LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Earlier this week at Team Canada’s camp in Montreal, Benoit Groulx raised some eyebrows when he said his team should take a page from the Finnish playbook for the 2015 world junior hockey championships.
Finland, the Canadian coach said, plays the hard, gritty, relentless hockey that wins gold medals. It’s the style of play Groulx wants Canada to rediscover when the tournament moves to home ice in Montreal and Toronto in December.
“I really feel they were copying us in the past,” Groulx said of the other under-20 nations. “The way Finland won the gold last year was the Canadian way. We have to go back to that. It’s exactly what has to start (at summer camp).”
“I think what Ben was saying is (the Finns) played our game better than we did,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey operations. “And I don’t even know if it’s our game – it’s the way that everyone should play if they want to win – that’s not the Canadian way, that’s the right way.”
Nevertheless, the Finns appreciate the compliment.
“That’s nice to hear,” said goaltender Juuse Saros, who backstopped the Young Lions to gold at the 2014 tournament in Malmo, Sweden.
There have always been similarities between the two countries and Finland is often said to have a more North American style of play as compared to their Nordic or Russian counterparts. For the 2015 tournament, Finland and Canada are in the same group – based in Montreal for the round robin - along with Team USA, Slovakia and Germany.
“Finland is like Europe’s Canada,” said Saros on Wednesday morning after practice in the small upper New York State community that was the site of the 1980 Miracle On Ice and is hosting three national junior teams for a summer camp and exhibition games. “But I think we also have our own little style – like a little bit Canada but still our stuff, too.
“We are passionate and solid. Defence, of course, is one of the main things.”
Defence is one of the team’s question marks at the moment after the graduation of most of the core group – including star blueliner and Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Rasmus Ristolainen. Only Julius Honka, a first-round pick of the Dallas Stars, is returning from last year’s squad.
“It’s time for new guys to step up,” said Saros. “So far in this tournament we’ve had pretty solid defence like last year.”
The idea of Finland defending its title in Canada is slim, given the heavy losses their team has sustained.
Up front, the Finns are without top scorer Teuvo Teräväinen of the Chicago Blackhawks, and Nashville Predators’ prospect Saku Mäenalanen, who led the team in goals at last year’s world juniors. Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick (22nd overall) Kasperi Kapanen is at camp, though his status for the tournament is unclear if he starts the season in the NHL. The 18-year-old made last year’s team but injured his shoulder in the team’s last practice before the start of the tournament, forcing him to sit out.
Despite missing that opportunity, Kapanen said his focus is on making the Penguins rather than playing on the world junior squad.
“I hope I’m not (at world juniors) because that means I’m not in Pittsburgh,” said Kapanen. “That’s where I want to be, that’s the top goal for me right now, but we’ll see.”
There’s also a new face behind the bench as veteran coach Hannu Jortikka was called upon to replace Karri Kivi, who left the junior program to take a job with Traktor Chelayabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Jortikka had spent the last few years in Russia coaching in the KHL, so he was seeing and meeting many of his new players for the first time after being hired.
“I’ve been three years in Russia so I don’t know the players,” said Jortikka. “But I’ve had time now to check out the players and look at the games and my assistant coaches have worked for many years with the juniors so they can help – it’s not a big problem.”
Jortikka has coached Finland’s under-20 team five times, including the 1987 squad that won gold in the former Czechoslovakia. The last time he coached, the Finns finished fifth at the 2010 tournament in Saskatoon. He believes defence will be the biggest challenge, but this three-team tournament at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., will give him a better idea where they stack up against the likes of Team USA and silver-medallist Sweden.
“I must say I’m very positive about what I’ve seen in training camp,” said Jortikka. “We had a couple days in Finland and I was like, ‘Oh, OK it’s that kind of deal we have,’ but that’s normal because they are kids still and I was in Russia and the level is very high there (with the pros in the KHL). I think we can play at the same level with the other teams.”
One place the Finns will not have to worry is in net where Saros – voted to the 2014 tournament all-star team – is expected to stop the world in Montreal and Toronto. But unlike the two previous tournaments in Russia and Sweden, the players this year will be skating on a North American-sized rink.
To get in some extra practice on the small ice, the teams are playing out of one of the older practice rinks at the complex, instead of the main Herb Brooks Arena, which is Olympic size. Finland has also brought in former NHLer Miikka Kiprusoff to work with Saros and 2015 draft-eligible prospect Kevin Lankinen.
“It’s different because things come faster from the corners,” said Saros of the smaller ice. “But I like it because you don’t have to wait for shots for so long like on the bigger ice.”
Jortikka said he’s not concerned with the smaller ice given his team’s style of play. After all, the Finns are a team adept at playing the Canadian way – so the 2015 tournament might as well be home ice.
“Everybody says that we are the most Canadian-style team in Europe,” said Jortikka. “Quite a number of our young kids like playing here in Canada and I hope that in Montreal and Toronto they can show the best level they can play.”