Most hockey fans, I am sure, are familiar with the Soviet Union’s famous hockey program, the “Red Machine” that dominated the sport for the better part of four decades. However, since the breakup of the USSR in the early 1990s, the various independent republics that used to comprise it have followed a number of different paths with regards to ice hockey. And so I thought it would be interesting to examine the state of the game in each of those post-Soviet nations. We will do this geographically, beginning, in the far north-west of the former USSR, with Estonia.
Some quick descriptive notes: Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic countries (Latvia and Lithuania are the others), sharing land borders to the south with Latvia and to the east with Russia. To the west, we find the Baltic Sea, while the coast of the Gulf of Finland, where Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn is located, lies to the north. Per Wikipedia, Estonia currently has a population of approximately 1.3 million people.
This is actually a very appropriate time to be discussing the game of ice hockey in Estonia, since the country is somewhat in the hockey news at the moment. It was a revealed a couple of weeks ago that the owners of a newly-founded club in Tallinn are in the process of applying to join the Kontinental Hockey League for the 2016-17 season. If they succeed, the team, Ilves Tallinn, will play at the Tondiraba Jäähall, a 6,000-seat arena that opened its doors in 2014. It will also mean the return of Estonia to top-level club hockey for the first time in more than 60 years.
Organized high-level ice hockey in Estonia began in the 1930s, when the country, independent during the inter-war period, achieved membership in the IIHF and set up a national league. The Baltic countries were then occupied by the USSR in the course of World War Two, and when Soviet hockey began in the winter of 1946, there was Estonian representation in the league in the form of Dinamo Tallinn. Dinamo would remain part of the top Soviet division for its first seven seasons, before being relegated after the 1952-53 campaign. The Estonian domestic circuit, the Meistriliiga, continued to operate as a regional league throughout the Soviet era. When Estonia regained independence in 1991, the country also regained its IIHF membership, and joined the list of countries playing for the World Championship.
In the big international picture, Estonia has never qualified for the top division of international men’s hockey, although the country did spend three years in the second tier in the 1990s. Estonia will play the 2016 IIHF Men’s World Championship as part of Division IB, the third tier. That tournament will be held in Zagreb next April, and Croatia, Romania, Great Britain, Ukraine, and Lithuania will provide the opposition for the Estonians. Estonia’s junior team will play their World Championship in Division IIA (the fourth tier) of the U20 set-up, while the Under-18 squad is a division below that, in IIB.
The Estonian men’s team is also looking to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Estonia survived the first preliminary qualifying round – in fact, they thoroughly dominated it, defeating Mexico, Israel, and Bulgaria by a combined score of 58-4. Tougher opposition (Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania) awaits in Preliminary Round 2 next February. Should the Estonians get by that hurdle, there will be a final Olympic qualifying group competition in September of 2016.
Estonia has 30 registered women players, per the IIHF, and the women’s national team is currently on a hiatus after contesting a couple of World Championships in the lower divisions in the mid-late 2000s.
On the domestic front, the Meistriliiga is a cozy four-team affair, with one of its member clubs being Estonia’s Under-18 national team, Eesti Noortekoondis. Last year’s champions, Tartu Kalev-Välk, are not in the league this season. The early pace-setters in 2015-16, with a current record of 4-1, are Narva PSK, from eastern Estonia virtually on the Russian border.
If the KHL plans of Ilves Tallinn come to fruition, one of the goals of the project will be to build up the national team by giving Estonian players some regular top-level opposition, much as Medveščak Zagreb have sought to do in Croatia. It is almost a sure thing that one of the team’s first signing targets will be Robert Rooba of Finnish club Espoo Blues. Rooba, a 22-year-old forward from Tallinn who boasts good size at 6’3” and 205 lbs, is still very much a development player – he has yet to record his first point in the Finnish Liiga this season, through 17 games. However, his experience at lower levels, including several seasons on Finland’s junior circuit, suggests that he can score at a least a bit. Whether he can develop enough of a scoring touch to be a useful player at the KHL level remains to be seen.
Across the water, there is, and has been, only one Estonian-born player in the NHL, and he comes with an asterisk — although Toronto Maple Leafs forward Leo Komarov was born in Narva, he holds dual citizenship in Russia and Finland, and plays his international hockey for the latter. The only other Estonian player ever drafted by an NHL team is forward Toivo Suursoo, taken by the Detroit Red Wings in the 11th round in 2004. Suursoo did play some in the AHL; he scored a respectable 14-12-26 in 51 games for Cincinnati in 2000-01. After a lengthy career for a number of teams mostly in various European leagues, he retired in 2013 after a couple of seasons as a player-coach in Norway.
So that is where matters stand at the moment with regards to ice hockey in Estonia. The big question for now, of course, is whether this new KHL project can get off the ground – and, if it does, whether it can be successful. We will get some indication early next week, on December 8th to be precise, when the Ilves Tallinn ownership group meets with KHL officials for preliminary discussions.
Thank you for reading! Next time in this series, we will move a bit southward and take a look at Latvia.