Lukko's long wait is over

Lukko's long wait is over

This is a story about a club that has not won a championship for 58 years and about the club’s head coach who was struck by Covid-19 and who was close to dying during his 27 days in intensive care. But both Lukko Rauma and Pekka Virta made it. A hockey story does hardly get any better.

May 11, 2021 will always be a historic date in the chronicles of Lukko from Rauma, a town of some 39 000 inhabitants on the west coast of Finland. Lukko, whose only previous national championship came in 1963, defeated TPS Turku 6-2 away to win the pandemic-shortened best-of-five series 3-1.

What was even more amazing was the presence of head coach Pekka Virta on the bench of the jubilant Lukko players when the season’s final siren sounded in Turku. Virta, in his fourth season at the helm of the Rauma squad, was infected with Covid-19 in late January this year.

The virus hit him so hard that Virta had to be moved to the University Hospital in Turku, some 90 kilometres south of Rauma, and ironically the same place where he would celebrate the championship some five months after falling ill.

Virta was in hospital for 48 days, including 27 days in intensive care. He was in a coma for several weeks and the life of the 52-year-old was in danger. Waking up in his own bed on April 1 was not an April Fools’ joke. After the worst two months of his life, Virta was on his way back.

Meanwhile, the team was doing fine. Assistant coach and club legend Erik Hämäläinen led the team during Virta’s absence, assisted by Jarkko Kauvosaari. Lukko was playing consistent hockey leading up to the playoffs and the team won the regular season on 2.12 points per game ahead of IFK Helsinki and TPS. The points-per-game system had to be applied as all teams did not play the same number of games due to Covid-related cancellations.

Once the playoffs started, the Lukko team maintained their momentum. They swept Ilves Tampere in the quarter-finals (3-0), they needed four games against the other Tampere club, Tappara, and after losing Game 1 of the finals, 4-1 at home, they clinched the historic championship after winning the next three games, 4-0, 3-1 and 6-2, with the two final victories on away ice.

“We have done a good job for a long time,” said Pekka Virta after the final win. “We have played the best hockey in Finland for one and a half years now. This is a deserved victory.”

And finally, Lukko Rauma and Pekka Virta could hoist European club hockey’s most impressive trophy, the Kanada-malja (“Canada bowl”), donated 1951 by Canada’s Finnish community. Of course, nobody on the team roster, neither on the coaching staff, was born in 1963 when the club won its first national title. The only other significant success of the Rauma club was making the final in 1988, but they lost to Tappara.

So while Lukko Rauma today is a thriving sports enterprise – looking forward to their third Champions Hockey League appearance – this has not always been the case.

Eurohockeyclubs.com correspondent Risto Pakarinen has earlier described Lukko’s road to financial stability and sportive success, after the club had fallen on hard times following their 1963 victory, being relegated to the 2nd tier league in 1967.

One way to break out of the vicious cycle of doing more of the same is to diversify. And that’s what Lukko did, for the first time in the 1960s. Frustrated by a relegation from the top division, Rauma Lukko management - “management” to be understood loosely - set up a foundation to operate concession stands and a bingo, with the proceeds going to support the hockey team.

In the 1970s, once again prompted by a relegation scare, a new company fully owned by the foundation, moved into the cleaning and industrial property service business. Today, that company has 3,000 employees and net sales of 115 million euros, dwarfing the hockey team’s 10 million euro turnover.

The hockey team is now one part of the corporation that operates “in the field of property, services and sports entertainment.” Without the financial muscles of the non-hockey business, Lukko wouldn’t have even been in the race and most likely, wouldn’t even be in Liiga anymore, despite the long hockey tradition in the region.

So Lukko – a small-market club even by Finnish standards – continues to punch above their weight and the objective is to continue to compete with the traditional giants of Finnish hockey, Kärpät, Tappara, IFK Helsinki and TPS.

Photo: Lukko Rauma

Szymon Szemberg