HELSINKI – Maybe it’s the fact that Finland has been so close to winning the World Championship so many times, but has only one gold medal. Maybe it’s a generational shift in values. Maybe it’s anticipation of the celebration afterwards, or maybe it’s just a fluke.
But taken at face value, the following numbers are proof that hockey is, hands down, the most popular sport in Finland.
They may just also indicate that Finland is Europe’s hockey nation number one. Or even more?
According to a survey commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, 29 per cent of Finns consider winning the hockey World Championship the most valuable sports accomplishment, followed by winning a gold medal in the Olympics, which topped the list for 26 per cent of the people surveyed.
That’s why in May 2008, the IIHF World Championship had four games in the top five rated shows among Finnish males over 10, and two of the top four shows with the highest ratings among everybody. That’s why almost 25 per cent of Finns tuned in to see the semi-final game between Finland and Russia, and over 60 per cent of those watching TV at 10 p.m. had theirs set on the bronze game between Finland and Sweden.
Thirty per cent of 25- to 44-year-old Finns saw the semi-final.
60 per cent of 18- to 24-year-old Finns consider the hockey World Championship the biggest thing you can win in sports.
And this from a country that was put on the map by distance runners – the “Flying Finns” – Olympic gold medalists Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, and Lasse Viren. These are the people known as “Flying Finns” thanks to Nurmi & Co, but also because they dominated the rally circuit for decades, and because we’ve seen and three Finnish Formula One world champions in the last 25 years.
This is a country that has seven Olympic gold medalists – and 20 medalist – in javelin throw, and an eighth one in the making in Beijing. But sorry, Tero Pitkamaki, Finland wants hockey gold.
Last summer, Teemu Selanne’s Stanley Cup celebration drew tens of thousands of people to downtown Helsinki, and in April, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ exhibition game against Jokerit Helsinki in October was sold out in just 28 minutes.
While Finns love summer, with the midnight sun, the lakes, the cottages, the long vacations, for many, it’s turning into an off-season, something to enjoy when there’s no hockey. And truth be said, that window is not big.
The Finnish SM-Liiga teams hit the ice in July, and last week, the Finnish exhibition game season kicked into gear big time, when the Nordic Trophy teams played three games in four days all over Finland. Karpat Oulu, heading into a new season as the reigning champion and looking forward to the Champions Hockey League (CHL), drew over 6,000 spectators to its game against Farjestad, the Swedish giant on the rebound.
HIFK Helsinki sold out its two games in Jarvenpaa, Tappara pulled over 2,500 to its game against Linkoping, another CHL team, and Jokerit and Farjestad battled in front of 2,300 spectators in Joensuu where Jokipojat, the local third-tier team, averaged 1,800 last season.
Finns love hockey. Simple as that.
Of course, in November when the country goes into hibernation, even hockey can’t always cheer people up, and everything seems bleak. Until the SM-Liiga playoffs, and then in May, the World Championship.
And, apparently, the ultimate dream.