And so it was over. I sat in the armchair, and watched the Swedes pile up into a huge blue and yellow … painful lump of yuck!
I knew all the stories of the Swedes’ golden generation, how Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Daniel Alfredsson “never got to win anything together in a big tournament.”
I’ve always like Mats Sundin, and I was probably the only person in the stands during the World Championships final in 1997 to cheer for the Swedes over Canada. (Canada won). I think Peter Forsberg is an amazing player, and I even said before the tournament that Henrik Lundqvist is the goalie that can lead Sweden to Olympic gold.
I knew that. And, in a way, I wanted their stories to get the fairytale ending.
But, dagnabit, I also wanted some other stories to unfold in a perfect way. I wanted Teemu Selanne to win a big tournament. I wanted Jere Lehtinen to become the first Finn in the Triple Gold Club (Olympic gold, Stanley Cup, and a World Championship), I wanted Teppo Numminen to get an Olympic gold so he’d been there to win the first gold, as he was there to win the first medal in Calgary 18 years earlier, and I wanted Antero Niittymaki to show everybody that they were gravely mistaken in not believing in him.
I also wanted Erkka Westerlund to be the first Finnish coach to win a tournament final. I wanted so much. The players wanted so much, we all yearned for that gold.
Finland has played in a major tournament final eight times since 1992. Their — no, wait, make that “our”– record in those eight finals? 1-7. Six straight losses in World Championships, the World Cup and the Olympics since 1995.
That’s what’s eating me.
To make matters worse, that one win, the 1995 Big Bang, came in a tournament with no NHL players, so that there’s always that but-shaped shadow that people can throw over that championship.
The Finnish and Swedish media called it a dream final, but honestly, it’s more of a dream final for us Finns, and even then, only if Finland wins. Losing to Swedes really does hurt. It’s a nightmare.
I asked my Swedish friends today who they would most want to beat in an Olympic final. Most of the dozen or so — today, all Swedes seemed to be my friends, even my old boss who I haven’t talked to in years emailed me after the game — wanted Canada. Only a couple said Finland.
I guess Finland’s not cool enough. It’s an everyday thing. Not necessarily beating the Finns, but just playing them. Finland’s sort of … just there all the time.
The interesting thing is that a huge majority of the same people said that if they had to lose, they’d want to lose to Finland. Isn’t that nice? Yeah. Perfect losers — depriving us the joy of gloating as well!
Anyway, there I was, being this pilgrim in an unholy land — as Rich puts it — sitting in the arm chair, staring at the television. Actually, I was standing in the arm chair, frozen to the pose I had when Olli Jokinen got the puck with ten seconds remaining.
I was watching the game at my girlfriend’s parents’ house. So, I’m there, being just as gracious as a Swede: “Well, it was really nice for Mats to finally get that gold.” And my girlfriend’s Swedish Dad going, “It was a good game, it was so close.”
Twenty-four hours later, I stood between an 80-year-old man and an Asian teenager, as they sang the Swedish national anthem in unison with about 20 000 other people in Stockholm. Not really sure why I was there, but I wanted to be there.
I wanted to see “Foppa,” “Sudden” and the rest get embraced by their fellow Swedes. I stood there through a two-hour show of Swedish pop hits, a couple of repetitions of the national anthem, and interviews with the ladies’ hockey team that won silver in Turin. (Some silvers are won, others lost).
Then, they were there. The golden generation of Swedish hockey, the ones that had first won so much in the early nineties, then lost a few times, and now regained their magic. I had been there for two and a half hours, my fingers were numb, and only had one photo left on my camera.
I waited, and I waited, and I waited until Mats Sundin’s face was blasted on the giant screen. I tuned out of what he was saying, and I listened to the crowd. And then he smiled his big trademark smile. The hair’s gone, he may have lost a half a step on the ice, but he’s still got the world wrapped around his finger.
It was time for me to go. Just as I was fighting my way through the crowd, to the subway, I caught myself whistling a Tom Petty song. I don’t know where it came from, but I know which one it was. It goes like this:
“Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes
Even the losers keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes.”
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This was published on NHL.com in 2006. It’s also in my collection of hockey stories, Off the Post, available on Amazon.