From pain to victory
From pain to victory
Defeats, injuries, sacrifice... Suomi endures
For good or ill, pain is at the core of Finnish hockey. Often the Finns have suffered. But sometimes they inflict pain too.
Certainly, the hurt they’ve inflicted on Russia, a country of 143 million people that has long viewed itself as Canada’s greatest hockey rival, is hard to measure just a day after 43-year-old Teemu Selanne scored the quarter-final winner and a shocked Bolshoy Ice Dome jeered the host team off the ice at the final siren.
Facing Sweden in the semi-finals, this Nordic nation of 5.4 million people will play for a medal for the fifth time in the last six Olympics.
For someone like the 35-year-old Jokinen, who’s endured the heartache of so many close-but-no-cigar tournaments with the Finnish Lions, shedding his blood after taking an Ilya Kovalchuk high stick is a small price to pay.
“Everybody’s proud to put this jersey on,” Jokinen said, looking his questioners straight in the eye. “I don’t know how many times we blocked shots.”
It’s not just about the physical sacrifices. It’s about a mental toughness that the perennially underestimated Finns have developed the hard way. Jokinen is a great example.
Faithful to the national team for years, Jokinen was there when the blue-and-white squad lost the 1998 IIHF World Championship to Sweden in a two-game final format and fell to the Czechs in a shootout in the 1999 final.
He missed out, so to speak, on the agony of Finland’s blowing a 2-0 lead and falling 3-2 in overtime to the Czechs at the 2001 Worlds. But he took part in both 3-2 losses to Canada at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and the 2007 Worlds.
And of course, Jokinen was famously denied by Henrik Lundqvist on the doorstep in the final minute of Finland’s 3-2 loss to archrival Sweden at the 2006 Olympics.
As both Jokinen and his teammates will tell you, Sochi could be turning into a better story.
Even though painful ankle injuries deprived coach Erkka Westerlund of top centres Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula before the tournament even began, even though phenomenal 18-year-old pivot Aleksander Barkov got knocked out with a knee injury and Saku Koivu declined an invitation in order to rest up in Anaheim, the Finns have pushed through. They subdued a Russian team that boasted all of its big stars.
“For our country, it doesn’t really matter who’s playing,” said Jokinen. “There could be 20 different guys here. But Finland would have played the same way.”
“We’ve been mentally tough and confident, and we never changed that today, so it’s a great sign,” said goalie Tuukka Rask after posting 37 saves versus Russia.
“We work hard, we play for the team, and we have an unbelievable goalie,” said Jori Lehtera, one of eight KHLers on the roster. “We can beat every team in this tournament.”
While almost every Finn was quick to emphasize post-game that they took advantage of Russia’s fatigue (four games in five nights) and that this was a team win, you couldn’t ignore the individual presence of Mikael Granlund.
The 21-year-old playmaking centre from the Minnesota Wild did the equivalent of plunging the Russian team into an icy lake in his native Oulu on a -20°C day in January.
Not only did Granlund outrace defenceman Vyacheslav Voinov and strip him of the puck before setting up Selanne for the eventual game-winner at 17:38 of the first period, but he also got to the front of the net to backhand home the rebound from a Selanne shot and give Suomi some power play insurance at 5:37 of the second.
“This is Granlund’s business card for the world,” said Selanne. “He’s hungry. He can’t wait to get out there. It’s a good feeling.”
Conversely, Selanne understands to some degree the pain the Russians are feeling right now.
He owns three Olympic medals and two World Championship medals, but none of them is gold. He was devastated when he scored a hat trick to stake Finland to a 5-1 lead over Sweden in the quarter-finals of the 2003 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki, only to see Tre Kronor roar back for a 6-5 win.
It took many years for the “Finnish Flash” to finally become a champion, hoisting the Stanley Cup with the 2007 Anaheim Ducks.
“Obviously [the Russians] had a big dream to win the gold medal here, and then it doesn’t work,” said Selanne. “It’s kind of disappointing in many ways, because that would be a great story. But again, it’s proving to the hockey world that you never know. The gap is very small between these teams.”
Selanne reminisced about watching Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov, and Vyacheslav Fetisov working their magic against Finnish teams in the 1980s.
“They were just by far the best line in the world,” said Selanne. “They were fun to watch, how easy everything was. It’s hard to believe now that we can compete against the best Russian players in the world.”
But they can. And now it’s time for them to bring that same fighting spirit, that willingness to endure pain that is deeply entrenched in the Finnish character, against the sleeker Swedes.
They may not have the skills, size, or salaries of the Swedes, Canadians, or Americans. But they look hungrier than any other semi-finalists in Sochi.
This is a team with a lot of guts, or “sisu,” as the Finns say.
“We fight in every game,” said Lehtera. “We don’t play lazy.”
And they know that from pain, victory is born.
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