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A sleep-deprived nation cheers for its heroes

by Risto Pakarinen
Back in the day, when Finns dominated the world's car racing circuit, an adage was born: "You need a Finn to win." It hasn't been as apt in the NHL, with only seven Finnish Stanley Cup winners, and with the first three earning their rings with the same team, the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s.

Jari Kurri and Reijo Ruotsalainen won all their Cups -- five and two, respectively -- with the Oilers, while Esa Tikkanen was on four of those Oilers teams and on the New York Rangers team that won the Cup in 1994.

It's not every year that Finnish hockey fans can be sure of the Cup making a visit in Finland. This year's Final series is only the fifth time that Finnish players are facing off against each other for the Stanley Cup.

So the country is hungry for a new Stanley Cup champion -- and there will be one, that much we know. Not only that, Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Antti Niemi and forward Ville Leino and defenseman Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers have been some of the key players in the series.

While the Finnish hardcore NHL fans are tuning in to the Final this year, the Finnish -- and possibly European -- hockey heroes are still born in national team play. Swedish netminder Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers said in an interview two years ago that he always played for Sweden because he wanted to become folkkar  ("Loved by the people.")

Teemu Selanne and the Cup drew 10,000 fans to downtown Helsinki in the summer of 2007 not simply because he's won the Calder Trophy and the Rocket Richard Trophy, but also because he's won and lost bronze and silver medals for Finland at the World Championships, and in the Olympics and World Cup. Had Saku Koivu won the Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, there would have been no stopping the celebrations in Turku, Finland.

"You have to be a superstar in the NHL to be a superstar in Finland, because the NHL still seems so far away. Even if people complain about the level of hockey at the Worlds or the Finnish league, the majority of people still follow mostly those. However, for anyone following the NHL, there's never been a better time," said Aki Mäki-Kuhna, a Helsinki-based fan.

Niemi and Leino have never represented Finland in a major tournament, and while Leino was a bona fide star in the Finnish SM-Liiga just two years ago, he wasn't the kind of household name that makes people get up in the middle of the night to watch a hockey game -- regardless of how good the matchup is.

All Cup Final games start at 3 a.m. in Finland, probably the worst possible time for the working man. But of course, where there's a will, there's a way.

"I do time-shifting, so I record the game, and get up at, say, 4:30, then watch the first two periods, fast forwarding past the commercial breaks and the intermissions, and then watch the last period live," Mäki-Kuhna said.

There is another option. The games are broadcast the next day as well.

"We have more viewers for the delayed broadcasts, but obviously, the hardcore fans stay up at night," said Johannes Leppanen, country manager of Viasat Finland, the local broadcaster.

"It's not like I get up in the middle of the night to watch every game during the regular season, but I try to catch the most interesting games, with the Finns. Or, Detroit. And Selänne. The Final is obviously great, with Finns on both teams," said Mäki-Kuhna, who mentioned that his brother has seen more than 100 NHL games this season. 

There is, of course, Timonen. The 35-year-old defenseman has been a Team Finland regular for years, but just like Niemi and Leino -- and, for example, Valtteri Filppula -- he likes to keep a low profile at home during the off-season.

"I'm kind of cheering for the Flyers. I've always liked Leino, but he and Niemi are still young, so they have time. What I really want is to see Timonen get his ring," Mäki-Kuhna said.

The Finnish media is covering the Final, and covering it well. In addition to the seven accredited journalists following the series in the U.S., the newspapers and websites are busy browsing North American media outlets for stories and quotes -- especially those that have that Niemi-Leino-Timonen connection.

"For us, the NHL is a great product because it interests Finns. We'll put even more resources into the Finnish production of the games," says Leppanen, whose sympathies lie with the Blackhawks.

"Professionally, I'm now cheering for the Flyers, so that we get a Game 7," he said, laughing.

Of course, even if neither Niemi nor Leino were household names in Finland before May, whoever brings the Cup to Finland will become a true star in their homeland.

Even for those who've slept through the Final.

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