"They live among us"
Here's something that made me smile:
Anaheim Mighty Ducks winger Teemu Selanne won the NHL's offensive player of the week award on Monday while San Jose Sharks goalie Vesa Toskala took the defensive honor.
It makes me smile because I can't remember -- not that I even pay attention to every single Player of the Week awards -- the last time both the offensive and defensive players of the week were Finns. The nation in the National Hockey League last week was Finland.
It's actually pretty amazing. Finland is a small country, geographically about the size of New Mexico, with a population of just little more than five million. That's about the population of Minnesota.
However, this season there are some 40 Finnish players in the NHL, and that, my friends, is more than from any American state. It's a good amount, but not quite enough to cover all the NHL team, so I can't be sure of a Finnish Stanley Cup winner this year, either. (Almost sure that some Swede will be on the winning team). There are still some white spots in the Finns on the NHL map. But they'll be filled, in time.
What Finns have lost in quantity, they have won in quality.
It's only been 40 years since Tommi Salmelainen became the first European player to be drafted to the NHL, and 29 years since Matti Hagman became the first Finnish-born and -trained player to play in the NHL. It's only been six years since Alpo Suhonen became the first European head coach in the modern era. And, the first European GM may also be a Finn -- if St. Louis Blues' current assistant GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, gets his wish.
By the way, Salmelainen and Hagman were linemates on the HIFK Helsinki team that won Finnish championship in 1980. The three leading scorers on that team were Hagman, Hannu Kapanen and Esa Peltonen, all three fathers of future NHLers -- Niklas, Sami and Ville, respectively. Tommi Salmelainen's son, Tony, has 13 NHL games to his credit, and will return to the NHL next season, as the winner of the Finnish Elite League scoring title.
But that's another blog entry.
It is Tony Salmelainen's generation -- Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu, Mikko Koivu, Kari Lehtonen -- that is the first Finnish NHL generation that has set their sights on the NHL from an early age.
While Jari Kurri opened the doors and showed the way for the (player) generation before them -- Jere Lehtinen, Saku Koivu, Sami Kapanen, Selanne -- the NHL was still more of a dream for them. For Tuukka Rask, 19-year-old goalie and the Leafs' first-round pick last summer, and others like him, the NHL is a goal.
So they leave Finland, and they settle in North America, somewhere, in a city that we only know from sports -- a place like Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Tampa, Anaheim, San Jose or St. Louis. They come, they play hockey in a strong and quiet kind of way -- with an odd Tikkanen or Nieminen thrown in for good measure -- win some, lose some, and then they return home.
Because most of them return, even though they have lived most of their adult lives in another country, their children have never really lived in Finland, and their spouses might have their own careers going on in North America.
I guess you can take the guys out of Finland, but you can't take Finland out of the guys.
Now, go bring the Cup to Finland. Somebody. Anybody.
Time fliesA hockey fan is always waiting for something. The next game, the Playoffs, the next round of Playoffs, the Stanley Cup Finals, the Draft, training camps, the raising of the banner, the Hockey Hall of Fame inductions, the Junior World Championships, the All-Star game, the trade deadline, the Playoffs, well, you know how it is. You're one of us.
It's the nature of the game, the season. It's built into the psyche of the players and coaches -- "You're only as good as your last game" and "You can never be satisfied in this game" -- and the fact that journalists covering the game are always on a deadline only speeds everything up.
The Olympics are just a distant memory, and yet, the final was played only a little over three weeks ago. This is it? I waited for the Olympics for four years, talked about it for a year, and three weeks after the tournament, I've forgot all about it?
How many times have you heard a player say that such-and-such game/medal/prize is a nice memory that he can enjoy after the career? I wish they all could (and would) take the time to seize the moment of glory when they have it. How can athletes that spend so much time getting into the zone for game time not want to stay in the zone when the game is over, and take it all in.
Time does fly, and memories do fade.
Sometimes -- I am just a man -- I can get jealous of soccer fans, or even football fans. They only play once a week, and every game becomes an event, something to look forward to, and to think and talk about a whole week afterwards.
Anyway, when everything does become a blur, my instinct is to slow things down. It's not like I turn my back on hockey. On the contrary, I read old articles, browse through books about old stars, surf around the Legends of Hockey site, and just try to put everything into perspective. That's a luxury we, the fans, have that the players and coaches don't seem to have.
Because, for them, there's always another game around the corner.
My confusion may have something to do with the fact that my wife gave birth to a baby daughter last Monday, and that my whole concept of time is currently distorted. The baby's only a week old but it feels like she's been with us forever.
Let's just say that our team gelled well and we seem to find each other well. But we can't be satisfied with this. The really important games are ahead of us.
Legends among usI saw the fact mentioned in a paper the other day, but it took the info about a week to really register. Actually, the really important piece of information never really did.
See, last week, Jaromir Jagr passed Jari Kurri for second on the all-time points list for European players. His 1,400 (and counting) points are now behind only Stan Mikita, former Chicago Blackhawks' star, who amassed 1,467 points in his 22-year long career.
Mikita -- born Stanislaus Guoth in Sokolce, Slovakia -- immigrated to Canada in 1948 as an eight-year-old with his aunt and uncle so I don't really consider him a European player. That means that Jagr tops the scoring list of European-born and trained players.
That's big! It's huge!
But what I am ashamed to confess is that I had never really understood that Jari Kurri had been the number one European-born and trained player in the NHL. Of all the European players that made their way across the pond, he was the best. The best!
And there have been quite a few.
To leave Finland at the age of 19, and -- as famously described in Wayne Gretzky's autobiography -- learning English by watching Happy Days reruns on TV, and at the same time being able to play the way he did is no small feat.
