When bronze is big

Third place can mean more than you'd expect


Finland and Slovakia are battling for the bronze medal at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games on Saturday. Photo: VANOC

VANCOUVER – For top hockey powers like Canada and Russia, the difference between Olympic gold and bronze is like the difference between a five-course gourmet dinner and a small plate of meat and potatoes.

Of course, it's better to have something instead of nothing. But you're not going to get too excited about your small plate.

However, in some cases, bronze carries a lot more weight. Think of Saturday's Finland-Slovakia clash.

Slovakia has never won an Olympic hockey medal, and bronze would be cause for celebration in Bratislava, especially considering the star-laden generation of Zigmund Palffy, Pavol Demitra, and Miroslav Satan is enjoying its last hurrah.

If the Finns win, it'll be their fifth medal since 1988, a significant accomplishment for an underdog nation of five million.

Olympic hockey history contains other special bronze moments.

How about the Swiss Olympic teams of 1928 and 1948? They remain the only sides ever to capture bronze on home ice in Winter Games history, achieving the feat both times on an open-air rink in St. Moritz.

Famous Swiss forward Bibi Torriani starred on both teams. He, along with fraternal 1948 linemates Ferdinand “Pic” Cattini and Hans Cattini, was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in the late 1990s.

In the modern era, West Germany's third-place finish in 1976 stands out. Not since 1932 had the Germans won anything at the Olympics, and they haven't medaled again since '76.

The Germans secured the two points they needed for bronze with a 4-1 upset over the United States. This Xaver Unsinn-coached squad was led by the great Erich Kühnhackl, who scored a goal and assisted on the three third-period markers that put the game away for his team.

The Finnish bronze of 1998 also deserves special mention. Nagano was the first time NHLers had participated in the Winter Games, and Canada's all-NHL squad was coming off a heartbreaking semi-final shootout loss versus the Czechs.

Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, and company had a hard time getting up for the third-place game, but the Finns had no such problem despite getting shellacked for five Pavel Bure goals in their 7-4 semi-final defeat versus Russia. Backstopped by goalie Ari Sulander, who made 34 saves, Finland edged Canada 3-2 on a Ville Peltonen power play goal early in the third period.

Until the Finns began to crack international finals on a regular basis (the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the 2006 Olympics, the 2007 Worlds), this ranked among their proudest recent achievements.

So when the puck drops at Saturday's bronze medal tilt, don't expect the Finns and Slovaks to sleepwalk their way through the game. Because fourth place is like an empty plate. Or no plate at all.




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