that time chooses its opponent 1st, followed by the 13, 12th and so on. The 7th placed team is the last one to choose an opponent. The system has been criticized by many, for reasons such as "awarding" a bad position in the table and the way the match-ips are decided, since there are worries that teams will choose their opponents from the higher profile teams and their biggest rivals to achieve maximum attendance and more income through ticket sales.
That scheduling quirk can be seen on the SM-Liiga's website, with the games on Jan. 27th and 29th (games 312-325).
The quality of the league is fairly strong, and the league still develops NHL talent with regularity, but the demand for even higher level hockey in Finland is definitely there. Finnish clubs were well represented at this year's European Trophy tournament, and there exists good co-operation with several Swedish clubs to try and start up a pan-European league, possibly to compete as a separate conference of United Hockey Europe with the KHL. For now, though, the passions of Finnish hockey fans is the SM-Liiga's exclusive domain... well, if not for those NHL games that keep coming to Helsinki.