Childhood on the ice rink

Anna-Liisa Ojala


Ice hockey has long been one of the most popular sports in Finland. Its popularity means that as the only sport in Finland it can have a fully professional league. The large number of professional players and international success undoubtedly contribute to the type of aspirations that young players and their families dare to have regarding the sport. These aspirations are strongly genderised, as it is mainly men who play ice hockey and make a living from it.

The publication ethnographically studies junior ice hockey played by boys aged 18–20 as an investment and social environment. The main subject of the study is the Nuorten SM-liiga junior ice hockey league in Finland, i.e. the top-level league in this age group before the men's leagues. Thus, the study focuses on a turning point in the sporting and life careers of the young players, where some go on to have professional careers and others voluntarily choose or are forced to find other life paths away from professional ice hockey. In the publication, junior ice hockey is studied more broadly than just youth sport. Junior ice hockey is a process of investments by a player, his family and the sporting organisation, which are made in the social environment of the young men in the form of daily actions. Players’ progress and development of skills produce various experiences and feelings for all parties. The boys are also socialised into various ways of behaving as a person and a sportsman, which allows the boys to embark on, or may even rule out, various life paths. These aspirations and actions are part of an extensive ice hockey ecosystem, in which many also benefit financially from youth ice hockey. At the same time, the league activities of ice hockey tie workforce and residents to certain geographical locations.

Youth sport is characterised by a dichotomy of thought patterns and goals: on the one hand, the goal of the sports activities is to produce top players, while on the other, it also offers young people the opportunity for positive development and a meaningful life through sport. The junior ice hockey league can clearly be considered competitive sport, which has the aim of creating professional players in Finland and abroad. Thus, development of players’ skills and identifying and seeking talent form the core of the teams’ daily activities. However, as only a few players from each year’s team end up as professionals, securing a professional contract cannot be a measure of success in each boy’s sporting career, and playing the sport must also produce other positive effects.

The young players in the junior ice hockey league had strongly internalised the demands of continuous competition and development of skills. Various categorisations, used to compile statistics, measure and report development and to compare individuals, which structured daily life were normal and accepted basic elements for the players. The teams also clearly maintained a system in which all players were allowed to believe in their own potential as future professional players. Producing a few top players requires a whole team of players who have the energy to try, make progress and help develop the skills of their team players. The whole team also creates an environment that offers coaches opportunities to showcase their skills and to develop on their career paths. Each player whose skills are being developed is also a risk for the junior ice hockey league organisation, as each player takes the place of someone else in the team and the cost of playing is no longer covered by the player or their parents, as a large part of the budget comes from the teams in the men's SM-liiga ice hockey league. The study found that the motivation driving young people’s competitive ice hockey was in many ways a process of ignoring the probabilities and improbabilities, as each player has to work hard every day and have the strength to believe, even though it is unlikely that many will become professional ice hockey players. However, every year a player or even a coach emerges with potential that nobody could have foreseen the previous season.

The boys recognised the improbability of becoming a professional, but were still able, on the whole, to enjoy the life they were able to be part of. They realised that the sport had introduced many elements to their lives that they might have missed out on otherwise. They had the chance to join social networks that were certain to prevent loneliness and they were able to benefit from this social capital even after they stopped playing ice hockey. All in all, the young ice hockey players were able to resolve a wide range of the conflicts that are involved in the career paths of young people who play sports. According to the study, the youth experienced by the junior ice hockey players was not that unusual. The coaches do also allow the young players to engage in more relaxed and fun activities that are associated with a normal youth, which gives the players a break from the more disciplined periods of practice and playing matches.

Focusing on the sport and the dominant culture in ice hockey circles were often not the best combination for encouraging the ice hockey players to be enthusiastic about attending school. In addition, the prevalence of gambling and use of smokeless tobacco posed a risk, which must be acknowledged when considering an ice hockey hobby as an investment. The ice hockey culture also helped to maintain a relatively traditional male image, which also means ice hockey is an investment in a certain type of gender role. It is also worth noting that the focus of each team is primarily on the players who are in the team at any particular time. Those players who left the teams for one reason or another did not receive any type of coordinated support to help them plan or start on their new life paths. Many players purchased this type of support from private sports agents.

Because a professional career is unlikely even in ice hockey, and the future of players is in many ways uncertain, the young people and their families were required to be flexible and have the ability to deal with insecurity. Despite this, the uncertainty of the situation caused many problems. Hopes of developing as a player and a professional career also took young people away from their childhood homes at relatively young age, which also meant they needed to become independent and gain parental consent for financing and supporting this independence. This study found that ice hockey is not only a sport played by the young ice hockey players; the families who enable the young person to participate, who pay for, transport, provide support and help out, are also involved in the activity with the young players. On the whole, the young players felt that ice hockey gave them such meanings and structures to their life that meant the benefits of playing ice hockey clearly outweighed the financial cost.