Finnish Ice Hockey History
Finland was one of the last European traditional winter sport nations to embrace the game of ice hockey. Up until the late 1920’s only bandy was played on Finnish ice. Played by teams of 11 on large ice fields in open air, bandy was developed in England as a winter version of field hockey and came to Finland via Russia and Sweden around the turn of the century. Confusingly, bandy was also often called “ice hockey” in Europe in these early years.

Canadian-style ice hockey gained a foothold in Central Europe in the first decade of the 20th century. The International Ice Hockey Federation (originally called Ligue Internationale de Hockey sur Glace, LIHG) was founded in 1908. The first European Championship tournament was played in 1910 and won by Great Britain. Sweden was also quick to adopt the new game, finishing fourth at the first Olympic ice hockey tournament in Antwerp 1920.

Ice hockey was finally introduced in Finland in the winter of 1927 by Yrjö Salminen and Walter Jakobsson, chairmen of the Finnish Skating Association. Speed and figure skaters had long competed for ice with bandy players, and the skating leaders wanted to promote an alternative game which would take less ice space. The Skating Association adopted ice hockey officially in 1927, but in a countermove so did the Finnish Ball Association, the ruling organ for bandy in Finland.
The first year of ice hockey in Finland was overshadowed by rivalry between the two associations. The Skating Association was first to publish the rules of the game in Finnish, and also became Finland’s official representative in the international federation LIHG. The Ball Association organized the first national championship hockey tournament in 1928 and also set up a national team made of bandy players to face a visiting team from Sweden. Played in Helsinki on 29 January 1928, the game ended predictably in an 8–1 defeat for the hosts. It stands in the statistics as the first official international match of the Finnish national ice hockey team.

Happily, the feud did not last long. On 29 January 1929 both associations agreed to relinquish their claims over ice hockey and jointly created a new independent organization, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.

Tampereen Palloilijat and Viipurin Reipas at the Lake Pyhäjärvi in 1928.
Long road to success

It took twenty more years for ice hockey to challenge bandy as the most popular winter team sport in Finland. By the 1950’s hockey was able to offer better facilities for players and spectators. The first artificial ice rink in Finland was built in Tampere in 1956. The final breakthrough came when hockey moved indoors. The first indoor ice arena in the country was opened in Tampere in 1965 just in time to host the first World Ice Hockey Championships held in Finland.

Ice hockey benefitted strongly from social changes that took place in Finland in the late 1960’s. The country urbanized rapidly, and youths in the growing cities were eager to play team sports. In most other countries they took up football, but in Finland they turned to ice hockey. The popularity of the game soared in the 1970’s. Elite hockey teams developed into business ventures and the best players became professional athletes.
Matti Keinonen, head coach Gustav Bubnik and Urpo Ylönen are celebrating at the World Championships in Vienna in 1967.
The Finnish national hockey team, known as the Lions, took a long road to success. Finland lost all its games and finished 13th out of 14 in its first ever World Championship tournament in Basel, Switzerland in 1939. The Olympic debut in Oslo 1952 was a little better, yielding a seventh place.

By the 1960’s Finland had climbed to sixth in international rankings but made little more progress in the next 30 years. Victories over any of the big five were celebrated as milestones. The USA was defeated at major championships for the first time in 1963, Sweden was first held to a draw in 1965, Czechoslovakia was beaten in 1967 and Canada vanquished in 1968. Only the Soviet Union remained untouchable until 1988.

Unlike most other team sports, ice hockey holds a World Championship tournament every year. Since the early 1970’s the Finnish Lions were counted as medal contenders but returned empty-handed each time. The agonizing wait for first major international medal was finally rewarded at the Olympic Games in Calgary in 1988, where Finland beat the USSR in the final game of the tournament to earn silver.

In the world elite
Every reason to celebrate in Calgary 1988! Photo: Hannu Lindroos.
In 1974 Veli-Pekka Ketola and Heikki Riihiranta became the Finnish hockey players in North American major leagues when they joined Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association (WHA). In 1976 Matti Hagman of Boston Bruins became the first Finnish player in the National Hockey League (NHL). The first genuine world star in Finnish hockey was Jari Kurri, who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers between 1984 and 1990 and ended his NHL career in 1998 as the highest-scoring European player in league history.
We are the champions! Team Finland at the World Championships 1995. Photo: Jukka Rautio. Europhoto Oy.
The collapse of communism caused profound changes in the world hockey map in the 1990’s. The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were replaced by Russia and Czech Republic, who sent their best players to the NHL just like Sweden and Finland had done for years. From now on there were four hockey powers of roughly equal strength in Europe, Finland among them. In Prague 1992 the Finnish Lions won their first World Championship medal, silver. Gold medal was not long in coming. In 1995 the Lions beat their eternal rivals Sweden in its home lair in Stockholm in the World Championship final. The homecoming champions were greeted by tens of thousands of jubilant people in the streets of Helsinki.

Since 1995 Finnish hockey has kept on winning Olympic and World Championship medals at a fairly regular pace. This holds also true for Finnish women. Finland was the third country in the world (after Canada and the USA) and first in Europe to take women’s ice hockey seriously: in 1998 Finland won bronze in the first women’s Olympic hockey tournament in Nagano.
Ice hockey is the only team sport where Finland can regularly compete for medals at Olympic and World Championship level. It is also clearly the most popular sport in Finland measured by attendance figures, television coverage and sponsorship. In no other European country does ice hockey occupy such a prominent place in the domestic sport scene, and on world level only Canada can compete. This explains why a small country like Finland has become a world power in hockey.
The Women's Team won olympic bronze in Nagano 1998. Photo: Hannu Lindroos.