Winter sports have always been more popular in Finland and have taken precedence over other sports. . It may come as a surprise to many who think that football is the most dominant sport in all European countries. It is why although football is increasing in popularity as a participatory sport, ice hockey leads the charts in terms of overall popularity, particularly in terms of spectatorship.
In 2011, more than 2 million people tuned in to view the Championship final between Sweden and Finland. Moreover, in the 2016 World Championship final, almost 70% of the Finnish population watched the match between Canada and Finland.
A major reason for ice hockey being the most popular sport in Finland is that the country’s national team is one of the most successful teams in the world. Let’s look more into the achievements of the Finnish national ice hockey team, but first, let’s explore the evolution of sport in the country.
History of Ice Hockey in Finland
Organised ice hockey has been played in Finland since the 1920s. The Finnish Ice Hockey Association was formed in 1929 as the official governing body for ice hockey in the country. Before that, the Finnish Skating Association had introduced ice hockey as a part of its program. A year later, Finland became a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1928.
Following its membership, a separate official entity to manage the sport became necessary. This led to the formation of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association in January 1929. The association comprised 17 ice hockey clubs when it was formed.
The first ice hockey league, SM-Sarja, was formed in Finland in 1928. The team winning the first edition of the league was Viipurin Reipas. The team is still active today under the name Lahti Pelicans and is one of the oldest teams in the country.
Till the 1960s and early 1970s, ice hockey was just another sport in the country. However, things began to change in the mid-1970s when the Finnish national team began to succeed internationally. The team made its way to the top four of the World Championships, which led to the sport receiving more attention locally. Then in 1975 and 1982, Finland hosted the World Championship, which increased the sport’s popularity locally.
Over time, the team continued to gain dominance, winning a major following at home. Today, while ice hockey is the most popular as a spectator sport in the country, there is no shortage of players in the country. Currently, Finland has more than more than 60,000 registered ice hockey players.
Finnish National Ice Hockey Team
The Finnish men’s national ice hockey team is in the top position in the World IIHF Rankings, while the women’s team is in 3rd place.
The team’s international success is one of the major reasons why ice hockey is so popular in the country. The men’s national team has won the World Championship three times in 1995, 2011, and 2019. It is one of the Big Six, i.e., an unofficial group of the top six countries in the field of ice hockey. These include Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Russia, the United States, and Canada. The national team won the men’s tournament at the Olympics in 2022. It was the team’s first gold medal.
The Finnish women’s national ice hockey team is also very competitive and one of the few teams that can challenge the Canadian and US teams, the most powerful teams in world ice hockey in the women’s category.
The women’s national team was second in the World Championship in 2019 after losing to the US in the finals. While the team lost in the final, many players were presented with awards in various categories, including the award of the most valuable player that went to the team’s captain Jenni Hiirikoski. The team also won the award for the All-Star Team in the championship.
Domestic Ice Hockey Leagues in Finland
There are five men’s and three women’s ice-hockey leagues in Finland. For men, the top league is the Liiga, also called SM-Liiga or Finnish Championship League. The league was established in 1975 as the first domestic professional league for ice hockey in the country and replaced the SM-Sarja, which was the top national division earlier.
The Liiga is also the only ice hockey league that is not managed by the Finnish Ice Hockey Association. It has 15 teams and is managed by an independent body, and is a close league, implying that it does not have a promotion or relegation system.
The second and third-level men’s ice hockey leagues are Mestis and Suomi Sarja, from which many teams serve as feeder teams to the Liiga. The second and third-tier leagues follow a promotion and relegation system with each other.
For women, the Naisten Liiga is the top ice hockey league in the country, which was formed in 1982. It has 10 teams. The Naisten Liiga follows a promotion and demotion system with the Naisten Mestis, the second-tier league in the country.