ALUMNI SHINE AT PREDS CAMP
Date: Jun 28, 2019
By BROOKS BRATTEN
Elite Edge is notorious for giving young hockey players – particularly those who reside in the southeastern United States – opportunities to advance in the game they may not have received otherwise.
But those who call parts of Scandinavia home? They’re coming to the showcase, too.
Sam Liebkind and Jimmy Komulainen of the newly formed Nordic Hockey Academy/Skien Ice Hockey Club made their way to Nashville, Tennessee, for the first time this week with five players in tow for the chance to learn from and play alongside North American players and coaches.
So, why exert all the effort to come to the United States just to play hockey for a few days? Well, the goal for these players – three from Finland, one from Norway and another from Austria – is to play NCAA Division One hockey someday, and Elite Edge offers a path to get there.
And to these kids, it’s more than worth it.
“I’ve loved this camp,” Finnish defenseman Lassi Lahteenmaki said. “The level of play is high, and the exposure you get here, it’s just better here.”
That’s exactly why Liebkind and Komulainen made the journey, to get their players in front of American and Canadian coaches who can see their players firsthand as opposed to watching video on the internet or spending hundreds on plane tickets to Europe.
Liebkind, who is the Nordic Hockey Academy Manager, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the program, grew up in North America and knows what it takes to play on the continent, while Komulainen is experienced behind the bench, including time spent coaching Predators winger Kevin Fiala during his junior hockey days.
Just as their players have gained invaluable experience at the camp, the pair has been watching and learning alongside their fellow coaches, prepared to implement systems and habits back into their program next season.
“It’s been a great experience for us,” Liebkind said. “We wanted to compare our players to the local players here at an American level, and we wanted to give them the chance to be coached by North American coaches. It’s a different style of hockey a little bit and I think they’ve done well. They’re enjoying their time very much, not only Nashville and the sun and the heat and country music, but also the hockey.”
“It’s a great opportunity for the boys and to see and meet new players from the U.S. and to compare themselves,” Komulainen said. “I can see in their eyes they really love to be here and really love to be coached by new coaches from the NCAA and American junior programs, but it’s also great for me to listen to those coaches and take new things in and be open minded about the game.”
Established in August, the Nordic Hockey Academy aims to give their players the best chance to advance into the North American game one day, putting an emphasis on coaching players using English, as well as off-ice teachings like preparations to take the SAT and qualify for college.
“We try to educate our people in the Academy to understand it’s a long road and you’ve got to be systematic and tactical in the moves you make,” Liebkind said “There’s a little bit of luck involved, too, but I think we’re on the right path and coming here was really good… It’s a good concept and all the kids here in this event get their money’s worth to be here and be evaluated.”
When the contingent of seven departs Nashville and finds their way back to Norway, they’ll do so with a newfound understanding of hockey in this part of the world. And while they’ll also take something tangible with them – Liebkind couldn’t leave without purchasing a cowboy hat – it’s the lessons learned that will stick long after the Tennessee humidity.
“Over here, they look at how you are as a person and how you behave off the ice,” Norwegian forward Joonas Hunkilen said. “Many players in Europe don’t know that and how important it is. That’s actually one of the most important things I’ll take home with me.”
“To be honest with you, it might sound a little bit arrogant, but one thing for our players is to have that feeling that they’re not so far behind the North American players,” Liebkind said. “For us, continuing to develop our program and reach that trust with these coaches and these people here, to have them understand that these guys are not just trying to win trophies in Norway, but they’re actually trying to develop players for this kind of hockey here – that’s the biggest souvenir we try to take home from here.”