Finland: 94 years to gold?
by Andrew Podnieks|19 FEB 2022
Finland is looking for the one thing it has never achieved: Olympic gold.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Over the course of the IIHF’s long and glorious history there is no greater story of slow and consistent and remarkable development than Finland. And now, Suomi is one game away – maybe one goal away – from doing something it has never done – win Olympic gold. The path from there to here, from 10 February 1928, when the nation was welcomed into the IIHF family during the Olympics in St. Moritz, has been a long one, but this proud and hockey-loving culture has been waiting and hoping for this moment for a long time.

It wasn’t until 1939 that Finland played its first IIHF event, the World Championship in Basel and Zurich, Switzerland. The Finns lost all five games and placed in a tie for 13th, and last, spot, with Yugoslavia. Their first ever game came on 3 February 1939, when they were swamped by Germany, 12-1. That lone Finnish goal was scored by Holger Granstrom, who is forever the answer to the trivia question, who scored Finland’s first ever goal in IIHF competition.

The war interrupted the IIHF schedule for several years, and Finland didn’t play again until 1949 when it had a 3-0-2 record and finished 7th. Suomi played at the 1951 Worlds and finished 7th again, and this was the lead-in to the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, the first time the Finns participated in the five-ringed event. Risto Lindroos was the coach and Aarne Honkavaara the captain. Honkavaara was a star of this era. He played in all three events right after the war and was a fine goal scorer. Finland won only two of six games, though, and finished 7th, and starting in 1954 they played at the World Championship and have been doing so ever since in the top pool.

But here’s the incredible part. The years and decades passed. The Finns kept competing, but they never came particularly close to any sort of medal until the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. By this time, several Finns had started to play in the NHL. The first were Pekka Rautakallio and Risto Siltanen, who both made their NHL debuts on October 10, 1979. A year later, the great Jari Kurri started, changing the reputation of Finns in North America forever.

In Calgary, Finland won three and tied one in the preliminary round, and in the medal round they completed their incredible run by defeating the gold-medal-winning Soviets, 2-1, on the final day. Finland won silver, its first medal ever in senior IIHF competition, exactly 60 years after joining international hockey.

This success had its roots in excellent performances at the World Junior Championship during that tournament’s first days. The U20 was first established by the IIHF in 1977, and in 1980, the Finns earned medals three years running – silver, silver, bronze. In 1987, they won their first gold at the U20, but between then and 2013 they won gold only once more (1998).

More success followed more quickly after Calgary. They won their first World Championship medal in 1992, a silver, and followed that with another silver two years later. In 1994, they won a bronze at the Lillehammer Olympics. A year later came an historic gold, the team famously captained by Timo Jutila that included the most famous forward line in Finnish history – right winger Jere Lehtinen, centre Saku Koivu, and left winger Ville Peltonen. They were all young and were nicknamed “Tupu, Hupu, Lupu” after Donald Duck’s nephews.

But that gold in 1995 didn’t signal the start of a new wave of success. Although they won four medals in a row (1998-2001), they didn’t win gold again until 2011. In between, they had one of their greatest moments in 2004 in Toronto during the World Cup, advancing to the championship game before losing to the hosts. And in 2006, in Turin, they came agonizingly close to Olympic gold. Tied 1-1 to start the third period, Saku Koivu broke his stick at the faceoff, and while he was getting new lumber Swedish defender Nicklas Lidstrom was slapping the gold-medal-winning goal into the net. 

But at the junior level, there were signs of future greatness. The new U18 event was a boon for the Finns who won gold at the inaugural tournament in 1999 and again a year later. 

There have been some great results and disappointments along the way, of course, but in the last decade it can be argued Finland has been just about the most consistent winning team in the world. At the World Championships it has won five medals in the last ten events. Since 1998, when the NHL started at the Olympics, no country has won more medals than the Finns (five, including this year). At the World Juniors, they have taken four medals in the last eight events, and in the U18, between 2009 and 2018, they won seven medals, including two more gold in 2016 and 2018.

And right now, the Finns are in a place they have never been before. For the first time, they have advanced to the gold medal game at three consecutive events in men’s ice hockey – 2019 Worlds (win against Canada), 2021 Worlds (loss to Canada), and now the Olympic final against ROC. This is the most dominant Finnish team ever. Led by coach Jukka Jalonen and big captain Marko Anttila, the Finns have been the favourites all tournament long.

The rise of Finland has taken decades, but here they are. They have won gold at the U18 and the U20 and the World Championship, but the one thing they don’t have is Olympic gold. It has been 94 years, but maybe on Sunday they will check this all-important box off their to-do list. It would be well-earned and come from a most remarkable patience.