Aspen hockey continues Finnish partnership with university students |

Aspen hockey continues Finnish partnership with university students

Aspen Junior Hockey Executive Director Shaun Hathaway, left, brought in Finland's Alexi Salonen as part of a continued partnership with Finland's Vierumaki University and the Finnish Ice Hockey Association. Salonen is working with AJH through March.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times |

What started as a one-time deal with the Finnish Ice Hockey Association has turned into a 10-year relationship, if not more, with Aspen Junior Hockey.

Last winter, AJH executive director Shaun Hathaway brought in Kalle Valiaho, one of the most prominent figures for youth hockey in Finland, for six months to exchange ideas and learn from one of the world’s most successful hockey countries.

It went so well it’s going to become an annual partnership.

“We’ve already hired a new student for next year, so we are set for next season. We are excited to keep this partnership rolling,” Hathaway said. “It’s been a much easier Year 2 with that shift. The way we are running practices has been more normalized, so a lot less pushback this year and a lot of success.”

This winter, AJH brought in Alexi Salonen, a sports management undergraduate student at Finland’s Vierumaki University, which has partnered with the Aspen organization. The idea is to bring in a student from the university each winter, where he or she will gain practical experience to help complete their degree.

Salonen, an aspiring coach who has played hockey since he was 5, arrived in Aspen in October and will stay through March. It is his first time in the United States.

“It was a great decision,” the 23-year-old Salonen said of coming to Aspen. “I didn’t know what they were doing here. I was thinking I’m going to get something out from how U.S. people play, how they practice, and be able to compare the Finnish way and the U.S. way.

“Then I heard they are trying to do the same thing we are doing back home, so maybe the second goal was to get more experience for planning a practice and get my own philosophy.”

USA Hockey, the country’s organizing body for the sport, has backed the AJH partnership with FIHA. Finland’s unique approach to hockey has set it apart from many countries, and the success can be seen at all levels.

For example, of the 31 players drafted in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft, six were from Finland. Only five of those 31 players were from the United States. This is significant considering Finland’s entire population is roughly 5.5 million people, or about the same as the state of Colorado.

“We are making progress in changing the way we look at teaching our kids and running practices and we’ll continue to move forward,” Hathaway said. “USA Hockey is really following the Finnish model as well. USA Hockey is thrilled we are doing this, and the managers of USA Hockey believe we are leaps and bounds above other youth programs in the country.”

This winter marks the first official year of the decade-long deal between AJH and Finland. Among other duties, Salonen is the head coach and coordinator of the Aspen Squirts players.

“We are making progress and that cultural shift is certainly happening,” Hathaway said. “His six months here in Aspen is a time for him to get his credit, his practical experience credit, and obviously a time for us to continue our education with the Finnish program, to have a top-level coach here, so it’s a win-win for both Vierumaki hockey and for Aspen Junior Hockey.”

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