By Risto Pakarinen
At some point during the IIHF World Championship final, the Finnish media paid at least as much attention to the people in two luxury boxes as to the action on the ice.
In one, there was Oleg Znarok, Russia’s coach who had been suspended after he made a cut-throat gesture to Sweden’s assistant coach Rikard Gronborg (who yelled back that he would bleeping kill him), but who was in radio contact with his assistant Harijs Vitolins behind the Russian bench.
In the other, there were Russian president Vladimir Putin and IIHF president Rene Fasel, watching the game together – enough for some to scheme up all kinds of conspiracy theories.
In the title game, Finland was the proxy for all things West. That the Russian team didn’t seem to respect the suspension made at least the Swedish and Finnish journalists irate, and several Swedish journalists went public with their cheering for Finland.
This is where we’re at right now: whoever is playing against Russia is playing for the rest of the world. It’s the KHL versus the NHL, it’s the big, bad Russians against the West, and it’s about sticking it to Putin (and what at least the Finnish fans perceive as a questionable environment of international hockey).
Which may also explain why the Finnish fury towards the on-ice officials was so powerful. The whole nation was standing behind the team that had 15 World Championship rookies and limped into the playoff stage, having had to rely on Switzerland beating Latvia in their final group stage game.
In this episode of “Miracle”, these unknown Finnish league players were now the college kids who’d take on the Big, Red Machine and their Ovechkins and Malkins and Bobrovskys.
It doesn’t help that technically Znarok hadn’t broken the rules, as Fasel had said that he can’t be “involved physically with the team prior to the game or during the game.” "Physically" being the operative word. (And apparently meeting with the assistant coach outside the arena doesn’t qualify as getting physical with the team, either).
What is not forbidden is permitted.
There was also a hockey game. From the first shift, it was obvious there was no love lost between the two teams. In the first shift, Erik Haula tried to check Evgeni Malkin in the corner, but instead, he got Malkin’s stick in his face, which started a scrum in which Olli Jokinen, team captain, went after Malkin.
Finland had its chances, but couldn’t capitalize on its power play opportunities, while Russia did. Some of the calls were questionable, but then again, we’ve seen curious officiating in the Worlds before. Jaromir Jagr called the refereeing in this tournament “the worst” he’s seen.
“When I get back to the NHL, I’ll congratulate the referees there after every game (for being so good),” he said.
Malkin scored the game winner in Russia's 5-2 triumph on a 5-on-3 power play in the second period. Unfortunately, in the IIHF stats ticker, the time of the goal was wrong and corrected later, which only fueled the conspiracy theories.
It’s hard to argue against those who called Russia the best team in the tournament, as they only allowed 10 goals in the event. Alexander Ovechkin got to hoist the World Championship trophy for the first time as Team Russia’s captain, and then it was time for the team to throw their coach in the air. Even though his suspension specifically included “any post-game ceremonies."
Maybe the Finns will get more sympathetic towards Russian players next season, when Helsinki Jokerit joins the KHL. To know them is to understand them.