SM-liiga is the top professional ice hockey league in Finland, and generally regarded as one of the top leagues in Europe. It was constituted in 1975 to replace SM-sarja, which was fundamentally an amateur league. SM-liiga has an agreement of cooperation with Finnish ice hockey federation Suomen Jääkiekkoliitto. SM is a common abbreviation for Suomen mestaruus, "Finnish championship".
At the moment, there are 14 teams. SM-liiga was closed in 2000 so that no team can be relegated to or promoted from the lower leagues without approval of the board of SM-liiga. The board have committed themselves to promote the first winner of Mestis (the second highest competition) that meets certain standards.
In 2007, all of the SM-Liiga's 14 teams were put into an Electronic Arts-produced ice hockey video game, NHL 2007, along with Sweden's Elitserien, the Czech Republic's Extraliga, and Germany's DEL. These clubs, including one Swiss team, have again appeared in the latest release of the series.
One of the main problems was that the governing of SM-sarja was based on the annual meeting of Finnish ice hockey federation Suomen Jääkiekkoliitto, where all important issues were decided by vote. Since all clubs registered under Jääkiekkoliitto had the right to vote, the many amateur clubs prevailed over the few business-like clubs. Therefore, the concentrated development of top-level Finnish ice hockey proved arduous, even impossible. The new SM-liiga was to be run by a board consisting of its participating clubs only, and have an agreement of cooperation with Jääkiekkoliitto.
SM-sarja was also outdated on its own, as it was run according to amateur principles. Clubs were not supposed to pay their players beyond compensation for lost wages. However, by the 1970s many clubs were already run like businesses, and recruited players through a contract of employment, paying their wages secretly and often evading taxes. However, in 1974, accounting reform in Finland extended book-keeping standards to cover sports clubs, and the lackings were exposed in audit raids. SM-liiga was to allow wages for players and clubs were also put under a tighter supervision. They were to establish their own association for SM-liiga ice hockey only, separating their commitments from junior activities and other sports. Copies of all player contracts were to be sent to SM-liiga to provide players with adequate security, such as insurance and pensions.
SM-sarja had other limits for players. According to amateur ideals, no player could represent more than one club within one season. Personal sponsorship was also forbidden. To discourage trading, a system of quarantine was in force. SM-liiga stripped the limitations for players, replaced quarantine with a then-modest transfer payment, and introduced the transfer list. Players wanting a transfer were to sign up, and SM-liiga would distribute the right of negotiations to clubs. In practice the list was not successful, as both parties often worked their way around the formalities.
These changes led to a transition towards professional ice hockey, probably best called semi-professional. Only a few players would make a livelihood out of ice hockey in Finland in 1970s and many, especially the young, players would settle for a contract in SM-liiga without a wage.
One more major, and in the fans' point of view, the most noteworthy enhancement, were the playoffs. Gate receipts and other income from playoffs were pooled and distributed as a placement bonus. Although play-offs were the standard way of determining the champions in North American professional sports, at the time they were not common in Europe.
SM-liiga was established rather hastily. The required changes were initiated in the 1974 annual meeting, and SM-liiga was launched for the season 1975-76. It was the first Finnish professional sports league, and its solutions were untried. However, there had been a mounting demand for these changes, as the popularity of ice hockey had been rising in the last ten years.
SM-liiga picked up where SM-sarja left off with its 10 clubs. Four best of the regular season were to proceed to the play-offs. The system of promotion and relegation from SM-sarja remained in force: last-placed teams of regular season had to qualify for their position in SM-liiga against best teams of the second-highest series.
The combined attendance for the first eleven regular seasons hovered around 900,000. In 1986-87 the number of games for each team was increased from 36 to 44 (and reached 56 in 2000-01), and SM-liiga was expanded to 12 clubs for the season 1988-89. The general popularity of ice hockey strengthened through international success of the Finnish national team, and the combined attendance climbed through the 1990s to about 1.8 million. This prompted an increase in the profitability of ice hockey business and the completion of the transition to full professionalism. By the mid-1990s, all players were full-time, and by 2000, most clubs had reformed into limited companies.
