COMMENTARY: Small is beautiful - and a winner
By Timo Järviö in Joensuu
Helsinki, Espoo, Tampere, Vantaa, and Turku are Finland's largest cities, by a healthy margin. In sporting terms, this seems to have been a hindrance rather than a help, however.
With the exception of Tampere's volleyball players, no clubs from among the big boys managed to secure the men's Finnish title in any of the traditional ballsports events this past season.
Aside from Tampere's Isku-Volley players, who beat Salo to the Finnish volleyball championship, the only exception to the whitewash was in floorball, a discipline that must still be regarded as "emerging". Here the top contenders and trophy-winners have so far been located securely in the Greater Helsinki area.
The maiden victory in last year's Finnish League by the footballers of Myllykosken Pallo (MyPa), based in the little mill-town of Anjalankoski (pop. around 20,000) was like an omen for what was to come over the winter.
The rights of ownership of the Canada Trophy in Finland's top sport of ice hockey were fought out last month by finalist teams from Hämeenlinna and Pori.
Basketball, if anything, has traditionally been a hegemony sport for teams from the Helsinki area, to the point where it was only in 1958 that the Finnish title first travelled outside of the capital (to Kotka).
This season it was Lappeenranta (LrNMKY) and Joensuu that decided the honours, and of these two the runners-up from Joensuu's Kataja will be a strong contender for the title in years to come, too, as the side will be continuing with the same basic squad of Finnish players and the same coaching staff, and will also be getting the services of Kotka's talented defender Anssi Kinnaslampi.
Handball is another sport where Helsinki was traditionally top dog, but those days are gone.
Now the sport's main strongholds are in the little country towns of Karjaa and Siuntio, west of the capital.
In Finnish-rules baseball, the national championship title has not gone to any of the larger cities since Jyväskylä and Oulu lost their grip on on the sport. Kitee and Sotkamo are two big names - neither town is of a size to warrant a by-pass being built around it.
In the sport of bandy, the northern industrial city of Tornio (pop. 22,000) has emerged in recent years as the dominant side.
In all these examples of David taking on Goliath and winning, there is to be seen a fierce local commitment and even a streak of healthy "village idiocy".
Eager coaches and team managers dedicated to their chosen sport are easier to come by from small communities, believes Mika Turunen, who has been the coach and the soul of the Lappeenranta NMKY basketball team for nearly two decades.
Turunen is a textbook example of the impassioned sports director. Even at the highest league level - the club climbed up from the second division under his guidance in 2000/01 - he handled practically every backroom aspect of the LrNMKY first-team in addition to coaching them, and the man also sees to a full-time job outside the sport.
With the impending departure abroad of Turunen, and with the diaspora of a good many of the players who brought them two successive Finnish titles, LrNMKY's future prospects are something of a question-mark.
Turunen himself does not believe, however, that Lappeenranta's basketball fortunes will collapse after the sizeable shake-up.
"It is easy to get players to come here. The conditions for the sport here are the best in the country", says Turunen confidently.
Certainly he is right on the score of securing new players. Quite another matter is how the club's organisation will adjust to the new situation in which Turunen's one-man show is no longer on the teamsheet.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.5.2006
The writer is a Helsingin Sanomat sports journalist.
Note: The Finnish Championship titles in this winter's main ballsports have all gone to "small" clubs. HPK of Hämeenlinna defeated Ässät from Pori 3-1 in the best-of-five playoff final for the Finnish ice hockey title. Kärpät from Oulu beat Helsinki's HIFK to the bronze medals. Espoo Blues made the playoffs, but Helsinki's other team Jokerit failed to do so for the first time in 16 years. The basketball finalists from Lappeenranta and Joensuu needed all five matches to decide the destination of the title. LrNMKY won the fifth encounter last weekend, in Joensuu, by 85-76. Honka of Espoo at least managed to collect the bronze medals. Finland's handball champions came from Karjaa, in Uusimaa. The BK-46 team beat SIF Siuntio, another small-town side, 3-0 in a best-of-five final playoff. The Finnish bandy champions were ToPV from Tornio, who beat OLS of Oulu 8-4 in the final. The Tornio team also comfortably won the league itself. As was also noted, last year the football honours went to MyPa from little Anjalankoski, and Finnish-rules baseball's 2005 champions were from the small Karelian town of Kitee (pop. 10,000), who beat the equally tiny Nurmo from Ostrobothnia in the final. Helsinki does not even have a team in the top division. The only bright spot for the larger cities came in the men's volleyball, where Isku-Volley of Tampere defeated Piivolley from Salo 3-0 in the best of five final. Korson Veto of Vantaa are the only other team from a large city to compete at the highest level. They did not make the play-offs.
TIMO JÄRVIÖ / Helsingin Sanomat