I'm sorry that I hadn't realized that when Jari Kurri still had the title. Here I was, raving about the Stastnys and the Sundins and the Bures, when I had a fellow Helsinkian to go nuts about.
But, that was the Golden 80's, and NHL hockey was still a faraway dream for a teenager like myself. And I was too busy paying attention to the other guy, you know. The guy who centred Kurri's line. Some Gretzky fellow.
And I think the fact that Kurri has always been a very private person, and not the one to be showing off, or mouthing off, also plays into the whole thing. What I mean is, I have always known that he's a living hockey legend, a five-time Stanley Cup winner, 600-goal scorer, and, well, the best European scorer ever. I knew it, but I never felt it. And that's just a shame.
However, I do remember vividly one legendary Kurri game and it was the game that launched his career, in a way.
It was the European Championship final in Helsinki in 1978. My best friend's Dad had stood in line at a bank or a grocery store and had managed to get (free) tickets to himself, his son, and me.
There are three things that made that whole event an adventure to me.
One, I didn't know there was a chance to go see the game until they showed up at my school to pick me up. The game started at 4 pm. It was kind of cool to go straight to a hockey game from school.
Second, my best friend's Mom had made us a nice little lunch with cheese and baloney on white bread, and some with milk in a bottle. Now, that came in handy because…
Third, the game went into overtime, and Finland beat the Soviet Union. If I close my eyes, I can still see how Kurri gets the rebound and scores. And then all I saw were the backs of all the people jumping up and cheering.
Two years later, when Kurri was playing his first season in the NHL, I had already all but forgot about him. I was busy teaching Lake Placid gold medallist Phil Verchota how to play pinball at the Helsinki arena for free.
Now, that was cool.
The diaries of a loser
And so it was over. I sat in the armchair, and watched the Swedes pile up into a huge blue and yellow ... painful lump of yuck!
I knew all the stories of the Swedes' golden generation, how Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Daniel Alfredsson "never got to win anything together in a big tournament."
I've always like Mats Sundin, and I was probably the only person in the stands during the World Championships final in 1997 to cheer for the Swedes over Canada. (Canada won). I think Peter Forsberg is an amazing player, and I even said before the tournament that Henrik Lundqvist is the goalie that can lead Sweden to Olympic gold.
I knew that. And, in a way, I wanted their stories to get the fairytale ending.
But, dagnabit, I also wanted some other stories to unfold in a perfect way. I wanted Teemu Selanne to win a big tournament. I wanted Jere Lehtinen to become the first Finn in the Triple Gold Club (Olympic gold, Stanley Cup, and a World Championship), I wanted Teppo Numminen to get an Olympic gold so he'd been there to win the first gold, as he was there to win the first medal in Calgary 18 years earlier, and I wanted Antero Niittymaki to show everybody that they were gravely mistaken in not believing in him.
I also wanted Erkka Westerlund to be the first Finnish coach to win a tournament final. I wanted so much. The players wanted so much, we all yearned for that gold.
Finland has played in a major tournament final eight times since 1992. Their -- no, wait, make that "our"-- record in those eight finals? 1-7. Six straight losses in World Championships, the World Cup and the Olympics since 1995.
That's what's eating me.
To make matters worse, that one win, the 1995 Big Bang, came in a tournament with no NHL players, so that there's always that but-shaped shadow that people can throw over that championship.
The Finnish and Swedish media called it a dream final, but honestly, it's more of a dream final for us Finns, and even then, only if Finland wins. Losing to Swedes really does hurt. It's a nightmare.
I asked my Swedish friends today who they would most want to beat in an Olympic final. Most of the dozen or so -- today, all Swedes seemed to be my friends, even my old boss who I haven't talked to in years emailed me after the game -- wanted Canada. Only a couple said Finland.
I guess Finland's not cool enough. It's an everyday thing. Not necessarily beating the Finns, but just playing them. Finland's sort of ... just there all the time.
The interesting thing is that a huge majority of the same people said that if they had to lose, they'd want to lose to Finland. Isn't that nice? Yeah. Perfect losers -- depriving us the joy of gloating as well!
|This is what it looks like to be a pilgrim in an unholy land.|
Anyway, there I was, being this pilgrim in an unholy land -- as Rich puts it -- sitting in the arm chair, staring at the television. Actually, I was standing in the arm chair, frozen to the pose I had when Olli Jokinen got the puck with ten seconds remaining.
I was watching the game at my girlfriend's parents' house. So, I'm there, being just as gracious as a Swede: "Well, it was really nice for Mats to finally get that gold." And my girlfriend's Swedish Dad going, "It was a good game, it was so close."
Twenty-four hours later, I stood between an 80-year-old man and an Asian teenager, as they sang the Swedish national anthem in unison with about 20 000 other people in Stockholm. Not really sure why I was there, but I wanted to be there.
I wanted to see "Foppa," "Sudden" and the rest get embraced by their fellow Swedes. I stood there through a two-hour show of Swedish pop hits, a couple of repetitions of the national anthem, and interviews with the ladies' hockey team that won silver in Turin. (Some silvers are won, others lost).
Then, they were there. The golden generation of Swedish hockey, the ones that had first won so much in the early nineties, then lost a few times, and now regained their magic. I had been there for two and a half hours, my fingers were numb, and only had one photo left on my camera.
I waited, and I waited, and I waited until Mats Sundin's face was blasted on the giant screen. I tuned out of what he was saying, and I listened to the crowd. And then he smiled his big trademark smile. The hair's gone, he may have lost a half a step on the ice, but he's still got the world wrapped around his finger.
It was time for me to go. Just as I was fighting my way through the crowd, to the subway, I caught myself whistling a Tom Petty song. I don't know where it came from, but I know which one it was. It goes like this:
"Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes
Even the losers keep a little bit of pride
They get lucky sometimes."