The Pursuit of Hockeyness

A couple of years ago I wrote a chapter for a book published by The Hockey News. The book is called The Pursuit of Hockeyness: 99 Things Every Hockey Fan Needs To Do Before They Die. My chapter was about witnessing a European rivalry, or, a Finland-Sweden game, in particular.

Here it is.

To see a derby in almost any sport anywhere in Europe is guaranteed to be good fun, for the most part, for most people. Especially for the winners.

The Swiss and the Germans have had their battles of the years, as have the Czechs and the Slovaks, but no other European derby has the same level of intensity, or the sense of purpose as the one between Finland and Sweden. Partly, because the Swiss and the Germans haven’t been in the World Championship top division at the same time for very long and the Czechs and the Slovaks even split into two different countries thanks to a “Velvet Revolution”.

The Finns and Swedes, on the other hand, don’t particularly like each other. Or, they do, but it’s more of a love-hate relationship. The Finns love to hate the Swedes, the Swedes hate to love the Finns.

Two hundred years ago, Finland was a part of Sweden, Swedish still being an official language of Finland. Sweden is a little bigger, better known in the world, they have more pop stars, they’ve had Volvo and IKEA, and they had Borje Salming, Ulf Sterner, Anders Hedberg. And man, they had Tre Kronor, the hockey team.

The first ever official game the Finnish national team played was against Sweden in Helsinki, Finland, in 1929. The score? 8-1 to Sweden. In 1933, Team Finland played its first game outside Finland, and they venture out to Stockholm, Sweden. The score? The Swedes won,11-1.

It took Finland a few decades to catch up with Sweden, but by the 1970s, every game was a tossup. Finland could go through the entire World Championship losing to the likes of East Germany, Holland, Italy, and Poland but against Sweden, they’d show up and they’d show them.

“The Swedes were always better than us, they were more skilled and played better as a team, but … you always want to beat Sweden,” says Hannu Kapanen, former Team Finland player and coach of Team Finland at the 2002 Junior World Championship.

“Why? Oh, it’s everything about them. The language, the way they feel superior, Finns always wanted to kick their royal butts,” he adds.

Even with Finns and Swedes battling together for the Stanley Cup in the NHL hasn’t made the rivalry easier for the players, says Sami Kapanen, former NHLer, Team Finland captain at the 2009 World Championships, and as Hannu’s son, a second-generation Team Finland player.

“The Swedes are great teammates in the NHL, but of course, it’s a must-win game. It’s especially sweet to kick them out of the tournament,” he says.

What has made the Finns angrier, and the Swedes more confident is the fact that the Finns never could find a way to beat the Swedes. In 1986, the Finns held a 4-2 lead in the World Championship with a minute remaining. For Finland, winning that last game of the tournament would have meant also winning their first ever medal on international level.

“We had a special play for the faceoff but that failed completely,” says Hakan Sodergren, one of the Swedes on the ice during the last minute.

“However, it failed so completely that it turned into a genius play. The guy who took the faceoff, Anders Carlsson, missed what he was supposed to do and found himself wide open in front of the net,” he says.

4-3, 40 seconds remaining.

Sweden won the faceoff, played it back to their own blueline where Robert Nordmark sent a long pass straight to the tape of Carlsson’s stick, sending him on a breakaway. He beat Finnish goaltender Hannu Kamppuri high on the glove side, tying the game. No medal for Finland, silver for Sweden.

That 1986 game has been repeated several times over the years, making Finns desperate enough to proclaim themselves Donald Ducks of the hockey world, the ones with the worst luck. And of course, the Swedes are his antagonist, the cousin who has all the luck in the world.

Of course, Finland’s biggest victory in international hockey, the World Championship gold medal came after they beat Sweden in the final, in Stockholm, Sweden, stealing the medals, the parade – the Swedes let the Finns use their place of the planned parade -, and the official tournament song.

But mostly, it’s been about the Swedes “keeping the family hierarchy in tact”, as Sodergren puts it.

In 1991, Mats Sundin tied the game against Finland, bringing Sweden from 4-2 to 4-4. Sweden went on to win the World Championship, Finland was fifth.

In 2003, Finland took a 5-1 lead in the second period in the World Championship quarterfinal. The crowd went wild, the stands were covered in blue and white flags, the blue and yellow Swedes sinking in their seats. And then Sweden scored one.

The arena was silent, only one man, obviously Swedish, sitting high up stood up, raising his both arms into the air.

Then Sweden got another one. Silence. Only that one man standing up, acting as a human red light for the people sitting on the opposite side from the Finnish net.

Sweden made it 5-3 by the end of the second period and, yes, went on to win the game 6-5. Again, the game was played in Finland, making the loss even more bitter.

In Finland, that game is known as the “5-1 game”. In Sweden, it’s the “6-5 game”.

After the game, Joakim Arhammar, one of the happy Swedes at the arena was approached by three big Finns, wearing black leather vests, sunglasses, looking like the Hells Angels. Arhammar moved back slightly, to let the men pass him, his smile not as wide anymore.

When the first Finn was about to pass Arhammar, he extended his hand to him, and said, in broken English, “congratulations.” (Because Finns in general simply hate studying and speaking Swedish). His two buddies followed suit.

“I think I’d better put a jacket on,” Arhammar said, hiding his yellow Sweden shirt, not wanting to rub the Finns the wrong way.

Until next time.

How does that make you feel?