NHL lock-out offers local league a candy store, but insurance premiums cause furrowed brows
There are a good many Finnish NHL players with emotional ties to the old country, but long contracts have raised the bar for a quick break on Finnish ice
By Petteri Ala-Kivimäki
Club bosses in Finland's elite ice hockey league, the SM-Liiga, are experiencing mixed emotions at the news of a lock-out in the National Hockey League across the Atlantic.
The lyrics of rap artist 50 Cent's Candyshop single pretty much summarise the situation: I'll take you to the candy shop / Boy, one taste of what I got / I'll have you spending all you got.
The failure to launch in the NHL, which officially entered a lockout situation after the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the players' association and team owners on September 15th, means that the Finnish league (and equally the Czech and Russian equivalents) would potentially have some very high-profile and attractive short-term reinforcements on offer.
But do the SM-Liiga clubs have the money to be able to afford the temporary labour?
NHL stars are drawn back to Finland by a mixture of emotional, family, and purely business ties.
Several of the well-heeled players have a financial interest in clubs on these shores.
Brothers Saku and Mikko Koivu (Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild) both own a slice of TPS Turku.
Tuomo Ruutu (Carolina Hurricanes) and Valtteri Filppula (Detroit Red Wings) each have brothers playing for Helsinki Jokerit.
Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell (Philadelphia Flyers) are among the owners of KalPa in Kuopio.
Goalie Niklas Bäckström (Minnesota Wild) likewise owns a piece of HIFK Helsinki, while Sean Bergenheim (Florida Panthers) is the godson of Jokerit boss Harri Harkimo.
The list of tempting names goes on: Teemu Selänne (Anaheim Ducks), Olli Jokinen (Winnipeg Jets), Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators), Ville Leino (Buffalo Sabres), and so on and so on...
On Monday a couple of clubs announced new contracts, but in the light of the possible expectations they were pretty small-scale moves, as Jari Sailio and Ilkka Vaarasuo signed for HIFK from other domestic teams and Richard Demén Willaume is coming to SaiPa Lappeenranta from the French League.
A month-long loan deal was at least arranged by Oulu Kärpät for the Carolina Hurricanes forward Jussi Jokinen, who has a younger brother, Juho, on the Kärpät roster.
One thing that is staying the big SM-Liiga clubs' hand and preventing the wholesale return of NHL Finns is the hefty insurance premiums that will be required.
Many of the NHL stars are on long contracts worth millions, and this naturally ups the ante as far as insurance is concerned.
To take just one example, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association paid out a five-figure sum in insurance premiums for the services of Mikko Koivu at the last IIHF World Championships in Helsinki and Stockholm.
The Finns' Russian counterparts reportedly paid USD 400,000 to cover the insurance on Alexandr Ovechkin for the same tournament.
The insurance price-tag on a player varies on the length and value of his NHL contract, the player's age, and his history of injuries.
Mikko Koivu still has six years to run on his Minnesota Wild contract, which is worth in the region of USD 40 million all told.
An appreciably cheaper prospect in this respect would be Teemu Selänne, 42, who has signed a one-year deal to play on with the Anaheim Ducks, worth USD 4.5 million.
Selänne has announced that he and a good many other Finnish NHL big names will be sitting on the fence and watching how negotiations over the NHL impasse develop, at least for the next month or so.
The SM-Liiga is currently acting on behalf of its member-clubs to see if insurance agreements can be worked out with foreign-based insurers.
The idea is to arrive at some kind of common solution, which would be more practical than having all fourteen clubs doing their own independent fieldwork, explains SM-Liiga managing director Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen.
Vuorinen says that some of the players hankering after some ice-time in Finland have actually got insurance themselves, meaning that they can tell an interested club that "my price [insurance] is this, plus salary on the top".
For the Finnish players, salaries are not a significant stumbling-block, as the most important reason for playing over here is to keep at peak match-fitness.
Nevertheless, the Finns do not want to play on home ice for very long, because there is then a risk that they would have to pay taxes here in Finland, if they spend more than six months of the year in this neck of the woods.
A good many of them have already spent the close season enjoying the summer back home.
According to Vuorinen, the SM-Liiga is now looking at the cost-effectiveness of recruiting some trans-atlantic reinforcements.
"The lock-out is both a threat and an opportunity for the clubs. Hopefully everyone will make their choices based on sound financial sense. We do not want any of the wild risk-taking of the past."
When the previous NHL lock-out occurred in 2004-2005, some of the Finnish players who turned out in the domestic league paid for their insurance premiums themselves.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.9.2012
PETTERI ALA-KIVIMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat