If we were in grass sports, it would probably mean that Toni Söderholm knows every blade of grass in Helsingin Jäähalli. Apart from the fact that something like this hardly seems possible even on a grass pitch after the protagonist has been abstinent for a few years – after all, blades of grass don’t live forever – such a metaphor does not lend itself to the playing surface made of ice.
You can’t know every square centimeter and after all, there’s defrosting in between in an ice rink. So we agree that the national coach in Helsingin Jäähalli knows every corner. He was socialized as a player in the HIFK arena, where he used to admire his heroes as a kid. “I saw my first ice hockey game indoors, when I was two years old in the press box with my dad,” says Söderholm.
In the second largest arena in Helsinki, Söderholm started out as a youth player and – with a break – played professional ice hockey until 2005. “I’m very proud of that,” he says. Söderholm will return to the arena this week, and the German team will start the World Cup there on Friday with a game against Canada. After a generally bumpy preparatory phase, which ended with the 3-1 win against Austria in Schwenningen on Sunday, the tournament will be an exciting affair for Söderholm’s team. Especially since after the completely screwed up appearance at the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, Söderholm is also determined to do better again. Despite or because of the unpleasant experiences in Beijing, the Finn has extended his contract as national coach by four years.
What should give him courage is his squad, which is stronger than that of the Olympics thanks to the four overseas professionals Philipp Grubauer, Moritz Seider, Marc Michaelis and Tim Stützle alone – but the other nations will also be better manned than in February, because now players from the National Hockey League (NHL) are there. At least those who can – which means from a German point of view that Leon Draisaitl can’t. Because the man from Cologne plays with Edmonton in the play-offs in the NHL. It’s also bad for the Germans that Dominik Kahun is injured and greats like Frederik Tiffels and Patrick Hager (both Munich) don’t play. “You have to ask the players about the reasons for the cancellations,” says Söderholm tightly.
But Tim Stützle is in the German striker and maybe Draisaitl (three places in the squad are still open) will follow – if Edmonton is eliminated. Tim Stützle didn’t make the playoffs with the Ottawa Senators. Good for Soderholm. Stützle, after Draisaitl indisputably the second best German attacker in the NHL, was recently on the up. On Sunday, the 20-year-old Stützle played his first senior international match, and the Viersen native is optimistic about the World Cup: “We can beat any team if we bring team spirit onto the ice.” Bold announcements weren’t the problem before the Olympics either of the German team, only with the implementation on the ice was that a thing with the team that finished fourth in the 2021 World Cup.
29-year-old Canadian Jessica Campbell is one of three assistant coaches
But this time a lot is different, with the Canadian Jessica Campbell for the first time there is an assistant trainer with two other assistant trainers on the gang, which Söderholm cleverly moderates. “You don’t get on a plane and find out that the pilot is a woman and go back to the terminal. It doesn’t matter if there’s a man or a woman on the gang. I hope that we will soon no longer have to have discussions of this kind. I spoke to Jessica six times about her job, she will help us.”
Originally, the German World Cup group was supposed to play in the larger Helsinki Halli (formerly known as “Hartwall Arena”), but the hall is owned by Russians. In this respect, because of the war in Ukraine, things were rescheduled in Helsinki, which was quite possible, because the Finnish national team will play in the new, huge arena in Tampere in the group phase. The preliminary round matches in Helsinki are in no danger of being consistently sold out. And the games in this hall can be an advantage for the German team, because at least the coach knows his way around there.
However, as with the Olympics, the World Championships are played on a smaller ice surface. Söderholm doesn’t know that in Helsingin Jäähalli. “We’ll get through that,” he says. The advantage this time is that he has some players in the squad who play in North America and are familiar with the narrower surface. But after the negative experiences in Beijing, the national coach knows what to expect from his team.
The most important thing for Toni Söderholm when he returns home is business, he says there is no room for nostalgia in Helsinki. “I’m not going there to sell tickets, I have a job to do.”