No room for error

Pressure – pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure – that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

– Queen, “Under pressure”

The playoff race is on, and for many teams, that means that the pressure, too, is on. But going for a playoff spot and missing it, while sure a disappointing experience, is nothing compared to the pressure that a team trying to avoid relegation feels.

Even with the pressure, a missed playoff spot is just a missed opportunity to get to the throne. Life goes on.

A relegation from the top division, on the other hand, is the end, a complete dismissal from the court, a disaster on all levels.

Couldn't deal with the pressure.

Continue reading Long way to the top

Every year, stars are born. Many of them against some long odds.

A few years ago, a 24-year-old goaltender named Jonas Gustavsson broke the Elitserien shutout record in his first full season, having played mostly in Swedish second and third divisions before then. He finished the season with a bronze medal around his neck as he returned from the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Berne, Switzerland, and then signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent.

He wasn’t the first great goaltender to emerge from out of nowhere, and he likely won’t be the last. Just last Sunday, after the final game of the Oddset Hockey Games between Finland and Sweden in Stockholm, the teams stood on the blueline waiting for the best players of both teams to get their prizes at center ice. As it happened, both stars chosen were goaltenders.

Late bloomer.

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Rebel yell

It’s funny how some small things from the past stick to mind when, especially in retrospect, there’s nothing really truly special about that particular moment. For me, one of those moments came in a road hockey game in the backyard of our apartment building in Helsinki.

I didn’t usually take the sticks I used in real games to road hockey games, because I wanted to save them, but that one Koho had the perfect blade for me, and it made my wrist shots better than ever. And I thought I’d need my best shot in the game that awaited.

Well, it wasn’t really a game, it was just me and one friend, my best friend, taking turns shooting, and being in goal. Armed with just hockey goalie’s gloves, but no shin pads, the best bet would have been to shoot low, but who wants to shoot low when you can go topshelf?

Especially with a good stick.

Ilkka in Norway

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Wrist and shout

Recently, I’ve been tracking down former Team Finland players, collecting their stories of how they broke into the national team. Last night, at a game, I sat next to Petri Skriko who played his first national team games thirty years ago, in the spring of 1981. He was one of the last players to get cut from the Helsinki World Championships team in the 1982, so he set his sights on the 1984 Olympics instead.

“In December 1983, we played an exhibition game against Czechoslovakia in Finland, before leaving for the annual Izvestija Cup in Moscow,” Skriko said.


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Under the stars

And that was the second Finnish Winter Classic. A real Helsinki derby, with the reds, IFK, taking on the whites, Jokerit, in front of 35 000 people in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. The home team, IFK, won the game in a shootout, 3-2. And you know there’s magic in the air when the nicest play of the game is Jarkko Ruutu’s forehand-backhand deke in the shootout.

Last year, the home team – then Jokerit – lost the game so IFK is now 2-0 in their outdoor games in the SM-liiga.

While the February 2011 derby was the first outdoor game in the Finnish league history, it wasn’t that long ago the Finnish top teams still battled for points while battling against snow and freezing cold. The league was founded in 1975, as an entity divorced from the federation.

Back then, the first indoor arena in the country was just ten years old. In the early 1970s, several of the rinks were converted into arenas, and surprisingly many are still – after renovations – home arenas to Finnish league teams.

That old rink.

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Catch a rising tsar

When I was 17, many moons ago, I lived in a small Finnish town called Joensuu, in the eastern part of the country, about an hour from the Russian border. Except that it wasn’t the Russian border, it was the Soviet border, and it wasn’t such a big of a deal. There’s nothing on the other side of the border, anyway, just forest. There’s nothing else in about a hundred mile radius from the city.

There was no Internet, and therefore no YouTube, but there was rock’n’roll so my friends and I spent a lot of time sitting in each others’ rooms listening to tapes and records, and swapping tapes and records with each other.

And trying to learn those first few chords to Smoke on the Water.

(As it happens, still the only chords I know).

Two years after the Joensuu gig.

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Close encounters

Last week in Sweden, some 600 000 people stayed up or got up in the middle of the night to watch the World Juniors final between Sweden and Russia on TV. The average was 530 000 and by the time Mika Zibanejad beat Andrei Makarov in the Russian net, 600 000 people had tuned in.

And the way the game ended, it was obviously worth losing some sleep.

After the game, Sweden’s Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall said that Zibanejad had told him before the game that he’d “finish this game off.” A bold prediction coming from a player who had scored just three goals in the tournament, against Latvia and Slovakia – but he backed it up.

“I [repeated it to Boyce-Rotevall] before the overtime too so it was good to get that goal,” Zibanejad said. “You have to decide if you want to win this. In the morning, it was a joke, but obviously it’s not a joke anymore.”

No, it’s no joke. And every time we repeat it, it becomes a little more of a truth until it becomes a true legend.

No Ralph Cox.

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The man with the hat

Longtime German national team player and national coach Xaver Unsinn passed away on Wednesday, January 4, 2012, in his hometown of Füssen at age 82. With 107 games at World Championships and Olympic Winter Games as a coach he was the coach with the second-most international games behind only legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov.

One September morning in 1977, I was in a rush to read the sports pages of the Helsinki morning paper, even more than usual, because the Finnish SM-liiga had kicked off the night before. I turned to the back of the newspaper, and saw a headline about Lauri Mononen scoring a “Canadian hat trick”.

I had never heard of such a thing, but I learned that it was not just a regular hat trick, but a double one. Six goals.

A real hat trick.

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Tarasov’s tough love

Hockey’s pretty much a year-round sport these days. Finnish teams, for example, play their first exhibition games already in early August when the rest of the world is still at their barbecues. Today, the players seem to be in shape all the time, August or April, they’re no slackers, and the Mario Lemieux kind of training – “not ordering the fries with my sandwich” – has gone the way of the Bobby Hull toupee.

I’m with Mario, always have been, but still, summer always feels like a new chance to get in shape. I don’t seem to succeed, but every summer, I still try. I even do some of the old conditioning drills back from when I still could. And when nobody’s watching, I try to run up a tree. I always have to get at least three steps up the trunk to feel good about myself.


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One moment in time

Sidney Crosby’s return to NHL action after his ten-month long sick leave due to a concussion was one of those larger-than-life moments. Especially with the way he capped his comeback with a four-point performance. It was one of those highly anticipated games that forced European TV networks to quickly change the schedule, and pick up the Penguins-Islanders games instead of whatever else they had had in mind. (Sorry about that all you local Finnish/Swedish boys).

It may not have been a true once-in-a-lifetime moment, but it sure was a memorable event. There are only so many truly unforgettable moments anyway, and what makes those few truly great is the fact that they are just that: moments.

Paul Henderson’s goal. Crosby’s Olympic game-winner. Kovalchuk’s wrist shot at the Worlds in Quebec. Teemu Selänne hoisting the Cup. Tommy Salo’s goof up at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

The hills are alive.

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