Where does Finland go from here?
by Lucas AYKROYD|26 MAY 2023
Finland's Mikko Rantanen (#96), Sakari Manninen (#65), and Kasperi Kapanen (#42) accept awards from IIHF Council Member Heikki Hietanen after a disappointing 4-1 quarter-final loss to Canada at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
Just over a year ago, Finnish fans were in the proverbial seventh heaven after Sakari Manninen scored in overtime to give their team a 4-3 gold-medal win over Canada. It made Finland just the second team in history – after Sweden in 2006 – to win both the Olympics and the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in the same year.

However, the Canadians earned a sweet revenge on Friday in what’s become one of international hockey’s best rivalries. They ousted the defending champions in front of 11,529 partisan fans at Tampere’s Nokia Arena. Coach Andre Tourigny’s team capitalized on their chances in a 4-1 quarter-final victory that saw many Suomi supporters leaving the building before the final horn.

Forget about the seventh heaven. The Finns settled for seventh place. The last time they finished that low was back in 2005 in Austria.

“With the support of the home fans, I’ve enjoyed every moment,” defenceman Atte Ohtamaa told IIHF.com. “But now I feel empty and disappointed that we couldn't play on the last weekend here.”

So what went wrong? And what happens now? These are questions that Yle, Ilta-Sanomat, Iltalehti, Jatkoaika, and every other Finnish outlet that covers hockey will obsess over for months.

The reality is that coach Jukka Jalonen’s team never came together as the unstoppable five-man units, backed by great goaltending, that brought Finland the Olympic crown and its last two world titles, including 2019 in Bratislava. (Not to mention the silver medal in Riga in 2021 when Canada won the final on Nick Paul’s thrilling overtime goal.)

A lot of the blame and the spotlight fell on Mikko Rantanen. The TPS Turku product was Finland’s top superstar with a 2022 Stanley Cup ring with the Colorado Avalanche and 55 goals and 105 points this season. Both Tourigny and Finnish captain Marko Anttila described Rantanen separately as  “one of the top five players in the world.”

Yet the big winger shockingly didn’t score a goal in eight Ice Hockey World Championship games, although his nine assists did rank him among the tournament leaders. It was easy to see he had adopted a pass-first game, with his linemates Manninen and Teemu Hartikainen visibly more comfortable together after years together in Ufa.

Having Hartikainen as Manninen’s trigger man – he had a team-leading four goals – wasn’t inherently wrong. But Jalonen will be second-guessed for not giving Rantanen more opportunities with different linemates, like fellow Turku boy Kaapo Kakko.

When you have a sniper like Rantanen who could become the third Finn – after Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne – to lead the NHL in goals someday, it seems a shame to waste his talents.

Of course, in the quarter-final, the Canadian took pains to make sure Rantanen wouldn’t break out for Finland. They got physical on him, whether it was Andrew McBain taking a run at Rantanen in open ice or MacKenzie Weegar thumping him in the Canadian end.

Finland’s Joel Armia said before the do-or-die game that there were three keys to beating Canada: “We need to play in our structure, win battles, and skate.”

However, breakdowns – both in one-on-one situations and off the rush – led to Canada’s first three goals. Meanwhile, Kakko and Kasperi Kapanen – the golden goal-scorer versus Russia in the 2016 World Junior final in Helsinki – both flubbed great solo opportunities.

At the other end, Jalonen’s designated number goalie, Emil Larmi, wasn’t able to replicate the great form that brought him an SHL title and playoff MVP honours with Vaxjo Lakers this year. His 1.99 GAA and 91.7 save percentage looked respectable, but left him ninth among starters.

Defender Olli Maatta, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh, described Larmi earlier in the tournament as “rock-solid out there” and “really easy to play with.” But in practice, neither Larmi nor 2022 tournament MVP Jussi Olkinuora brought the needed sense of unshakable calm and reliability between the pipes, something that 2019 starter Kevin Lankinen also delivered.

Overall, Finland just wasn’t the defensive fortress of previous years. It allowed 19 goals in eight games after never surrendering more than 16 (2019) in the last four Ice Hockey World Championships.

When facing contenders, the Finns lost 4-1 to the U.S. and 2-1 in overtime to Sweden. When facing minnows, they only managed to pull away against Hungary and Denmark in 7-1 wins with little meaning. You wouldn’t fault their effort, but you couldn’t always say that they outworked the opposition for 60 minutes every night. They may also have struggled with the public's enormous expectations.

It’s hard to climb to the top of the mountain. It’s even harder to stay up there. (Especially in a country like Finland that has so few mountains.)

Nonetheless Jalonen’s legacy is secure. His Finnish-record three world titles (including Bratislava 2011) and the Beijing triumph as head coach make him the nation’s answer to Scotty Bowman. His contract runs through 2024. He’ll lead a hungrier group of Finnish Lions into the next Ice Hockey World Championship in Czechia. Only another quarter-final disappointment is likely to prompt an overall change in direction for the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.

In terms of Canada, seeking its 22nd world title overall, the lesson is pretty simple: don’t ever underestimate a Canadian team, even one that doesn’t look like the second coming of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux on paper. That lesson was reinforced most recently with the 2021 squad, which was pilloried for making the wrong kind of history by losing its first three games in Riga, but turned it around and marched to the gold medal.

From veterans like Weegar and Milan Lucic to kids like Jack Quinn and Peyton Krebs, the 2023 Canadian team will have another chance to prove its depth and mettle against the upstart Latvian team. Latvia will be buoyed by its passionate fans after upsetting Sweden 3-1 to make the semi-finals for the first time in tournament history.

The Finns will wish those screams and chants were for them instead on home ice. But objectively, theirs is a formula that simply needs refining – not replacing – if they’re to return to the medal games in Prague next year.