In the modern Finnish top-level ice hockey range of thought there are two types of clubs: those that have the resources to maintain a business-like professional ice hockey club, and deserve participation in SM-liiga - and the others that do not. Since the 2000-2001 season, SM-liiga has been closed, meaning that relegations and promotions take place only by the judgment of the board of SM-liiga. The only such promotion took place instantly in 2000. Without the threat of relegation, the weaker clubs were supposed to be able to recuperate and improve. This had, however, a side effect: clubs with a losing record that had lost their hopes of reaching the playoffs often disposed of high-salary star players, letting down their supporters. To counteract this, the playoffs were expanded to the best 10 (out of 13).
|Team name||Club's registered name||Location||Home venue, capacity||2007-08 standing|
|Blues||Blues Hockey Oy||Espoo||LänsiAuto Areena, 7,000||2nd|
|HIFK||HIFK Hockey Ab||Helsinki||Helsinki Ice Hall, 8,100||7th|
|HPK||HPK-Edustusjääkiekko Ry||Hämeenlinna||Hämeenlinnan jäähalli, 5,000||12th|
|Ilves||Ilves-Hockey Oy||Tampere||Tampereen jäähalli, 7,800||8th|
|Jokerit||Jokerit HC Oyj||Helsinki||Hartwall Areena, 13,665||4th|
|JYP||JYP Jyväskylä Oy||Jyväskylä||Synergia-areena, 4,180||5th|
|KalPa||KalPa Hockey Oy||Kuopio||Kuopion jäähalli, 5,225||13th|
|Kärpät||Oulun Kärpät Oy||Oulu||Oulun Energia Areena, 6,614||1st|
|Lukko||Rauman Lukko Oy||Rauma||Äijänsuo Arena, 5,400||9th|
|Pelicans||Lahden Pelicans Oy||Lahti||Isku Areena, 5,098||6th|
|SaiPa||Liiga-SaiPa Oy||Lappeenranta||Lappeenrannan jäähalli, 4,847||11th|
|Tappara||Tamhockey Oy||Tampere||Tampereen jäähalli, 7,800||3rd|
|TPS||HC TPS Turku Oy||Turku||Turkuhalli, 11,820||10th|
|Ässät||HC Ässät Pori Oy||Pori||Porin jäähalli, 6,500||14th|
Scoring: A win in regulation time is worth three points, a win by sudden death overtime two points and loss by sudden death overtime one point. Teams will be ranked by points, and teams tied by points are ranked by goal differential. Teams tied by goal differential as well are ranked by number of goals scored.
Play-offs: The six best teams at the conclusion of regular season proceed directly to quarter-finals. Teams placing between seventh and tenth (inclusive) will play preliminary play-offs best-out-of-three - the two winners take the last two slots to quarter-finals. Starting from the season 2007-2008 all series since then are best-of-seven. Losers of the semi-finals play a bronze medal match. Teams are paired up for each round according to regular season results, so that the highest-ranking team will play against the lowest-ranking, second highest against the second lowest, and so on. Higher-ranking teams play the first match at home, then by turns away, home, away, etc. Each play-off match consists of a 60-minute regulation time which in the event of a tie is followed by extra 20-minute periods of sudden death overtime, in which the first team to score wins.
Scheduling: The regular season starts around mid-September. It takes a two-week break around the end of October to the beginning of November, when Team Finland plays in a European competition. There is a two-week Christmas break. During Winter Olympic years a break is reserved for the Winter Olympic Games. The regular season is completed around mid-March and preliminary play-offs ensue almost immediately. The play-offs are completed by mid-April, so that all players are available for World Championships.
The winners of the playoffs receive gold medals and the Kanada-malja, the championship trophy of the SM-liiga. The winners of the regular season receive a trophy (Harry Lindbladin muistopalkinto) as well, though it is considered less prestigious than the bronze medals of the playoffs, similar to the difference in the National Hockey League between the status of the Stanley Cup and the Presidents' Trophy.
The following trophies are awarded by the SM-liiga:
In 1995, the trophies were named after Finnish hockey legends. Before that, trophies were named after sponsors.