(Note to reader: This column originally appeared in the World Junior Championship Preview in The Hockey News. It has been altered to reflect the outcome of the tournament.)
Finland entered the World Junior Championship this year much as it does every other, as one of five countries with a legitimate chance to win. And when the plucky Finns surprised everyone and ended up at the top of the podium, they actually didn’t surprise anyone at all.
There’s a lot we know about Finland. It has the highest child literacy rate in the world. It’s the only country that fully repaid its debt from World War II and it did so in an incredible seven years. It is home to the greatest number of off-the-grid world championships in the world – including global tournaments in wife carrying (where the winner gets his wife’s weight in beer), mobile phone throwing, mosquito catching, swamp soccer, sauna and air guitar. It was the first country in the world to make internet access a legal right and it is a global leader in recycling, which explains why Teemu Selanne kept making all those comebacks.
And you could easily make the argument that pound-for-pound, there is not a better hockey country in the world than Finland. When it comes to performances on the world stage and presence in the NHL, nobody does it better than the Finns.
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, Finland is the 39th most populated country among the 53 that are full members. It has 75,781 registered players and 260 indoor rinks servicing a population of about 5.5 million. Compare that to Germany, which has 16 times the number of people and almost as many indoor rinks at 202. But Germany has only 25,201 registered players and isn’t even in the same area code as Finland when it comes to winning medals and producing NHL players. Sweden, on the other hand, has about four million more people than Finland and 100 more indoor rinks, but has 15,000 fewer registered players.
But look at the performance in the WJC. Over the years, the Finns have won four gold medals – two in the past three years - and 13 medals overall. Sweden has won only two golds and just 15 overall. And USA – which hothouses its best 16- and 17-year-old players and has 59 times the number of people and seven times the number of players and indoor rinks - has the same number of golds and just 10 overall. With their win in 2016, Finland stands third in total gold medals in the WJC, behind only Canada and Russia/Soviet Union and one ahead of USA.
On paper, these countries should be routing the Finns. It shouldn’t even be close, but it always is. Finland might not win every game, but regardless of how strong or weak their entry is in an international tournament, they always play the same. They’re kind of like Esa Tikkanen that way, always in your ear and on your heels, never, ever letting go and almost never letting their opponents pull away from them. Opponents always, always know they’ve been in a game. These guys wear a lion on their chest for a reason.
And don’t forget, this is a country of proud people, who fought Russia to the death in the Winter War of 1939. Russia had three times as many soldiers, 30 times the aircraft and 100 times the number of tanks Finland had, but the Finns repelled the Russians for more than three months.
“I don’t think that can help but translate into hockey,” said former longtime NHL scout David Conte, who played professionally in Finland for two years and still has strong ties to the country. “They value all the right things – family, environment, education, health – and they’re quite unique unto themselves.”
In the Olympics, the Finns have medalled in four of five since NHL players started taking part, more than any other country. Canada has ruled the Games with three gold medals, but it’s championship or bust. USA, Sweden, Czech Republic and Russia only have two medals each. In World Championships and women’s hockey, it’s the same thing. The Finns have always had what it takes to hang with the big boys and girls.
Perhaps Finland is so good at hockey because it’s good at everything. