For king and country
Or in Finland's case, for President and millions of crazy hockey fans. Finns love their "Lions", the national team, and it is widely considered the players' privilege to stand up when their country calls.
It's not their duty, it is a privilege. They're lucky to get the call.
That's why I was shocked to hear that Calgary Flames' goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff withdrew his name from the Finnish Olympic team. I mean, I can understand being injured, as in breaking your leg or something, but this:
"It is in the best interest of the Calgary Flames that I use this opportunity to ensure I am totally recovered for the NHL playoff drive," said Kiprusoff. "I have always been very proud to represent my country in international competition and I'm disappointed that I will not be joining them at the Olympics in Italy."
I don't get it. Even if he was injured, which, per se, I have no reason to doubt, but you can always be smart about it. Did he get hip inflammation yesterday?
I don't think so.
See, only Roberto Luongo has played more minutes in the NHL this year than Kiprusoff, so obviously the hip doesn't seem to be bother him just yet. Then of course, at this rate, he will have played 50 games by the Olympics. The Flames management doesn't seem to be worried.
Has Kiprusoff not communicated his hip problem to the Finnish team management? Because if he did, why did they then put his name on the list? Now, Finnish GM Jari Kurri said that they knew about the problem and that he was surprised by Kiprusoff's announcement, because they "had agreed to see what the situation was closer to the Olympics."
It just doesn't make any sense, so the only logical conclusion, my Dr. Watson, is that Kiprusoff is just flipping the finger at us.
See, Kiprusoff may say all the right things about "always being proud to represent his country," but his actions tell a different story. When Team Finland was getting ready for Salt Lake City in 2002, "Kipper" was nowhere to be found. Hurt and annoyed about being pulled from a game in the World Championships the previous year, he withdrew his name from the Salt Lake City team, and instead, was getting ready for the, uh, San Jose Sharks' playoff drive.
Last year's World Championships he skipped for family reasons.
Fortunately for Finland, Antero Niittymaki is playing excellent hockey - and, by the way, has lower GAA and better SVG than Canada's Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo and Team USA's Rick DiPietro and Robert Esche - and according to media reports, Kari Lehtonen is close to making a comeback.
Just like Kiprusoff came out of nowhere in his beloved Calgary Flames in 2004, Lehtonen or Niittymaki have the potential to do the same for Finland in Turin.
And then we all will get what we want. Kiprusoff to be left alone and Finland a team worthy its nickname.
But, 'tis the season to be merry, so happy holidays to everyone!
You, too, Miikka.
Team FinlandHow many times does Finland have to surprise everybody before its surprises aren't surprising anymore? Silver in Calgary 1988, bronze in Lillehammer 1994, and bronze in Nagano 1998. In Salt Lake City, Finland happened to meet Canada in the quarter-finals, and that was the end of that run.
And who could forget Finland's run to the World Cup final in 2004?
Well, a lot of people, apparently. Again, it's all about Canada and the US, Swedes and the Czechs. And a look at the scoring stats, it's easy to see why the spotlight's not on Finland. Jaromir Jagr, Daniel Alfredsson, Joe Thornton ... they ain't Finns. The best Finnish player in the scoring race is Florida's Olli Jokinen. He's got 29 guys ahead of him in the stats.
Still, Finland's usual suspects are having a good season again. Teemu Selanne is in the top 15 in goals scored, with 16. Saku Koivu was on a point a game pace before his groin injury, and Jere Lehtinen plays his usual solid two-way game in Dallas, ranking second in team scoring, behind Mike Modano.
But, like in every tournament Finland has done well in, since the beginning of Finnish hockey, the biggest heroes don't score goals. They stop pucks. Just like in the World Cup, Miikka Kiprusoff is the biggest reason the Finns have to believe in an Olympic miracle of their own. Kiprusoff may not look the part, but he can carry an entire nation on his shoulders - and not say a word. Just taking care of business.
Finland has all of its World Cup defensemen returning, making it easier for the coaching staff to get the game plan in place and to build on previous success. All in all, Finland may end up having the same goalie, all the same defensemen and three lines returning from the World Cup team.
That's important in a short tournament where there is no time to work on special teams or advanced hockey science.
