Finland’s legend grows
by Lucas Aykroyd|06 MAY 2022
After winning their first Olympic gold medal ever in Beijing, the Finns are looking forward to adding to their legend at future IIHF tournaments.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
When the Soviet Union hammered Finland 10-0 at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, absolutely no one foresaw a day when the Finns would defeat a Russian team for the gold medal.

That 1964 game remains Finland’s biggest shutout loss in Olympic history. However, beating ROC 2-1 in the Beijing final on Hannes Bjorninen’s third-period goal now stands as the Finns’ most legendary win on the biggest IIHF stage. Now they are Olympic champs for the very first time – a triumph 94 years in the making. And they lead the IIHF Men’s World Ranking for the first time ever. The four-year ranking also takes into consideration World Championship gold in 2019 and silver in 2021.

“This was a team effort,” said Bjorninen, head coach Jukka Jalonen’s youngest player at age 26. “We know how to play and how we want to play. And we just work together and have fun out there, just believing in each other and working hard.”
What the Lahti-born Jokerit forward said is as true as it is unremarkable. There was nothing flashy about these Finns, apart from the built-in chemistry from the line of Sakari Manninen, Teemu Hartikainen, and Markus Granlund, at that time also the top line at the KHL’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa that Jalonen had the luxury of keeping together.

As in their IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship runs to the last two finals they played defence-first as five-man units. Captain Valtteri Filppula and his mates were gritty along the boards and speedy in transition. They got rock-solid goaltending from Harri Sateri, one of 17 KHL players on the roster.

Even when Finland stumbled – falling behind 3-0 to archrival Sweden in Group C or 1-0 to ROC in the final – the Finns had the patient confidence in Jalonen’s system to stick with it and pull off a comeback.

And when total buy-in turns into Olympic gold, you become legends.

Post-game, the Russian players, who have lost four straight Olympic games against Finland, expressed their standard disillusionment with the no-nonsense blue-and-white style. Forward Damir Sharipzyanov said: “They got two workmanlike goals, and those goals won the tournament.”

But the Finns don’t care.

Bjorninen’s moustache got even more legendary in his Nordic nation of 5.5 million than the demigod Vainamoinen’s flowing white beard in Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s 1896 painting The Defence of the Sampo.

Caution: Don’t ask Jalonen to compare himself to Ilmarinen, another deity from the Kalevala, the Finnish national legend.

Ilmarinen was a blacksmith capable of forging almost anything. It’s reminiscent of how Jalonen forged golden Worlds victories in 2011 and 2019 – with unsung rosters – and the 2016 World Junior title – with Sebastian Aho, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Patrik Laine – on home ice.

The 58-year-old Riihimaki native might be the best IIHF team-builder out there, but he’s also the epitome of the low-key, honest Finn.
“I’m just an ordinary Finnish man,” Jalonen said. “I’m just happy to be a coach of the Finnish national team. We have a lot of great players who are committed to their country and who are very coachable. Because of that we always have the chance to play for a medal.”

So with that said, if you’re intent on identifying a mythological figure on the 2022 Olympic team, you might have to stick with assistant captain Marko Anttila.

He’s infamously nicknamed “Morko” for his purported resemblance to the Groke, the giant ground-freezing monster in Tove Jansson’s children’s books about the Moomins. Already legendary for his big playoff goals at the 2019 Worlds, the 203-cm, 105-kg veteran cemented his IIHF fame by firing the shot that Bjorninen tipped in for the Olympic winner.

There was a neat historical symmetry to the historic title in Beijing. When Finland last appeared in an Olympic final (2006), Swedish defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom scored the winning goal in the first minute of the third period – just like Bjorninen’s goal against ROC.

And when the Finns captured their first medal ever in Olympic men’s hockey (silver) in Calgary in 1988, they also beat a team of Russians (under the Soviet flag) 2-1 on the last day of competition.

Of course, in 1988, medalling was a delightful surprise for Suomi. Times have changed. Now the Finns enter every tournament expecting to win.

It’ll be hard to top Beijing. But the Finns have a chance for an amazing encore. If they win the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship co-hosted by Tampere and Helsinki (13 to 29 May), they’ll become the first nation in history to complete on home ice the capture of both Olympic gold and Worlds gold in the same year. 

Getting Filppula into the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club would be another great achievement. The 2008 Stanley Cup champion with Detroit logged 1,056 NHL games before joining Switzerland’s Geneve-Servette HC this season, but only had three IIHF bronze medals (2003 and 2004 WJC, 2010 Olympics) before Beijing. Not that Filppula is prone to tooting his own horn either after becoming a gold medalist.
“I’m honoured to be captain of this team and proud that everybody did his job,” said Filppula. “It’s a great feeling for us and for the whole country.”

Sweden, of course, “did the double” first in 2006 in Turin, Italy (Olympics) and Riga, Latvia (Worlds). However, when you consider how often it’s an up-and-coming hockey nation that hosts the Worlds in Olympic years (Germany in 2010, Belarus in 2014, Denmark in 2018), the Finns could own a unique distinction for decades to come if Jalonen takes them all the way at Tampere’s brand-new Nokia Arena.

It’s night and day from the constant Finnish hockey heartbreaks of the 1990s and 2000s.

There are still new mountains to scale after 2022. Jalonen is under contract with Leijonat through the 2023 Worlds and has a mutual option for the 2023/24 season, when the Worlds will take place in Prague and Ostrava, Czechia.

Yet that’s not all. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Finnish system can succeed against NHLers at a potential 2024 World Cup of Hockey and the 2026 Olympic hockey tournament in Milan. If the likes of Aho, Rantanen, and Aleksander Barkov buckle down and play their roles the way the Beijing roster just did, you never know.

But why stop there? Imagine the possibilities if the Finnish federation ramps up its commitment to the women’s team. After all, Finland has already proved it can compete with anyone in the men’s game, thanks to great coaching and player development. And the Naisleijonat have medaled at six out of the last seven senior IIHF tournaments, including the famous silver medal at the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo.

The way things are going, Finland might have to add another chapter entitled “The Ice Warriors” to the Kalevala. Stay tuned for more legends.