IIHF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: A tournament in the likeness of Kalervo Kummola
For nearly 40 years, the grand old man of Finnish ice hockey has issued the orders in these parts
By Esa Lilja
Kalervo Kummola glowers at me darkly.
I have just asked him to pose for a photograph by standing next to the "Hockey Bird" mascot of the upcoming IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships, to be hosted jointly by Finland and Sweden, and starting on Friday next.
The request makes him apprehensive.
“Somebody just said that the bird looks like me”, he growls, but he then decides to comply with the request.
And to be fair, the two do share certain features: grey hair (or feathers), a stern gaze, and a certain stoutness of shape.
Things are in full swing at the Finnish Ice Hockey Association’s premises on Mäkelänkatu in Helsinki.
The tournament atmosphere can be sensed from people’s conversations as well as from all the ancillary merchandise on display.
As always, Kummola busies himself in the midst of the office staff and the one thousand or so volunteer workers who are about to commence their stint.
Kummola has seen all the Ice Hockey World Championships organised in Finland. Twice as a tourist, once as the secretary-general, and three times as a member of the organising committee.
This time around, an unprecedented hullabaloo is expected. Finland are the reigning World Champions, just in case anyone has forgotten the scenes last May; there is more visibility and related business activities than ever before, and the tickets are selling at highway-robbery prices.
The Ice Hockey Association expects to reap a seven million euro profit from the tournament.
“The revenue will be used to hire junior couches”, Kummola promises.
Kummola has also seen the flip side of the coin. In 1992, even the television rights to the tournament failed to attract any interest.
“Finally HTV bought them for 400,000 markka. In other words, what... roughly EUR 67,000?” Kummola calculates with a snort of disdain.
Today, two zeros can be added to the TV contracts, and the Angry Bird staring at the office is one of more than 50 cooperation partners. “The copyright negotiations with Rovio lasted for months”, Kummola says.
Only one brand is tougher than the Angry Birds and that is Kummola himself.
Patron. Iron Chancellor. Dictator. Man of the Old Covenant.
Among the Finnish trend-setters, Kummola wrestles in a class very small in number. Thanks to his long experience in politics (he sat for one term as a National Coalition Party MP from 1999-2003), entrepreneurship, and sports, his network of contacts reaches everywhere.
Few people have a reputation to match that of this steamroller.
But a round of telephone calls to various individuals who are in the know when it comes to the local politics in Tampere only produces positive statements.
“He is easy to get along with when talking business. But leadership is not always about democracy. And not all decisions made always please everybody”, a Tampere-based Green League politician says.
“Kale always stays true to his word. If something is agreed on, it will not have changed to something else by the next morning”, comments another influential person.
“At the Tampere Hall Congress and Concert Centre, he was a good and bold director. He used his networks and gave people freedom to do things”, a third interviewee enthuses.
Kummola’s father was a building contractor, his mother a farmhouse daughter. In the upbringing of the left-handed boy, staunch right-wing values were emphasised. For years the family also lived in Australia after the father was struck with a case of “longing for faraway places”.
Kummola came back to complete his military service in Finland, but did not return to Australia. There he would have risked being enlisted for the war in Vietnam.
“I would probably have ended my days in some god-forsaken jungle.”
Kummola caught the hockey bug on the ice of the Paikkari Pond in Raisio. Kummola’s career as a sports director began at the age of 21 when a group of friends founded the Kiekko-67 team.
“They said that I would make a better team manager than a goalie.”
When Kummola was 29, he was given the task of running the SM-Liiga, Finland's premier ice hockey league, and he set to work. He was a reformer whose undertakings awakened the league’s “old guys”.
“Now I have been involved in almost all the decision making for several decades.”
His merits are beyond dispute. On his watch, ice hockey has established itself as the most popular and the richest sport in Finland.
All other disciplines envy ice hockey’s superiority - and every single discipline would like to have a dynamo such as Kummola to run things.
It is difficult to think of another Finnish decision-maker who would have received as much public criticism as Kummola.
The phenomenon is without equal in the field of the Finnish media: twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, sports specialty magazines Veikkaaja and Urheilulehti try to shoot Kummola down.
The hunt has continued for years.
The apex of the criticism by Veikkaaja’s Vesa Rantanen is this: ”Kummola has created inside the Ice Hockey Association a culture of dictatorship. Expertise is not the deciding factor. What Kale wants is. Sports do not come first. Business does”, Rantanen tells Helsingin Sanomat.
Has Kummola accomplished anything good?
”Oh absolutely, yes! Tons! He has turned this cross-country skiing nation of favourers of individual sports into a proper ice hockey country!”
Urheilulehti’s Petteri Sihvonen formulates: “Kummola’s activities have weakened the position of Finnish coaches. The good that has been accomplished is not enough to compensate for this.”
The critical barbs stir Kummola to a feisty response.
”The accusations are unreasonable and they come from a small group of people. Partly it is pure hatred towards authorities.”
”The whole iron chancellor reputation is not fitting. I have learned to delegate. But I am a tough yielder of power in a sense that I keep the selection of the head coach of the national team and the managing director of the Ice Hockey Association in my hands.”
What people do value is the fact that even after heavy quarrelling, Kummola always picks up the phone. An old subordinate from the business world reports that Kummola was an excellent foreman.
“But Kale’s image of the world and the media has remained in the 1980s or the 1990s. This became evident in his Belarus comments [concerning the furore over that country's staging of the 2014 World Championships]. The criticism cuts deep. The public brickbats sting, but he does not learn from them.”
In the corridors and cabinet rooms of the International Ice Hockey Federation, people are afraid of Kummola.
His English may not be that fluent, but people do listen to him.
Kummola knows how to look after Finland’s interests, and already back in 1987 the Swedes nicknamed him as skitstövel, variously translatable as anything from "bastard" to "asshole" to "motherfu**er.
Kummola is already 66 years old, but his work continues.
“If René Fasel decides to run for the Presidency of the International Olympic Committee, I would be interested in the helm of the IIHF”, he admits.
And you have to believe him.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.4.2012
More on this subject:
IIHF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: The puck drops here!
IIHF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: An assured but somewhat distant leader for the Lions
ESA LILJA / Helsingin Sanomat