HELSINKI – It was like a high school reunion gone wild. Or, like going to see a remake of everybody’s movie and still loving it, with the new cast and all.
Just like in 1995, an estimated 100,000 people gathered in downtown Helsinki to welcome the 2011 World Champions home, and to celebrate Finland’s win over Sweden, just like in 1995. Even if none of the players on the team were the same – the first time Finland’s World Championship team didn’t include any 1995 world champions – some of the artists were the same. No Leningrad Cowboys, though.
And then they all sang “Den Glider In”, the 1995 Stockholm tournament’s official tournament song that the Finns hijacked to be their own after the first World Championship.
In the 16 years between the gold medals, Finland had been close a few times, having played in the final four times, but had come short every time. The nation was hungry for a new gold, especially since Finland had just three medals in the last nine tournaments, and none in Jukka Jalonen’s first two as head coach. Of course, the Olympic bronze helped a little.
In a tournament in which big nations stumbled along the way, the Finnish national team wasn’t completely immune to trouble. Against Latvia, Russia, and Germany, they had to take the longest route, the shootout, to get the points, turning their game against Slovakia into a must-win game. They won it 2-1.
On the other hand, Russia lost to Germany, Sweden to Norway, Slovakia to almost everybody, paving the way for a Finland – Norway quarterfinal, which was a dream come true to the Finns.
For once, Finns got the bounces to go their way. Not only when they got to meet Norway, but also in their must-win game against Slovakia. And their game against Germany when Tuomo Ruutu scored tied the game with less than six minutes remaining in the regulation time with a shot that hit the side of the net, bounced up, hit Dennis Endras’s pants and went in.
“The puck bounced our way, but we also deserved our luck. I can say that without a doubt, we weren’t the worse team in any of our games,” Tuomo Ruutu told IIHF.com after the final.
“Sometimes when you get scored on, the bench goes all quiet and energy disappears, but for us, it was the opposite. We got louder and gave each other energy. And when we had the lead, we kept on playing our game, and weren’t afraid to do what we wanted to do,” he added.
With no margin of error, preparation become key, and this time Finland had done their homework. The coaching staff was prepared for any eventuality to the point that when Russia scored two goals in the span of 11 seconds in the teams’ first game in the tournament, they didn’t hesitate to pull goaltender Petri Vehanen just 4:37 into the game.
After the game, Jalonen said that he had told Vehanen in advance that he would get pulled, if the team didn’t give him support so that he wouldn’t have to waste any energy before the quarter-final, their next game.
Vehanen responded, and got scored on only twice in Finland’s three playoff games as Finland outscored their opponents 13-2.
But the preparation extended beyond line changes and scouting of opponents. Jalonen invited players to hist first camp weeks before the tournament, and all in all, seven of the World Championship team players were already on the roster on April 1 when Finland played an exhibition game against Slovakia. They all made the journey from the first camp, via exhibition games, to the World Championship, to the stage on the Helsinki Market Square, across the street from the Presidential Palace.
One of them was Jarkko Immonen, who was tournament leading scorer with nine goals and 12 points in nine games. His nine goals was also tournament-best.
“The exhibition games gave him a chance to get into an even better shape, and gain some confidence. He hadn’t been as good as we had expected in the games during the season, but in this tournament he was amazing,” said Jalonen.
Immonen played on line with his Ak Bars Kazan teammate Janne Pesonen, and Mikael Granlund.
Yes, Mikael Granlund. The man with the move that stunned the world. A month ago, the 19-year-old forward celebrated the SM-liiga championship with HIFK Helsinki, then he joined the World Championship team on the eve of the tournament.
“He moves better than last year, he’s grown physically, he’s better at battling for the puck, and his confidence is even better this year. He’s become a man. Mikael’s an exceptional player in that he always makes right decisions with the puck, and never fails,” Jalonen told IIHF.com during the tournament.
“Once we got Granlund on the same line with Immonen, it just clicked. Immonen is a pure goal scorer, as we all know, and Granlund is a playmaker. Anybody with a high-quality shot will surely score a lot of goals playing with Granlund, regardless of the league or the level of play,” Jalonen said.
This time, too, Finland had what all champion teams need. Depth. Behind Immonen and Granlund, second in team scoring with nine points in nine games, Finland had team captain Mikko Koivu (eight points) and Ruutu (six goals in nine games).
Jalonen decided to spread the ice time evenly with the defencemen, using four pairings throughout the tournament, to make sure that his defencemen would have the energy to battle with the top players all the way to the end.
And of course, the team was the biggest star of the team.
"I felt that we were a tight group and we did everything together as a team, on the ice and off it. This team is full of fantastic guys," said Ruutu.
“I was 12 years old when Finland won its first World Championship, and I remember how they played “Den Glider In” at school the next day. It’s quite a journey to get from there to here,” he told IIHF.com, with the championship trophy under his arm.
President Tarja Halonen gave the team the Key-Flag, a symbol of the Association for Finnish Work as a recognition of a job well done. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images