There is one ingredient missing from the World Cup, though. Coach Raimo Summanen was fired in November 2004, and his assistant (and former mentor) Erkka Westerlund took the helm. Westerlund doesn't ooze the same win-at-all-costs attitude as Summanen so he may look to his top players to provide the leadership. Fortunately for him-and Finland-Koivu, Teppo Numminen, Jokinen and Selanne have got it.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames
Antero Niittymaki, Philadelphia Flyers
Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta Thrashers
Aki-Petteri Berg, Toronto Maple Leafs
Toni Lydman, Buffalo Sabres
Janne Niinimaa, NY Islanders
Teppo Numminen, Buffalo Sabres
Joni Pitkänen, Philadephia Flyers
Sami Salo, Vancouver Canucks
Kimmo Timonen, Nashville Predators
Ossi Väänänen, Colorado Avalanche
Ville Peltonen, HC Lugano
Saku Koivu, Montreal Canadiens
Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars
Teemu Selänne, Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Olli Jokinen, Florida Panthers
Sami Kapanen, Philadelphia Flyers
Antti Miettinen, Dallas Stars
Niko Kapanen, Dallas Stars
Ville Nieminen, NY Rangers
Jussi Jokinen, Dallas Stars
Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
Jukka Hentunen, HC Lugano
Niklas Hagman, Dallas Stars
Riku Hahl, Davos
Winning is everythingAbout a year and a half ago, I decided to write a book about the team that won Finland's first and thus far only World championship, in 1995. I got a hold of all the players -- from Saku Koivu to Sami Kapanen to Raimo Helminen to Jarmo Myllys -- and Swedish head coach Curt Lindstrom and assistant coach Hannu Aravirta.
In the course of the following months, I drove a thousand miles across Finland, drinking a lot of coffee, and singing a lot of 1980s rock while I met the players, and interviewed them for the book about a tournament that they played in 10 years earlier.
Most of the players on the team were still playing. Obviously, Koivu, Kapanen, Jere Lehtinen, Janne Niinimaa are now NHL veterans, and Helminen, a great person and a huge personality, still a leader in the Finnish Elite League, while others have gone on to play in other European leagues. Raimo Summanen coached Team Finland into the World Cup final last year.
Naturally, when I got the idea, I wanted to write a 10-year anniversary book. I wanted to give the players and coaches a chance to talk about the tournament, what they felt then, and what it had meant for them afterwards.
I knew what it had meant for me. To me, Finland winning the World Championship was like seeing the Berlin Wall come down. Now, while I understand that the actual wall coming down probably helped my mental wall collapse, the feeling was still unfathomable.
I remember being at home, watching the game with a buddy of mine, our spouses watching us. Us shaking our heads and beaming and doing high fives, and our spouses shaking their heads and well, not doing high fives.
Now, Finland had an awesome team that year, and granted, the fact that the NHL lockout pushed the 48-game season and the playoffs way into the summer, towards the end of summer in Finland almost, helped us a lot. (See, a real fan uses "us" when victorious).
To make a long story short, I will just fast forward to the end of the game in which Finland beat Sweden 4-1. In the Globe Arena in Stockholm, no less!
The entire country went nuts. People rushed onto the streets, there were spontaneous (and for all the non-Finns reading this, spontaneous is not something that characterizes us very well) car parades in downtown Helsinki. The Air Force sent fighters to meet the team at the border and over 100,000 people gathered at the Helsinki Market Square, and alongside the road and streets from the airport following the players' parade through the nation's capital. One of the cars wouldn't start so the fans pushed it all the way to the square!
The next day, there were similar parades for the players in their hometowns all around the country.
In short: it can't get bigger than that. The players (and the coaches) became national heroes. Larger than life.
Now, Finland was a country that had chased its first World Championship medal for decades. It got its first big medal in Calgary 1988, when it beat the Soviet Union (that had already clinched the gold before that game) in the last game. It got silver in 1992 in Prague. But Finland had never won anything. Ever.
Sweden, on the other hand, the archrival, had won World Championships, it had won Olympic gold the year before, and -- most importantly -- it had beat Finland over the years in a number of key games.
But man, oh, man, Finland had won.
We had won. We were the best in the world. Not the Swedes, not the Canadians.
Had Saku Koivu run for President that year, he would enjoyed a landslide victory.
So, there I was, zigzagging the country, playing the games over and over again, hearing the players' stories of the tournament, and the team.
Turned out that what had become a team for the fans, was a truly close-knit group that did pull for each other. Some of the players were happy to talk about it, some were hesitant, others suspicious even. Was I trying to invade their privacy?
Once we got to talking, every single one of them was all smiles. A lot of the facts had already been documented so I was focusing on the team, their interactions within the team and what made it special.
I also asked everybody if they had watched the final game on video afterwards.
Only a few had. A couple of the players said that they were saving it for later.
And I realized something. For a fan, for me, watching the final game was huge, and I could always get back to that day in May 1995 simply by feeding my VCR that tape. It all came back to me: the apartment, my buddy, the sunny day, my buddy's warm Guinness he had in the trunk of his car, the car driving by my house right after the final buzzer, honking, draped in a Finnish flag -- everything.
For me, it was the same experience. Even the same TV.
The players didn't have that -- and they could never re-live the final game. Not the same way.
And for that, I felt a little sorry for them. But I guess, some people are doers, others watch.
The other insight was about winning. Marko Kiprusoff, today a veteran defenseman in the Finnish Elite League, and a player with several championships told me: "In my career, I have learned that winning is hard, no matter what the sport is. Some people are always counting how many active athletes each sport has, [and ranking them accordingly], but there isn't a sport small enough to make winning easy."
