VANCOUVER – The rivalry between Finland and Sweden goes back a while. Say, a couple of hundred years, if you dig deep enough. Especially the Finns like to keep tabs on things going on in Sweden, continually comparing themselves to the neighbour in the west.
In the last four decades, hockey has been the forum where the Finns have been able to really take on the Swedes. Hockey is a major sport, hockey has international reach. Hockey matters. And when Finland can give the Swedes a beating every once in a while in hockey, it matters even more.
“We have a funny love-hate relationship with the Swedes,” says Teemu Selänne, who’s had his share of Swedes as teammates in the NHL.
“Individually, I don't know one bad Swedish guy, but as a team, you always want to beat them. They're like big brothers, and you want to beat your big brothers. They're a great team and we know how many great players they have. That's why it's fun to play against them,” he adds.
Jarkko Ruutu would even take the “hate” out of the relationship.
“The 'hate' is more between the fans. We have many guys who've played with and against Swedes, but here it comes down to winning the game. We don't really have to look at it as 'hatred’,” he says.
“It's a special game. It's a rivalry. We worry about our game and how we do things,” Ruutu adds.
But in the stands, the game is a good time to talk trash. But since we’re talking hockey, and Nordic citizens, it’s all very cordial.
Back in 2003, Sweden and Finland were pitted against each other in the World Championship quarterfinal, in Helsinki, Finland, no less. Hartwall Areena was packed to the brim, mostly with Finns.
Sweden’s Mats Sundin gave Sweden a 1-0 lead, but then Finland took control of the game, taking a 3-1 lead in the first period. The score was 5-1 when the game was halfway through. The arena was boiling, people were singing, life was good.
I sat behind the Finnish net with my brother-in-law, taking in the atmosphere. It seemed so unreal, because Finland hadn’t beaten Sweden in a huge game like that for a while and 5-1 was simply unheard of. Of course, eight years earlier, Finland had beaten Sweden in a World Championship final, but Finns themselves are quick to point out that the 1995 World Championship was played without NHLers, and the general idea of Finns always losing to Swedes dies hard.
My brother-in-law zipped up his jacket to hide the yellow Sweden soccer shirt he was wearing that day.
Because he's a Swede.
“Well, at least you were here to witness hockey history,” I said at 5-1, “because you just saw Tommy Salo make his exit from international hockey.”
Jocke, my brother-in-law, just grunted.
Then Jörgen Jönsson made it 5-2. The arena was so quiet that we weren’t sure whether the puck had gone in or not, until we saw a lone Swede way up in the stands to the right of us stand up, and throw his arms above his head.
Two minutes later, our personal goal judge jumped up again when Peter Forsberg made it a two-goal game.
Jocke started to look a little more comfortable, the frustration had passed, and blood was flooding back all the way to his brain. Hope was still alive.
“They’ll never blow this lead, not this time,” I said, referring to the fact that Sweden had, in fact, many times come from a two-goal deficit to win, or at least tie the game against Finland.
Suddenly, the arena got very quiet again. What happened? Had the puck gone in? The Swede up in the stands was standing up, his arms up again. 5-4.
My brother-in-law unzipped his jacket and revealed his true colors.
Of course, then – in a game that Finns talk about as the “5-1 game” and Swedes as “6-5 game” – Forsberg tied it in the third, right in front of our (and Finnish defencemen’s) noses before Per-Johan Axelsson won it for Sweden with 4:56 remaining. End of game, end of tournament for the hosts, and almost the end of the story.
As people were leaving the arena, my brother-in-law sat in his seat, still admiring his team on the ice, when three Finnish guys – big guys, biker guys with big bellies and leather vests – wanted to pass us. They saw Jocke’s shirt, and he saw that they’d seen it, so he stood up, and took a step backwards.
All three stared at him. The first one stopped. Jocke glanced at me. The biker extended his arm, shook Jocke’s hand, looked him straight in the eye, and said, almost in a military manner, respectfully, “Congratulations”.
The two others did the same and then they all walked down the stairs.
See, it’s just a game. But always a good one.