If you follow international hockey, you’ll probably be aware of the latest World Hockey Championship Finals. On May 29th, the Finnish National Hockey Team once again stormed to victory, trouncing Canada and taking home the top gong for the second time in five years.
The frequency with which Finland has been sweeping the hockey league tables in recent years has been increasing rapidly, a trend also evidenced by their stellar performance at the Winter Olympics in China earlier this year.
So, what is it that makes this tiny nation of 5.5 million people the best hockey country in the world, and what does the future of Finnish hockey look like?
From underdogs to hot favorites
First off, it’s worth looking at how Finland got to where it is today. Given its recent performance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Finland has always nested at the top of the global hockey league tables. However, this was certainly not the case. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Finland was most definitely a laggard, often failing to even qualify for the IIHF.
However, towards the end of the 70s, things began to shift. After finally finishing in the final four in 1982, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, Finland began to secure its place on the map. Granted, its first IIHF win would not come until some time later, all the way in 1995.
Nonetheless, its performance from 1982 onwards nearly always landed them in the finals, while the team also began to sweep the medal tables at the Winter Olympics from this point onwards. By the time 1995 rolled around, Finland was firmly in the “Big Six” of global hockey teams, and fans were making pilgrimages to the country to see the Lions in action.
Since 1995, the window between first-place IIHF victories has gotten shorter and shorter, with subsequent wins in 2011, 2019, and 2022. As a result, Finland is not a hot favorite around the world.
So, what lies behind the success of Finland? One of the most important answers is, of course, money. Prior to the 1970s and 80s, Finland did not pay much attention to its hockey team on the world stage, with the public preferring to pin its hopes on the national football team instead.
Nevertheless, when it became clear that this hope was misplaced, authorities and clubs began to tap into the country’s hockey potential. From the 1980s onwards, huge amounts of money were poured into player developments, as well as a significant upgrading of existing facilities. Some argue that the real shift came later, after Finland’s 2011 world championship victory.
Shortly after, flush with more than €8.2 million in prize money, the national team hosted a summit with the Finnish hockey bigwigs, in which they agreed upon a new strategy to double down on securing young players and training them up over years, mirroring the strategy pursued by other major teams such as Canada.
From this point onwards, dedicated academies were set up to scout and train promising new recruits. Shortly after, Finland began to dominate the podium at the Winter Olympics without fail, while also emerging as one of the top contenders at the IIHF year after year.
In recent years, a similar approach has been adopted by Finnish football. The national squad has seen major, multimillion-euro investments in scouting and training younger talent. As a result, Finland’s performance internationally, while still lagging comparatively against other countries, is gradually improving. This is clearly reflected in the sportsbooks. If we look at the latest odds for football at football betting site Betway, we see the more favorable odds being awarded to the Finnish team against formidable squads such as Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, something that we would not have seen a decade ago.
A natural advantage
It would be remiss to discuss Finland’s astonishing success at hockey without mentioning its strong natural advantage. While the population is small, Finland has a huge natural landmass filled with giant lakes.
On top of this, it is one of the coldest countries in the world, with winter temperatures regularly dipping below minus 40 centigrade. What this means is that Finland offers the perfect climate for hockey training year-round. It also explains why hockey has been a popular hobby throughout the ice-savvy Finnish population for over a century, allowing the country to nurture a high proportion of talented players relative to its population.
When it comes to hockey, Finland is now the one to beat. While the country’s natural advantages certainly help, it’s also clear just how much difference Finland’s sustained investment can make.