Anyone for hockey?
Finland's SM-Liiga gets under way tonight to determine the 2008/2009 national champions
Football may have grabbed most of the attention in recent days, and for good reason, but here in Finland it is a summer sport, and as the days get shorter and colder, it is ice hockey that takes over centre stage.
The top domestic club competition - the SM-Liiga - gets under way today with five matches, including local derbies in Helsinki and Tampere featuring HIFK and Jokerit and Ilves and Tappara respectively.
The regular season will comprise 58 rounds of matches, two more than last year, and will end on March 5th.
The 2008/2009 Finnish champions will be crowned by April 18th at the latest, after a series of playoffs.
At the same time, or thereabouts, a team from the Mestis or First Division could gain promotion to the 14-team SM-Liiga for the first time in eight years.
The top echelon was made into a closed shop in 2000, with no team being relegated or promoted without approval of the league board.
The teams playing in the top league are (in order of their ranking in 2007-2008): Kärpät (Oulu), the champions in four of the last five seasons, Blues (Espoo), Tappara (Tampere), Jokerit (Helsinki), JYP (Jyväskylä), Pelicans (Lahti), HIFK (Helsinki), Ilves (Tampere), the all-time most successful side with 16 Finnish titles to their name, Lukko (Rauma), TPS (Turku), SaiPa (Lappeenranta), HPK (Hämeenlinna), KalPa (Kuopio), and Ässät from Pori.
Helsingin Sanomat is predicting that Espoo Blues will make the step up from their silver-medal spot last year and take their first-ever Finnish title.
Kärpät’s recent dominance of the competition means they cannot be discounted, and a surprise name - JYP of Jyväskylä - is fancied to take the bronze medals.
Jokerit, under a new coach in Canadian Glen Hanlon, and HIFK - who have snagged the services of the ex-Kärpät coach Kari Jalonen - are tipped to take the next places, while the grim forecast for Ässät is that the Pori side could be facing an uphill battle for survival.
We shall see.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Oulu Kärpät too good for Espoo Blues - 4th Finnish title in five years (14.4.2008)
SM-Liiga, the top professional ice hockey league in Finland (Wikipedia)
SM-Liiga official site (mostly in Finnish, with a weekly English summary)