And it's that last win, that last step in the tournament, that makes teams and players special. Tuomo Ruutu scored a fantastic goal in the World Cup final in 2004, but ...
It's that last win that makes people reach out and talk to each other, the last win makes strangers do high-fives (and sometimes even high-fiving a moving car, like a friend of mine, almost ripping his arm off), it's that last win that makes teams get together five, ten, twenty years later, and pick it up from their last gathering.
It's that last step that is the first step into the future where they will always be jointed together -- by their past.
Monday, Dec. 12, 2005
Turning to TurinThe European leagues are on a break for the holidays, and for the traditional Rosno Cup in Moscow. Actually, the Rosno Cup is not at all tradition, the old Izvestia Cup was, but the tradition of cheering for your national team on your Xmas break remains.
The Rosno Cup is part three of the Euro Hockey Tour, an unofficial European championship competition between Finland, Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic. It's not really a big deal, especially in an Olympic year, but a true fan still tries to make it one, right?
So I try. I call my friends and we talk about the games. I try to get them to come on over so we can watch them together: "Dammit, we have to beat those Swedes! Geez, get those Czechs! Ohmigod, did you see the way the Russians just skated circles around our defensemen!"
Of all the Euro Hockey Tour tournaments (there's one in each country), this is the one that I care about the most, because it reminds me of that cold winter in 1985 when I sat in front of the TV and wrote down all the goofball things the Finnish play-by-play guy said. I still remember a couple of them. Seeing the Finnish national team players take the ice at the Lushniki Arena in Moscow, and seeing how bad and gray the ice looks, takes me back to the holiday break in 1980 when me and my buddies once played hockey for eight straight hours.
And yet, I know I'm just kidding myself. I would like to think that this particular tournament is some kind of a wormhole through which I could go back in time. It's not. It's not even a bad tournament, there are some awesome players there -- like Russia's Evgey Malkin and Alexander Semin, and Sweden's Dragan Umicevic, and Finland's Tony Salmelainen -- but it's just another second-tier tournament with no real meaning.
So, I wait for the Olympics. Now, that's a tournament to look forward to. The fact that the Olympics are in Europe this time probably makes it even sweeter. My problem with the World Cup was all that travelling. It's hard to get a tournament feeling when the teams are playing all over the world all the time. My problem with Nagano was that it was in Japan. And even though Salt Lake City wasn't in Japan, it still wasn't that great.
Turin is in my time zone. All the best players are going to be there. Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, Olli Jokinen, Sami Kapanen, Jere Lehtinen and Miikka Kiprusoff are healthy. Finland has a shot at gold.
That could be just like old times.
Except that Finland has a shot at gold.
Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005
Magic with Malik and DadThere we were, Dad and I, in the Madison Square Garden last Saturday. It was Dad's first NHL game ever, and for me, it was the first time I was in MSG.
Maybe that's why we got there two hours early and had to run across the street to Andrew's diner for apple pie and nachos because the gates opened an hour later. Turns out it was a good call so that instead of the five-buck hot dogs (albeit huge!), we could spend our imported dollars on hats and T-shirts.
The arena was much more intimate than I could ever imagine, the crowd loud and, at times, funny, and the seats simply awesome.
Having seen that game live, I am all aboard the NHL. If Caps at Rangers can provide so much excitement, speed, fancy stick handling and, yes, hitting, I can't even imagine what the game looks like with some of the better teams playing. All in all, it's obvious that not all that action can fit inside my 28-inch TV in Stockholm.
What's absolutely 100 percent sure is that Marek Malik with his arms stretched towards the arena ceiling certainly won't. And there's no stereo system that can reproduce the sound of 18,000 people yelling "Hen-rik, Hen-rik, Hen-rik" before Alexander Ovechkin's penalty shot.
Now, by the 14th shooter in the NHL's longest shootout to date, the sound levels had come down to a more normal level and some of the more senior people actually sat down.
But there we were, Dad and I, standing up, looking around us, seeing the retired jerseys and the championship banners, and another Finn -- Ville Nieminen -- scoring a goal for the Rangers, and me getting goose bumps and almost crying for all these people cheering for my boy Ville, and at the same time sweating like a hog not so much out of excitement, but mostly because my new Rangers tuque was just too damn hot to be worn inside when it was Malik's turn.
Dad had lost count of shooters, and I had just told him that it was the 15th shooter, and what an embarrassing way it was for a player to find out how low on the list of shooters he was, when Malik took the puck and crossed the blueline in one stride. He went from left to right, pulled the puck back, and shot it past Olaf Kolzig with his stick between his legs.
And typing this, I realize how belittling that sentence was. That description of the goal is ... it's an insult.
It's like calling Ovechkin a decent player, Crosby a promising young lad, Forsberg kind of competitive or Sami Kapanen pretty fast.
Or Madison Square Garden just another rink.
I think I'm in love.