Finland’s Jokerit has two historic events to look back on in 2014. In September, the adult team from Helsinki started its first season in the Kontinental Hockey League, and in April the junior ‘Jokers’ played for the first time at a major international children’s tournament — the Eighth Gazprom Neft Cup. The coaches of the Jokerit youngsters are convinced that taking part in such a high-class junior competition will have positive impact on ice-hockey in Finland.
“It has been almost half a year since the end of the Eighth Gazprom Neft Cup, but the boys still discuss how they did in the Tournament,” says the team head coach, Juha Jokiharju. “Our club took part for the first time and all of us — staff and children — were truly impressed by what we saw. The event organization, accommodation, hockey paraphernalia, atmosphere in the stands, and the games themselves were at the highest level — a match for the biggest adult competitions. We can make comparisons, because the boys often attend Jokerit adult games in the Kontinental Hockey League. I think that we understand Russian hockey philosophy better, now that our boys play in the Gazprom Neft Cup and the adult team plays in the KHL.”
The Finns are preparing an almost completely new team roster for the 2015 Tournament, with 37 young players. But the coaches say that competition for team places is so tough that it’s still hard to name any boy who is sure to play at the Ninth Gazprom Neft Cup. The best 22 players will go the Tournament and the final list will be announced shortly before the start of the event.
Shortly after the Tournament the Jokerit coaches thoroughly analysed the team performance and performance of opponents at the 2014 Gazprom Neft Cup and have to admit that Finnish juniors are behind their Russian peers in individual skills. So training plans have been adjusted for the start of the season, and the boys born in 2004 will have the benefit of the international experience gained by their elder fellows.
“Sure, we are all a bit upset that we didn’t do as well as we wanted at the Gazprom Neft Cup,” says Juha Jokiharju. “The Tournament opponents are very strong, and you have to fight hard for every place. A newcomer team like us had little chance of winning the big prize or even being a runner-up. But the club is doing massive work on our failures and weaknesses in training, and we have a special program for Jokerit-2004. The team will hold several specialized practice camps and friendly games against strong opponents, including teams from Russia, just before the start of the Tournament.”
There are no illusions now in Helsinki about how good the opposition is. The Finns point to Dynamo and CSKA from Moscow, Avangard Omsk and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl as favourites for the next Cup. Jokerit’s training staff are unwilling to set specific objectives for the Ninth Gazprom Neft Cup just yet, but say that they will be very pleased if Jokerit can make the Tournament semi-final. Getting to the top four at the biggest children’s ice hockey tournament in Europe would be a major success!