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Tampere teeming in hockey tradition

by Bill Meltzer
In each of the last two years, NHL teams have made preseason stops in Tampere, Finland, en route to the Helsinki edition of the Compuware NHL Premiere. Earlier this week, the Minnesota Wild downed SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) team Ilves Tampere, 5-1. Last year, the Florida Panthers dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to SM-Liiga club Tappara Tampere in a game that saw former Colorado Avalanche forward Ville Nieminen score the winning goal.

While relatively few North American fans are familiar with the Tappara or Ilves clubs, the two teams have had major historical importance in the development of Finnish hockey and maintained a rivalry that dates back well over a half-century.

Located in southern Finland, the industrial city of Tampere (the third biggest municipality in the country, after Helsinki and Espoo) often has been overshadowed by the capital city, but it has a hockey tradition that rivals almost any other city in Europe.

For much of the formational period of Finnish hockey history, the sport was played by amateurs on outdoor rinks. It only was within the last 40 years that the game became widely professionalized and streamlined in Finland, with the modern SM-Liiga being founded in 1975. Previously, up to 12 top amateur Finnish teams competed for the national championship in what was known as the SM-Sarja. During this period, Ilves and Tappara were the most accomplished teams in the country, along with IFK Helsinki.

To draw NHL parallels to the histories of Ilves and Tappara, the best equivalents might be the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins. Like Detroit, Ilves was a dominant team prior to the 1960s and later hit a long dry spell (although Ilves has had not anything close to the Wings' tremendous success of the last 15 years). Like Boston, Tappara had waves of success in the formative decades and then enjoyed a dominant run in the early years following major changes in the league and then settled in as contenders who couldn't quite get over the hump. 

Founded in 1931, Ilves (Lynx) won 15 national championships (and was runner-up in seven other seasons) prior to the creation of the SM-Liiga. The club won its 16th title in 1984-85; although Ilves has not won another championship in the 25 years since, the club still holds the Finnish record for the most national-league crowns. In addition, the organization's junior development teams also hold championship records in almost every age group. In more recent years, however, Ilves generally has been an also-ran.

Meanwhile, Tappara (the Axes) was founded in 1955 out of the remnants of the disbanded TBK club, a three-time champion. Tappara won six championships before the professionalization of Finnish hockey. After the creation of the SM-Liiga, Tappara emerged as one of the best teams in the league, especially from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, when it collected seven championships (1976-77, 1978-79, 1981-82, 1983-84, 1985-86, 1986-87, 1987-88). Over the last 20 years, Tappara often has been a championship contender, but has fallen short of the title accomplishments of TPS Turku, Jokerit Helsinki and Karpat Oulu. Tappara captured its 15th and most recent championship in 2002-03.

Neither Tappara nor Ilves are expected to pose a major threat to win the SM-Liiga championship this season. Tappara is a likely playoff team but may not have the depth to make a deep run, while Ilves figures to be on the bubble of reaching the postseason. With most SM-Liiga clubs having played eight or nine regular-season games to date, Tappara's 4-3-1 record has the club in fifth place in the 14-team league. Ilves has struggled out of the gate to a 2-5-2 mark that has the club in 13th place, ahead only of winless TPS.

From an NHL standpoint, the most intriguing players on the current Tappara and Ilves rosters are a pair of well-regarded prospects who have been drafted by NHL clubs within the last few seasons: Ilves center Niklas Lucenius and Tappara right wing Toni Rajala.

Lucenius, who was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the fourth round (No. 115) of the 2007 Entry Draft, showed signs of blossoming at the pro level last season and has carried it over in the early going of the 2009-10 campaign. Through the first eight games of the current season, Lucenius leads the team with 4 goals and 7 points.

Rajala returned to Finland this season after spending last season in the Western Hockey League with the Brandon Wheat Kings, where he scored 26 goals and 63 points in 60 games. Limited to four games so far, the Edmonton Oilers' 2009 fourth round pick (No. 101) has 1 goal and 3 points.

In addition to its two SM-Liiga teams, Tampere also was home to the annual Tampere Cup, which was one the more high-profile preseason club team tournaments in Europe. After its founding in 1989, participation soon expanded beyond Nordic teams to include major club teams from around Europe. Naturally, Tappara (two tournament victories) and Ilves (no championships, but three second-place finishes) were annual participants. The most recent tournament was held in 2008; Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL won the tournament, with Ilves placing second.

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