BERNE – Ever wondered why Finland invariably ices a cohesive, competitive team at the IIHF World Championship, and almost as invariably doesn't win it all?
It just might be the fact that there's no “I” in Team Finland. (Yes, there literally is an “i” in “Finland”, for all you spelling and grammar fanatics out there, but let's focus on the metaphor here, shall we?)
Getting the Finnish team ready to play from Day One has to be one of the simplest tasks in international hockey. Compare the blue-and-white squad to some other top nations.
Canada has been remarkably successful in getting its stars to “check their egos at the door” in recent years. But usually when the team assembles, there's a pre-tournament discussion about how this or that star may have to accept a different role, perhaps as a checker, whether it's a Jason Spezza or a Joe Thornton.
With the Russians, you wonder if, say, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin will get along, or whether the domestic league players and NHLers will meld well. Will the American talent on paper translate into on-ice success? Will the Slovaks deliver a consistent performance or vanish into the horrors of the Relegation Round?
But with the Finns, it's pretty much a given nowadays that they'll bring a strong, consistent performance from the get-go. The depth in goal, the commitment to defence, the work ethic, and the skating ability are factors that don't waver.
Coming from a country of 5.2 million inhabitants, the Finns have grown up playing together at both the junior and senior level. They know the expectations for their individual roles as soon as they walk into the national team dressing room.
As for managing egos or interpersonal conflicts, that's almost a non-issue.
Sure, you can go back to the flare-up between Janne Niinimaa and then-national team coach Raimo Summanen during the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, which resulted in the veteran defenceman leaving the team. But even that didn't kill the spirit of Finland, which marched to the final before losing 3-2 to Canada. And that flare-up was a rare exception.
Think about Finland's biggest veteran stars: Saku Koivu, Teemu Selänne, Olli Jokinen, Miikka Kiprusoff. Or the leaders of coach Jukka Jalonen's team here in Berne: captain Sami Kapanen, Jarkko Ruutu, Petteri Nummelin, Niko Kapanen, Antti Miettinen.
Where's the big ego there?
At worst, unsubstantiated rumours have circulated that Jokinen isn't beloved among his NHL teammates. Ruutu was just voted the NHL's third-dirtiest player in a Sports Illustrated poll of NHLers. Kiprusoff didn't make friends in the Finnish federation when he elected to take a pass on the 2006 Olympics.
Yet you don't hear anybody complaining about them or their contributions in the Team Finland dressing room. You don't hear about Selänne demanding a limousine, champagne, and a pre-heated sauna, even though he's one of the NHL's all-time legends.
The intrinsically humble Finnish mentality keeps them behaving as if they were all second-liners who have to earn everything they've got.
The question, though, is whether that lack of ego can result in nobody taking charge at key moments. Sometimes, someone has to say (in effect), “Hey, I'm the man, and even though we're facing adversity at this point in the biggest game of the year, I'm personally going to stand up and turn this thing around with a huge goal, pass, or hit.”
Until that happens consistently, Finland will remain the team that pundits pick to win a medal of any colour other than gold.
Lucas Aykroyd is IIHF.com's correspondent in Vancouver, the home of the 2010 Winter Olympics. He has covered all IIHF World Championships since 2000, plus the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.