Do or die

MONTREAL, CANADA - DECEMBER 31: Finland head coach Jussi Ahokas and assistant coach Aki Naykki look on from the bench during preliminary round action against Switzerland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Francois Laplante/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Under new coach, Finns look to save themselves

Finnish hockey started off 2016 with a blaze of glory but ended on a dark note. It’s up to Jussi Ahokas to make sure 2017 doesn’t begin with a disaster.

The Finnish Ice Hockey Association shockingly fired World Junior head coach Jukka Rautakorpi and his coaching staff after the team went pointless in its first three games in Montreal and missed the quarter-finals. It will be the Finns' worst placement in an IIHF tournament in any category since 1955. Ahokas was immediately named as Rautakorpi’s replacement. Never before has a defending champion had to play in the relegation round, but that’s what the Finns will do versus Latvia in a best-of-three series that starts Monday.

“Of course, it was a tough thing,” Ahokas said after the Finns beat Switzerland 2-0 to finish the group stage on New Year’s Eve. “But the biggest thing for us and the boys was that we had to start the tournament as a new thing. Bad things happen. Now we have hopefully two games left. We have to play and continue to play fast, good puck-possession hockey. I am really proud of the boys today.”

The 36-year-old Oulu native, who coached Finland to the 2016 U18 gold in Grand Forks, North Dakota, had been doing commentary for Finland’s YLE TV network. He had to borrow skates from the Montreal Canadiens to conduct his first practice at the Bell Centre. Ahokas, a former goalie who played and coached in the Espoo Blues organization, said he had not spoken to Rautakorpi after the firing.

While the Finnish players took responsibility for what’s happened, they also said they had to soldier on regardless. “I don’t really care,” said Eeli Tolvanen, who is tied with linemate Aapeli Rasanen for the team points lead (three). “[The coaches] don’t score any goals. We score those goals. So it doesn’t matter who’s standing behind the bench.”

Of course, a lack of scoring is the main reason Rautakorpi got turfed. The Hockey News was ominously prophetic in its pre-tournament evaluation: “If Finland has any chance of repeating as World Junior champions, the young lions are going to need offense.” The Finns have just six goals in four games so far. On a smaller scale, there are echoes of September's World Cup of Hockey, in which the senior Finnish team bombed with one goal in three losses.

All in all, it’s a major come-down for blue-and-white fans after 2016 started so well. Led by the super line of Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine, Suomi earned home-ice gold at the 2016 World Juniors, and legends Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu whooped it up on camera at Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena when Kasperi Kapanen scored the 5-4 overtime winner against Russia. After April’s U18 gold, the men’s team earned silver in May at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, and Laine was named tournament MVP.

The Finns won’t take home any hardware from these World Juniors. It’s just about surviving now. Fortunately for Ahokas, he knows how to maximize the Montreal roster’s strengths. Seven of the player were on the golden U18 team.

“I knew quite a bit of the other 1998’s too,” said Ahokas. “They’ve been with my program. Some of the 1997’s I coached when they were U16 also. So there are only four or five guys I haven’t worked with. It was quite easy for me to jump in.”

Normally, the Finnish national team has a long-range, orderly succession plan for its coaches. But Finland isn’t totally immune to coaching controversies like this one. Hannu Aravirta was raked over the coals for failing to prevent archrival Sweden’s infamous rally from a 5-1 deficit to a 6-5 win in the 2003 World Championship quarter-final in Helsinki. In 2004, Raimo Summanen feuded with his players at the World Cup of Hockey, even though Finland made it to the final against Canada, and defenceman Janne Niinimaa quit the team. And in 2015, Hannu Jortikka took heat for his seventh-place World Junior squad’s inability to score in Montreal – a less extreme version of what played out with Rautakorpi this time.

It’s also worth remembering that this Finnish team isn't the only ostensible gold medal contender that has had to play World Junior relegation games. The Swedes did it in 1997 and 2003, and Finland also did it in 2009. Ditto for the Czechs in 2010 and 2011. Most recently, an American team featuring Brandon Saad, Charlie Coyle, and J.T. Miller suffered through the 2012 relegation round.

Focusing on the task at hand and practicing self-reliance is key in a situation like this.

At last year’s U18, Ahokas got a turbo-boost from the late addition of Puljujarvi. He scored five goals and seven points in four games – including a hat trick in the 6-1 final win over Sweden. But the big Edmonton Oilers prospect wasn’t released to play in Montreal. Ahokas said that if anything, it’s a tribute to the growth of Finnish hockey.

“There’s no coach who wouldn’t want to take Jesse Puljujarvi or Aho or Laine. But that’s not the situation. When I came in, we have to play with the guys we have. I think we have a good team with lots of good players. That’s just the circumstances. The good thing is that Finland produces NHL-type of players who can’t come here. That’s the great thing in Finnish hockey.”

As much as coaches like to focus on the process, this is a results-driven business. If the Finns had made the quarter-finals, Rautakorpi would still be behind the bench. Now, the only acceptable result for Ahokas is to defeat Latvia twice – regardless of whether it’s 2-1 or 10-0.

“Those kind of games are always pressure games and we have to be at our best to beat them,” said Ahokas.

In a strange way, the change of coaches evokes the famous quote from the poem “In Flanders Field” that appears in the Canadiens’ dressing room: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be it yours to hold it high.” This relegation series won’t be glorious for Finnish hockey, but somebody’s got to keep the flame burning, and it might as well be Jussi Ahokas.

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