Estonian ice hockey to experience wave of revival

  • 2002-01-24
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Estonian ice hockey is about to see a new age. Interest in passing the puck is on the rise, as a new hockey event, the brainchild of the nation's association for the sport, shows.

The Estonian Ice Hockey Association was founded in 1933, and re-opened in 1990. It consists of 27 ice hockey clubs - including some for kids - with a rough total of 1,200 members. The game is more popular among Russian-speakers, but now Estonian kids are closing the gap.

Estonia has six ice arenas suitable for hockey. Another five will be completed this year. But game experts say another 20 would be better.

The Tallinn Promotion Cup 2001 was proof that the pulse of this game beats strong in Estonia.

Priit Vilba, a board member of the association, said the idea to arrange the Tallinn Promotion Cup in December 2001 came at the end of June.

"I just wanted to demonstrate that Estonian ice hockey is alive and well," he said.

So, the Tallinn cup was held for the very first time, a test to see how well the new Saku Ice Hall fared as a hockey arena - and a preview of how the Finnish, Estonian and Latvian hockey associations could cooperate.

Estonia is hoping that qualification games for the World Cup 2006 will take place in Tallinn as well as Helsinki.

New cup

The cup costs two million kroons ($115,273) to run, most of which the association got from sponsors and ticket sales. The remaining 300,000 kroons was supplied by the city of Tallinn.

It brought together the Estonian and Latvian national teams and the Helsinki Ice Hockey Club, along with the Moscow team Krylya Sovetov. They played two semi-final games, and the winners battled it out the next day.

It proved a popular show. At 5.30 p.m. on Dec. 19, the first evening of the two-day contest, the hall was half-empty. By the beginning of the second period, most of the seats had been taken.

A spectacular match between the Helsinki Ice Hockey Club and Krylya Sovetov featured some prime, rough-and-tumble professional hockey - complete with large doses of aggression and violence. Three fights and lots of penalties failed to save Krylya Sovetov from a sad defeat of 1:3, surprising since the Helsinki team brought some of their greenest young players. With that win, Helsinki headed all the way to the next game - the final.

The duel between the two Scandinavian coaches, Latvia's Curt Lindstrom and Estonia's Vesa Surenkin, brought a predictable victory for Lindstrom.

Unfortunately for the legions of home fans, the Estonian team lost both games, 2:5 to Latvia and 1:4 to Krylya Sovetov. They showed a good start in the first period, but had lost their puff by the end of the game.

"The boys did their best, but the balance of power was not on our side," said Surenkin after the last game. "We need to do more training and more work."

Helsinki eventually succumbed to the Latvians 2:3 in a tense but spectacular final match.

The Estonian team includes members playing for clubs in Finland, Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Latvia and Estonia. But their rivals at the Tallinn cup were far more famous.

Estonian hockey star Toivo Suursoo, playing for the Lulea club in Sweden, said he was too tired to come, and cup leaflets with team lists slated his name in vain. The local press lamented Suursoo's absence, and wrote, "He declined to come, as usual."

Wild fans

But fans from all sides were at the event. The culture of hockey fans in Estonia is strong, but it differs greatly from Finland, Latvia and Russia.

At the Tallinn cup, people from the heaving Latvian squad of fans danced and sang crazily, while it seemed as though a small number of inebriated Krylya Sovetov fans came along mostly to have aggressive conversations with security officers.

The Estonian fans were active only when their team was attacking another team, and the Finns had a fetish for chanting, "Ref, go home!"

In general, the situation in the upper levels of the stadium - not frequented by the security guards - was strained at times. Some of the fans gazed into beer bottles more than they watched the game, and disturbing conflicts that followed included a few very nasty brawls.