Ville Nieminen was a big part of the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup winning team in 2001. The aggressive power forward was known as a fierce competitor and a tough opponent. After his lengthy playing career, Nieminen carried those same principles to coaching, and has done so with an organization that is a perfect fit for him.
The Lahti Pelicans of the Finnish Liiga, has favored strong characters such as Nieminen for their recent coaching appointments. Former Atlanta Thrashers goalie Pasi Nurminen worked alongside Nieminen this season and assisted Petri Matikainen in his three-year stint with the club before that. All three are willing to put themselves on the line for their team’s success, which has led to some very unorthodox coaching acts behind closed doors and in public.
Ville Nieminen Quickly Becoming a Wanted Coach
Nieminen played a total of 385 games in the NHL before eventually returning to Europe in 2007. He enjoyed some of the best hockey of his career with Tappara in 2012–13. With young Aleksander Barkov as his linemate, Nieminen put up 50 points in 57 games, but fell to 22 and 14 points in the seasons following Barkov’s departure. The time was right to retire, but Nieminen got right back on the horse as a head coach in the Finnish second division. No gap years for Nieminen – he was hungry for more action.
The transition didn’t come easy, though.
I coached the same way I had been coached in the past. I kept players on a short leash and even threatened them from time to time. It worked for a couple of guys, but for most it didn’t. I had to realize that I couldn’t always compare my own playing career to what I was doing now. (from Aamulehti – 1/22/16)
After one season in Keuruu and two in Mikkeli, Nieminen found his way onto a promising Pelicans organization in Lahti. The risky appointment proved wildly successful, as the Pelicans – against all odds – reached the third spot in the regular season standings. Players such as Oliwer Kaski flourished under Nieminen’s coaching and this positive impact is now pulling talented prospects towards the Pelicans more than ever.
Behind the bench, Nieminen is loud and his passion for the game is contagious. Seeing the man with his mouth shut is a very rare sight. The constant energy doesn’t come without consequences, though. In February, Nieminen caused a ruckus on the Pelicans bench by throwing towels, water bottles and even his own suit jacket onto the ice after his team conceded a goal. He was ejected from the game and the fans loved every second.
Despite the Pelicans’ terrific regular season performance, the team was eliminated in the quarter finals against the sixth-placed IFK Helsinki. After the deciding match was over, Nieminen showed his poise by admitting to a defeat very sincerely. His honesty and sportsmanship is never lost, even if his temper sometimes gets the better of him in the heat of the moment.
Nurminen and Matikainen Coaching in Creative Ways
Before Nieminen, the duo in charge of the Pelicans was an even more colorful one. Pasi Nurminen, now 43, was forced to retire from the NHL after the 2004–05 lockout season at just 29 years of age due to a knee injury. Since then, the 2002 Calder Cup champion has worked in the Pelicans organization in various roles, most recently as an assistant coach.
When Nurminen was playing for the Pelicans during the lockout, Petri Matikainen was coaching the team in his first gig at the men’s level. Eleven years later, the two men were reunited in Lahti, this time as head coach and assistant. Matikainen, especially, is a firm believer in shocking his players to get the most out of them. Some of his famous dressing room antics include police costumes and chainsaws, as well as talking to his team completely naked.
Those were desperate times. As a coach, it is your job to do whatever it takes to get the team playing again. It’s not a circus act from me – I’m simply showing an example. When I’m willing to perform without fear, the players will hopefully follow. (from Iltalehti – 9/3/15)
Nurminen’s finest moments consist of various TV commercials, which have played a huge part in building a bold and manly hockey culture in Lahti. His somewhat aggressive nature has been harnessed cleverly in these short films, where he is seen training his goalies with a puck-firing machine gun and later helping recovery with some nail gun acupuncture, all in a playful way, of course.
All three Pelicans coaches share the same fearless traits, drawing attention away from the players and letting them be more at ease with media. The results are undeniable. In 2011, the Finnish National Team took a chance with Nurminen and Matikainen, bringing the dynamic duo along with them to the World Championships in Slovakia. As a result, Team Finland won their second ever gold medal in an astounding fashion, beating their rival Sweden 6–1 on a night the Finns will never forget.
Viljami is a Finnish journalist who began his career writing for Jatkoaika, the biggest hockey-specific website in his home country. From there he moved on to THW to cover European hockey more extensively. Both past and future NHLers are given the spotlight in Viljami’s articles.