Finland’s winning attitude
by Lucas Aykroyd|26 MAY 2019
Finnish players stand on their blue line after a 1-0 semi-final win over Russia at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Bratislava, Slovakia.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
With big NHL names like Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen, Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, and Miro Heiskanen, it’s no wonder Finland is facing Canada for gold on Sunday. Oh wait, a minute.

None of those guys are here. So how is this even possible?

The fact that coach Jukka Jalonen’s team has gotten this far with just two young, part-time NHL players – defenceman Henri Jokiharju of the Chicago Blackhawks and forward Juho Lammikko of the Florida Panthers – is a powerful testimony to how high the Finnish Ice Hockey Association's confidence is right now.

“Finland is a small country, but we have a lot of great hockey players,” said forward Sakari Manninen, who scored the 5-4 overtime winner to dethrone Sweden in the quarter-final.
If you play for the team, not yourself, you see what can happen.
Sakari Manninen
Finnish forward
Of course, Finland also competed in the 2014 final with only two NHLers, losing 5-2 to Russia in Minsk. However, the veteran experience of captain Olli Jokinen and tournament MVP goalie Pekka Rinne made that a different conversation altogether.

This 2019 scenario is more like mind over matter. Almost nobody foresaw Finland earning an opening-day win over Canada, followed by ousters of Sweden and Russia in the playoffs.

Finland’s emphasis on skills development and its cult-like devotion to a cohesive team game has made it a contender year-in and year-out. And when Finnish players see their nation frequently winning gold medals, instead of standing sadly on the blue line for silver or celebrating belatedly with bronze like most Suomi teams of the 1990s and 2000s, it’s a total paradigm shift.

“A lot of people thought we wouldn't win many games, but we don't care,” Lammikko said after the 1-0 semi-final victory over Russia. “It's what you do on the ice, how you play as a team. I think we've proved hockey is a team sport. Today, two teams had good preparations, but we got the one goal.” 

Players like Juhani Tyrvainen and Arttu Ilomaki might be making their World Championship debut here in their late 20s. Yet even if they haven’t represented Finland in IIHF finals before, they have soaked up the victories of their peers. 

Every Finn who wasn’t a tiny kid remembers the ecstatic celebrations in downtown Helsinki when Jalonen coached a similarly unheralded Finnish squad to a 6-1 gold medal victory over archrival Sweden in 2011 – also here in Bratislava. (Some may even have danced naked in fountains.)

Even 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko, Finland's biggest 2019 name as the potential #1 overall pick in June, can recall Rasmus Ristolainen’s open-mouthed celebration after scoring the OT winner against host Sweden in the 2014 World Junior gold medal game. Ditto for Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu’s joyful exuberance in the Helsinki crowd when Kasperi Kapanen’s sudden-death goal toppled the Russians in the 2016 World Junior final.

And of course, Kakko himself dramatically engineered the final victory over the Americans at the 2019 World Juniors in Vancouver, banging in a rebound with just 1:26 left.

Cataclysmic single-game upsets, like ending Russia’s dreams with a 3-1 quarter-final victory at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, have boosted Leijonat’s mojo as well.

What it all means now is that Finnish teams expect to win, rather than hoping not to lose. It is an aura of humble confidence that most closely reflects that of Finland’s 2019 gold-medal opponent in Bratislava: Canada, the motherland of hockey.

Top-scoring Canadian defenceman Thomas Chabot said he expects a battle with these defence-first Finns: “I think it just shows you that it doesn't matter how many NHL players you have. I think if you find a way to be together as a group and play the right way, you can get there.”
Whether they would have 10, 20 or one NHL guy, I think it’s a hockey game.
Thomas Chabot
Canadian defenceman
If you’re not someone who follows Finnish hockey closely beyond the NHL, this year you might have wondered, at a glance, whether Jalonen had been handed a World Championship roster or the KalPa Kuopio roster that became the first Finnish club ever to win the Spengler Cup in December. KalPa defeated Canada 2-1 in a shootout in the final.

Canada, which uses a cobbled-together collection of European pros each year, has appeared in four straight Spengler Cup finals, prevailing annually from 2015 to 2017. That’s reminiscent of the success Finland is enjoying here in Slovakia. Even if you lack the world’s biggest names, you can go a long way if you believe wholeheartedly in your country’s hockey program.

The question is whether Finland’s winning attitude will hold up on Sunday against its ultimate North American nemesis. Finland has lost all three of its previous World Championship gold medal games against Canada: 2-1 in 1994, 4-2 in 2007, and 2-0 in 2016. This year, the Canadians outscored Finland 44-28. 

Another stellar game from Finnish starting goalie Kevin Lankinen, who recorded a 32-save shutout against Russia, is a must. But it’ll take more than that for this band of optimistic underdogs to prevail.

“We’re a team,” said captain Marko Anttila, who got the third-period winner in the semi-final. “We’re 25 guys all working together and we’ve got one more step.”

If these Finns go all the way, it will be even more mind-blowing than the 2011 victory in Bratislava.