Joyous celebrations arose throughout Finland last spring when the Finnish national team ended a 16-year drought at the IIHF World Championship to capture the second gold medal in the nation's hockey history. Now the 2012 tournament co-hosts along with Sweden, the Finns are faced with the challenge of defending their championship on home ice at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena. All of Team Finland's games, including medal-round matches, will take place in Helsinki.
Much of the key personnel from last year's gold medal team are back in the fold for this year's tournament. Once again, Jukka Jalonen is behind the bench as coach and Minnesota Wild forward Mikko Koivu will serve as captain. Top Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund, who scored an electrifying trick goal against Team Russia last year in the semifinals amidst a strong overall tournament, is also back for the Lions. Likewise, there are several returning members of the starting blue line from last year, including former NHL defensemen Ossi Vaananen, Lasse Kukkonen and Janne Niskala.
Last year, the Finns had several surprise standouts. Most notably, former New York Rangers forward Jarkko Immonen got hot at the right time, racking up nine goals and 12 points in nine games while playing on a line with Granlund and former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Janne Pesonen. The line could be reunited this year.
In the gold medal game of the 2011 tournament, Immonen's power-play one-timer that beat Team Sweden goaltender Viktor Fasth in the waning seconds of the second period proved to be the turning point. Rather than going to the locker room trailing 1-0, the Lions skated off with a 1-1 tie and the momentum on their side. The stage was set for turned out to be a five-goal explosion in the third period, as the Finns went to win in a 6-1 rout.
A year ago, Team Finland had to deal with the lack of availability of any of its top NHL goaltenders. Veteran netminder Petri Vahanen (Ak Bars Kazan, KHL), who has never played pro hockey outside Europe, stepped up admirably to fill the breach.
This year, the 34-year-old Vehanen will be one of the Finns' backups. Coming off an outstanding NHL season for the Dallas Stars, Kari Lehtonen is a shoo-in to start the key games for Finland. Former Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Karri Ramo (Avangard Omsk, KHL), is also available.
The Finns will also get additional help up front this year at the start of the tournament, with the participation of Detroit Red Wings star Valterri Filppula. The 28-year-old is coming off a career-best 28-goal, 66-point regular season for Detroit. He produced a pair of assists in the Red Wings’ Western Conference Quarterfinal loss to the Nashville Predators. In addition to Filppula, Carolina Hurricanes standout Jussi Jokinen figures to play a key role for the Lions, along with returning two-way veteran forward Mika Pyorala (formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers).
Team Finland's preliminary-round grouping is arguably the deeper of the two pools in the 2012 tournament. The Finns must deal with Team Canada, Team USA, Slovakia and upset-minded Switzerland (Belarus, Kazahkstan and relegation-vulnerable France comprise the rest of the group). The Stockholm-based pool includes perennial gold medal contenders Sweden, Russia and Czech Republic, along with pesky Team Germany, before dropping off in talent depth to underdogs Latvia, Denmark and Norway, plus relegation candidate Italy.
ACROSS THE POND
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Of course, Team Finland would like nothing more than to repeat as gold medalists in front of the raucous partisan crowds that will pack Hartwall Arena throughout the host's games in the tournament. Both of the Finns’ previous gold medal game victories -- 1995 and 2011 -- came at the expense of the archrival Swedes.
The 1995 win took place in Stockholm’s Globe, where the stands emptied of Swedish fans in the third period and became a virtual Finnish takeover, complete with the Team Finland denizens gleefully singing Team Sweden’s fight song ("Den Glider In") to claim it as their own. The 4-1 victory and ensuing week-long celebrations in Finland became a watershed event for the country’s sporting pride.
Vaananen, who was 15 years old at the time of Finland's 1995 said it best.
"Pretty much everybody in Finland remembers where they were when we won the gold," he told NHL.com prior to last year's tournament. "Being a young hockey player, I dreamed of being a part of something like that. That team showed it was possible for a Finnish team to win it all. It made a big impression for sure, not just on me, but on everyone."
Last year’s gold medal victory took place in Bratislava, Slovakia. Following the win, the team enjoyed a commemoration ceremony in Helsinki's Market Square. An estimated 100,000 people jammed the Square, which is located adjacently to the presidential palace. Finnish president Tarja Halonen greeted the team during the ceremony. Meanwhile, there were private celebrations not only throughout the capital of Helsinki, but everywhere from Tampere in the south to Oulu and the Lapland in the north.
If Team Finland can manage to repeat as gold medalists on their home ice, the celebrations this time around may last until it’s almost time for Juhannuspäivä -- the country's Midsummer Day. But to get to that point, the Finns will have to buck the tide of some daunting history. No hosting team in the post-Soviet era has won the gold.