Nordic pride at stake

On-ice, SWE-FIN is as heated as it’s good-natured off-ice

Brandt Centre Regina Saskatchewan CANADA

Sweden and Finland last tangled at the 2010 tournament in Regina, Saskatchewan. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

CALGARY – When Sweden faces Finland in today’s first U20 semi-final, fans in both Nordic nations will be glued to the action. Sweden’s bidding for its fourth medal in five years, while the Finns yearn to break a drought going back to 2006’s bronze.

And the neighbouring countries both want to beat each other badly.

“Every game against Sweden is a big game,” said Teemu Pulkkinen after Finland’s 8-5 win over Slovakia in the quarter-finals.

Participating in his second and final World Juniors, the Jokerit winger understands this’ll be a must-win for both sides. It’s another stepping stone on the road to gold, naturally, but also a great chance to assert some cross-border pride, like Canada-U.S. or Switzerland-Germany.

This semi-final will be an intriguing matchup that could well turn out to be a one-goal game.

The teams are coming in with similar numbers, from scoring to special teams. Finland’s Sami Aittokallio has been more impressive in goal than Tre Kronor’s Johan Gustafsson thus far. However, Aittokallio surrendered some iffy goals against the Slovaks, and it’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back.

There’s good firepower on both sides, from tournament scoring leader Mikael Granlund of Finland (11 points) to top overall goal-scorer Max Friberg of Sweden (7 goals). And that’s just scratching the surface.

To date, the Finns have the most disciplined team here, taking a tournament-low 16 minor penalties. But with the Swedish power play clicking at near 31 percent, it won’t take much Finnish time in the sin bin for Sweden to capitalize.

The players are somewhat aware of the historical context, but it’s not necessarily as if they carry around all the details in their heads. (Especially when it comes to, say, the borders of the Swedish kingdom in the 15th century.) That’s for the journalists and historians.

The sporting rivalry between Sweden and Finland goes back decades. How about the World Junior rivalry specifically? Well, that isn’t even as old as Teemu Selänne.

On December 23, 1976, Sweden edged Finland 5-4 in the inaugural official U20 clash between the two countries. It took place in a country that doesn’t even exist anymore, Czechoslovakia. Neither side finished with a medal that year.

The Finns got some bragging rights at the 1980 tournament when a team featuring future legends like Jari Kurri and Reijo Ruotsalainen beat Sweden 3-2 in the medal round in Helsinki, leaving Thomas Steen and Hakan Loob disappointed.

But when Sweden won its one and only World Junior gold in West Germany in 1981, its road to the top included a 2-1 win over Finland.

That gives you a taste of how these confrontations have gone over the years. No matter how the scoreboard looks at the end of the night, there is always incredible tension in the building when the rivals square off. That can manifest itself in fierce physical competition, or can lead to both teams playing a waiting game, hoping the other side will commit a fatal error.

Finland and Sweden haven’t battled each other in an elimination game since the 2006 quarter-finals, when Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask’s brilliance confounded the Swedes in a 1-0 overtime win.

Everyone in North America always wants to know: “Just how much do these two countries hate each other?”

Well, “hate” is a strong word.

For the Finns, Selänne put it well during the 2010 Olympics: “We have a funny relationship with Sweden. It’s a love and hate [relationship]. Individually, I don’t know one bad Swedish guy. They're like big brothers, and you always want to beat the big brother.”

Remember, Finland and Sweden are co-hosting the 2012 and 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships, meaning there has to be good off-ice cooperation to ensure the success of the world’s largest annual winter sports event.

Still, the rivalry makes for some good verbal jousting among the fans.

Swedish supporters can say: “We beat you in the 2006 Olympic final and stylishly topped off that year by making it a historic double gold with our World Championship triumph in Latvia! And by the way, we came back from a 5-1 deficit to beat you 6-5 in Helsinki in the quarter-finals of the 2003 IIHF World Championship, heightening your collective insecurities. And Finnish movie director Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island was the biggest box office flop in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. So there!”

Finnish fans can respond: “Oh shut up, you morally superior ninnies! ABBA is not the only band that matters. In case you’ve forgotten, we beat you 6-1 in the 2011 World Championship final, and we’re ready to defend our title in Helsinki this year. And just for the record, Belarus has never bounced a puck in off our goalie’s head for the winning goal at the Olympics. Hello? Hello? Anybody home?”

Then the Swedes while away the hours before the next big hockey game against Finland by playing the Finnish-made video game Angry Birds on their Nokia cell phones. And the Finns crank up Swedish heavy metal music like HammerFall and In Flames while planning their next weekend getaway in Stockholm.

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