Any hopes of resurrecting professional ice hockey in Espoo have been put on ice, at least for the next few years.
In April, Espoo United went into bankruptcy, the second time in two years that a pro hockey franchise in the city went bust. Millionaire owner Jussi Salonoja conceded financial defeat after bankrolling the club for two seasons. He had owned the club’s previous incarnation Espoo Blues, but sold his stake before it too folded at the end of the 2016 season.
The bankruptcy came as no surprise to management, players or fans after months of uncertainty and unpaid player salaries which were well documented in the Finnish media.
Experts agree there’s no easy answer to why hockey clubs have such a difficult time staying afloat in Espoo.
After all, it’s the country’s second largest city and hockey clubs in much smaller cities – like Vaasan Sport in Vaasa – have their own challenges, but are still able to bring in millions of euros to the local economy.
“It just can’t be impossible to run an ice hockey club in Espoo, even though it seems like that. There are so many positives around, enough people, big companies and strong player development” says Vili Nurmi, a lecturer in sports marketing at the Sport Business School Finland.
“It’s very bad publicity for our whole ice hockey family and our league” says Tuomas Haanpää, Chairman of the Ice Hockey League Clubs.
“I don’t know why Espoo is so hard place to run a club. It’s a pretty amazing platform there. The city is big enough, definitely. Maybe it’s the people in Espoo?” he asks.
The lure of two much bigger, more established and successful clubs in Helsinki could certainly be a factor. HIFK and Jokerit pull spectators from Espoo’s scattered centres, and often enjoy generational support from families of fans.
Ongoing Management Problems
For Vili Nurmi, Tuomas Haanpää and also hockey correspondent Sasha Huttunen then, it boils down to one thing: bad management.
“It’s definitely a case of bad management, and it’s definitely a case of poor image” says Nurmi.
“This latest attempt to run a club there in Espoo looked to me like [owner Jussi] Salonoja and his friends had a master plan for how they wanted to run a club. He has done a lot of good work for ice hockey in Espoo but the club is all about people, and in the latest years he really hasn’t had the backing of ice hockey people in Espoo to run a club in this way” he adds.
The bad management extends to Metro Areena, one of Finland’s newest hockey venues. It should be the club’s prime asset, with a compact layout that puts spectators close to action on the ice. But it’s fallen into disrepair.
“The arena is not in the best shape. They haven’t done anything to it since it was opened in 1999” says Iltalehti reporter Sasha Huttunen.
“The main issue is that Metro Areena, which is the only arena in Espoo suitable for pro hockey, is owned by Mr Jussi Salonoja. And he is not responsive. He’s very stubborn and his behavior has been very unprofessional, and probably also bitter since nobody wanted to help him with Espoo United. The biggest hope would be that either the City of Espoo or someone else would buy the arena from him and renew it” explains Huttunen.
Local players who use the ice for pick-up games during winter say the facilities are in poor shape. The arena’s electricity was shut off last summer over unpaid bills. And the Finnish Ice Hockey Association has opted not to make Metro Areena one of the venues for the 2019 women’s ice hockey World Championships, a decision that speaks volumes about their confidence in how it’s operated.
League Help Lacking
For observers in Finnish hockey, there was a sense of helplessness as they watched the problems unfold over the last two seasons at Espoo.
When United emerged from the ashes of Espoo Blues and joined the second tier Mestis League, management were quick to ask for assistance.
“Our main purpose is to help the club, and when a new club comes to the league we want to support them pretty much and try to advise them. It’s in our benefit to have a strong and good organisation in our league, and we do everything that we can to be like that” says Chairman of the Ice Hockey League Clubs Tuomas Haanpää.
In the last year, Espoo United stopped asking for help.
“It all depends on the club owner and general manager. If they feel they need help they get it. But we don’t push our help” says Haanpää.
“I think we should be more proactive. Our organisation in the Mestis League has been pretty thin because we only had one person working full time. And now we hired another one and we try to find a couple more. So then we can realistically do more for clubs, than when our resources were thin”.
Next Steps For Players & Espoo
For Espoo United players, their careers came to an abrupt stop at the end of the season. Espoo didn’t make it to the play-offs, and then their club went bankrupt.
“I think almost ten players got an SM-liiga contract next season. Other players will play in Mestis or in Europe. Probably one or two will quit hockey” says Haanpää.
But out of the ashes of Espoo United comes the possibility of something new, but familiar: Kiekko-Espoo, a throwback to the underdog junior team that fought its way into Finland’s top flight hockey, and was later re-branded as Espoo Blues in 1998.
The new organisation’s chairman Ami Rubinstein is playing his cards close to his chest, but the club is already advertising tryouts for youth players, building on one of the strengths of Kiekko-Espoo by nurturing talented local youngsters.
“My suggestion is to go back to the roots. Don’t try to put a stamp and a new logo on something and say this is our club. But go back and find out what is the common will of Espoo ice hockey people and get them to work together for the common dream of Espoo hockey” says Vili Nurmi.
That might be easier said than done. Kiekko-Espoo already had to come up with a new visual identity after Espoo Blues Juniors – which continues to have a separate robust junior programme – bought the rights to the old Kiekko logo.
“It’s 100% sure that there won’t be a pro hockey team in Espoo in next season. Pro level is SM-liiga and Mestis. The best possible, yet still a very thin possibility, is that Kiekko-Espoo would get a team to Suomi-sarja which is the third highest level of hockey in Finland” says Sasha Huttunen.
“I’ve become quite cynical when it comes to Espoo hockey. I knew Salonoja and United would mess it up and actually two years was the time I predicted it would last” he adds.
“From now on, I don’t believe any plans or talks before I see something concrete. But it’s going to take years, maybe over a decade, before there’s a new league team in Espoo. And it’s a big shame, because there are so many great juniors growing up in Espoo. They all have to move somewhere else now, if they want to make it pro”.