Why? Well, it’s a bunch of hard-working guys who are made of bronze. The Finns won the bronze medal every year from 2002 to 2004.
However, times have changed. After winning three of the last six U20 gold medals, Finland is a perennial championship contender. So it’s become much more challenging to pick Finland’s top 10 all-time moments at the World Juniors. But we’ve taken our best shot. Let’s count them down from number 10 to number 1.
10) Pulkkinen’s Fabulous Four Goals (2011)Although Teemu Pulkkinen hails from Vantaa, the home of Helsinki’s international airport, his NHL career didn’t take flight. This year, the 26-year-old winger is putting in a solid first season with the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk. However, Pulkkinen, a 2010 fourth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, was a key sharpshooter for Finland at two World Juniors. At his second tournament in Canada, he wrote his name in the record books.
Finland took full advantage of an undermanned Danish roster in a 10-1 romp on 30 December 2011 at Edmonton’s Rexall Place. Danish coach Todd Bjorkstrand had suspended five players for staging a mock news conference after losing 10-2 to Canada the day before. Pulkkinen added insult to injury when he pumped in Finland’s last four goals in a third-period span of 15:42. Captain Mikael Granlund assisted on each goal, and his brother Markus was in on two of them.
Pulkkinen’s feat tied the individual record for most goals in one period, set by Czechoslovakia’s Jan Vodila in a 7-3 win over the Americans on 27 December 1979. It’s never been equalled since.
9) Helluva Tournament for Helminen (1984)The 1984 Finnish World Junior team that won silver in Sweden had plenty of budding stars. They included Esa Tikkanen, who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers; Mikko Makela, who scored 36 goals for the New York Islanders in 1987-88; and Esa Keskinen, who captured three Finnish league scoring titles.
However, the key to coach Pentti Matikainen’s offence was centre Raimo Helminen. The Ilves Tampere centre led the tournament with 11 goals and 13 assists in seven games, putting him nine points ahead of his nearest competitor, Czechoslovakia’s Petr Rosol.
It was a sign of things to come. Starting in February 1984, Helminen played in six Olympics. That set an all-time record for hockey players, only matched by Teemu Selanne in 2014. And to this day, only one player has ever gotten more points at a single IIHF World Junior Championship than Helminen: Sweden’s Peter Forsberg (31, 1993).
8) Rask’s Saves Earn Raves (2006)We joked earlier about Finland’s early-2000s propensity for bronze medals, but the way Tuukka Rask performed in net at the 2006 World Juniors in Vancouver was no joke.
In his second of three World Juniors, Rask accumulated a 2.11 GAA and 94.0 save percentage. This Ilves product saved his very best for the medal round. There was no way Finland should have defeated archrival Sweden in the quarter-final, but Rask made 53 saves and Teemu Laakso’s overtime goal gave Suomi a 1-0 win. In the bronze medal game, the U.S. looked superior on paper with tournament scoring leader Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, and T.J. Oshie. Yet again, Rask defied the odds with a 45-save performance in a 4-2 victory.
The 2014 Vezina Trophy winner has established himself as one of the most talented goalies in NHL history. As of this writing, the Boston Bruins starter is tied with three other netminders for the top all-time save percentage (92.2): Dominik Hasek, Ken Dryden, and John Gibson.
7) You Never Forget Your First Medal (1980)In the early World Junior years, the Soviet Union was a lock to finish first. After putting in ruthless hours of centralized training, the Soviets won their fourth consecutive gold medal in 1980 on Helsinki and Vantaa rinks. But the home fans had something to cheer about too, as Finland medalled for the first time ever, taking silver under the round-robin format. Scores ranged from a 19-1 laugher over Switzerland to a 2-1 loss to the Soviets that decided first place.
Future NHL and IIHF senior-level stars drove the team co-coached by Olli Hietanen and Rauno Korpi. Jari Kurri, already blessed with the hair-trigger one-timer he’d deploy alongside Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton, tied with another future IIHF Hall of Famer, Vladimir Krutov, for the tournament points lead (11). The fleet-flooted Reijo Ruotsalainen led all defencemen in points (7). Forward Kari Jalonen, the 1979 SM-Liiga rookie of the year (most recently Finland’s silver-medal coach at the 2016 Worlds in Russia), and all-star goalie Jari Paavola also delivered stellar performances.
6) Puljujarvi Puts Himself on the Map (2016)Since being drafted fourth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2016, Jesse Puljujarvi has struggled to establish himself as an effective full-time NHLer. However, the 20-year-old forward, who developed his game with Karpat Oulu, has cemented his junior hockey legend.
Few players can spark a team at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship and the World Juniors in the same year, but Puljujarvi did in 2016. Everyone remembers his World Junior MVP performance with a tournament-leading 17 points en route to gold in Helsinki. Just over three months later, Puljujarvi delivered big-time for then-U18 coach Jussi Ahokas in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
After Karpat got eliminated by Patrick Laine’s Tappara Tampere in a seven-game Liiga semi-final, Puljujarvi was airlifted in. He dominated the competition at the beautiful Ralph Engelstad Arena. Despite battling illness, he delivered a hat trick in a 6-1 gold-medal smashing of Sweden.
“Pulju” thus became one of just three players ever to win World Junior and U18 gold in the same year. The other two are American forward Jason Zucker and goalie Jack Campbell (2010).
