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Battle with Sweden is personal for Finland

by Risto Pakarinen
Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish hockey writer. He was at the Helsinki Market Square in 1995 to welcome Team Finland home after they had captured the nation's first -- and thus far only -- World Championship. He's also author of "Joukkue vailla vertaa" ("A Team Like No Other"), an oral history of that team. In 2006, Risto found himself standing on the steps of the Medborgarplatsen swimming pool, welcoming home Team Sweden as Olympic Champions, because he and his Swedish wife, Jessica, reside in Stockholm.

While Risto is still a proud owner of only one passport, the Finnish one, his two children have both Finnish and Swedish citizenship -- likely to set them up for severe internal conflict during future hockey championships.

VANCOUVER -- Finland wants Sweden's scalp. No kidding.

Sunday will be a day of rivalry without, well, a rival when all of the big hockey nations meet each other. Czechs and Russians, Canada and USA -- and then Sweden versus Finland. For a few million people 4,700 miles east of the Winter Games venue, the last one may be the biggest of the tournament.

It's not as obvious as it was in the 1970s when Team Finland could lose a game to East Germany or Holland, practically playing itself out of the medal round, but then step up for the game against Sweden. It's not as obvious because the Finns won’t stumble on East Germany anymore -- and it's not only because there is no East Germany.

The Finns have simply become much better. Somewhere in the late 1980s, with the country's first medal in an Olympics or the World Championship tournament in 1988, they took their game to a higher level.

Regardless of the level, though, the Finns always bring their A game when they meet the Swedes in hockey. And then some.

But hockey is just the vehicle here. Hockey is just how the rivalry gets played out in a somewhat peaceful manner, in a civilized way. And it's been a long battle, too. The first official hockey game between two Finnish teams was played in January 1928. Later that same year, the Finns had put together a national team and who did they play against? Sweden, of course. The score: Sweden 8, Finland 1.

(Oh, and in 1932, Swedes accused Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi of being a professional, practically keeping the nine-time Olympic gold medalist out of the 1932 Olympics.)

Finns, those fine people of a country where the Donald Duck comic book series is the biggest weekly publication with more than one million readers (in a country of five million), see themselves as Donald, whereas the Swedes are his cousin Gladstone Glander, a lazy and infuriatingly lucky gander who never fails to upset Donald.

Swedes have had ABBA, Ingmar Bergman, Volvo, Saab, IKEA, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Drago, Rocky's opponent in Rocky IV. Finns have had, well, Jorn Donner, who produced Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" and accepted the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. But nobody remembers him.
Thanks to a long history together, Finns have had to learn Swedish at school, mostly against their will. Most Finns could speak passable Swedish if forced.

Of course, the hockey rivalry has only got better thanks to some classic games. In 1986, Finland had a two-goal lead with 40 seconds remaining in the game. A win would have clinched the country’s first medal ever -- and Finland had hunted that medal for well over a decade.

"No. Absolutely not, you never want to lose to the Swedes, in anything. It's like the Old Firm in Scottish soccer, between the Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic."
-- Niki Juusela, play-by-play announcer for Finnish YLE

Because, consider this: Between 1970 and 1979, Sweden's Tre Kronor won nine World Championship medals, three silvers, six bronzes.

To recap, Sweden's record from 1970-1979: 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, 3rd.

Finland's record in the same period: 4th, 4th, 4th, 4th, 4th, 4th, 5th, 5th, 7th, 5th.

Sweden tied that game in 1986, 4-4, and left Finland in the relegation round. As Seinfeld's George Costanza would put it: "That's got to hurt."

And it did.

In 1987, Finland lost its game against (West) Germany, but after it became clear the Germans had played a non-eligible player -- he had represented another country previously in an IIHF tournament -- the score was turned into a Finnish win. The Swedes brought the case to a court in Vienna, won it, and the IIHF had to reverse the score again.

That left Finland in the relegation round, Sweden playing for the medals. Who won the World Championship? The Finn in me wants to just tell you to google it, but it’s water under the bridge by now, so: Sweden.

The Finns really, really don't want to lose to Sweden. Especially not in hockey.

Here's an example: During the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, a leading Finnish newspaper reported every day how Sweden still hadn't won a gold. That was the whole story. "Sweden hasn't won a gold medal". And what a great story it was.

Olympic Gear "No. Absolutely not, you never want to lose to the Swedes, in anything. It's like the Old Firm in Scottish soccer, between the Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic," says Niki Juusela, play-by-play announcer for Finnish YLE.

The Swedes can stick it to the Finns, too, although for them, it doesn't seem to be as important, no matter what Nicklas Bäckstrom -- "It's a pretty big game, a little more emotion in it than in a regular game" -- or Nicklas Lidström -- "The rivalry is not just in hockey, it's about all sports. It's a fun game to be a part of, and surely it'll be a great battle" -- would have you believe.

In their mind, Finland should always get beaten. For the Swedes, the bar is set higher.

"Swedes like to beat Finland because we know that they get a kick out of beating us in a major tournament. Personally, I love to see Sweden beat Canada. It's just tougher," says Mattias Ek, a reporter at Swedish Expressen, who’s covered many a "Finnkampen", as the term is in Swedish.

"I think that Finns love beating us but I like it best when Tre Kronor beats Canada or Russia."

That said, a loss against Sweden stings. "Always," says his colleague Magnus Nyström, also a veteran hockey reporter.

Even if Finland beats Tre Kronor, the Swedes will then be all too good losers. Which obviously annoys Finns, too. It makes Swedes feel too much like a … big brother. There. I said it. Sweden is the big brother.

Or a lucky goose. Take your pick.

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