5) Golden For the First Time (1987)It’s tough for Finnish hockey fans not to have mixed feelings about the 1987 World Juniors in Czechoslovakia. Of course, winning gold for the first ever time was a major coup. On the other hand, this tournament is notorious for the “Piestany Punchup,” the bench-clearing brawl between the Canadians and Soviets that saw both teams disqualified.
In When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game by Gare Joyce, veteran European scout Goran Stubb praised the 1987 Finns: “It was a remarkable team. They really played as a team first. They were very hard-working, very disciplined. I think that they were the best team in the tournament.”
They weren’t loaded with big names. Janne Ojanen led the tournament with nine assists. He’d play 98 games for the New Jersey Devils before serving as Tappara’s longtime captain and winning Finland’s first World Championship gold medal in 1995. Markus Ketterer, now Jokerit’s goaltending coach, was named Best Goalie.
Still, the blue-and-white team earned its success. The only blemishes on Finland’s record were a 6-6 tie with Canada and a 5-0 loss to Sweden. And for Canada to win gold on the last day, it would have had to defeat the Soviets by five or more goals to surpass Finland’s goal difference, a tall order.
4) First Gold in North America (2019)What’s interesting about Finland’s journey to gold this year is how it echoed, on a smaller stage, the way the Canadians won Olympic gold in 2002 and 2010.
Like Pat Quinn’s collection of Hall of Famers in Salt Lake City, they started with a disappointing loss to Sweden. They beat underdog teams as the round-robin rolled on, but like Mike Babcock’s 2010 roster, which was dominated by World Junior alumni from 2005 onward, they fell to the Americans in the group finale.
Whereas Canada edged Finland 2-1 in the Salt Lake quarter-final, Finland edged the host team in Vancouver 2-1 this year in truly shocking fashion with Aleksi Heponiemi’s late equalizer going in off his leg and Noah Dobson’s broken stick leading directly to Toni Utunen’s OT winner.
Like Belarus’s stunning quarter-final upset of Sweden in Salt Lake, Switzerland’s elimination of the Juniorkronorna this year gave the Finns a less formidable semi-final opponent. They took advantage with a 6-1 rout – much like how Canada pounded Belarus 7-1 in 2002.
And of course, when a gold medal game is decided 3-2 at the home rink of the Vancouver Canucks, it’s hard not to think of Sidney Crosby’s 2010 golden goal, even when it’s Kaapo Kakko scoring late to break American hearts. This was the first time Finland’s ever won this tournament outside Europe.
3) Mr. Ristolainen’s Magic Moment (2014)It doesn’t get much better than defeating your traditional archrival on their ice. That’s what star Finnish defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen did when he cut hard to the net in overtime and beat Swedish goalie Oscar Dansk at 9:42 for a 3-2 gold-medal victory at the Malmo Arena.
The 2014 Finns, of course, were also powered by all-star performances by tournament scoring leader Teuvo Teravainen (15 points) and goalie Juuse Saros (35 saves in the final). There were bumps in the road, like a 4-3 shootout defeat against Switzerland on New Year’s Eve. However, coach Karri Kivi’s team proved its quality en route to gold with wins over Russia (4-1) and Canada in the semi-final (5-1).
2) Sudden-Death Ecstasy in Helsinki (1998)1998 is best-remembered in Finnish hockey circles for the surprise 3-2 win over Canada in the Olympic bronze medal game in Nagano, Japan. Yet a thrilling run by the World Junior team in Helsinki and Hameenlinna set the tone the month before.
Coach Hannu Kapanen, father of Sami and grandfather of Kasperi, had a workmanlike roster featuring star forwards Olli Jokinen and Niklas Hagman. In goal, Niklas Backstrom took a back seat to Mika Noronen (in a reversal of their future NHL fortunes). But the Finns set the tone with a 3-2 Christmas Day win over ill-fated Canada, which finished eighth after losing 2-1 to Russia on Maxim Afinogenov’s overtime marker. Finland only surrendered a single point in the round-robin, tying the Czech Republic 5-5.
During the sudden-death gold-medal overtime against Russia, Hagman barged to the net and converted Jokinen’s feed at 13:41 for a dramatic 2-1 win. Jokinen, who would play 1,231 NHL games (99th most in NHL history), tied the U.S.’s Jeff Farkas for the overall scoring lead (10 points). Future Finnish league stalwart Eero Somervuori joined Jokinen on the tournament all-star team.
1) All Young Guns, All The Time (2016)Why does the 2016 gold medal in Helsinki top our list? It signalled the arrival of generational Finnish talents who could, for the first time, win with pure firepower in lieu of the traditional Suomi reliance on great goaltending and determined defence.
The 2016 team scored 35 goals – the highest Finnish total since the 1998 team (also 35). Twelve of those goals came when it counted most in the medal round. That includes, of course, Kasperi Kapanen’s 4-3 wraparound winner on Russia at 1:33 of overtime in front of a delirious Hartwall Arena crowd of 13,479.
Surveying the NHL three years later, it’s apparent that Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine will vie with Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri for recognition as the greatest pure sniper in Finnish history. Carolina’s Sebastian Aho has the playmaking smarts, grit, and desire that could make him even better than Saku Koivu. And with the remarkable emergence of Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, along with Florida’s two-time Lady Byng Trophy finalist Aleksander Barkov, never before has Finland boasted this many legitimate superstar centres. Best of all, these players are all 23 or under.
A 2018 UN report named Finland the world’s happiest country, and it's fun to think that the 2016 World Junior alumni have something to do with that.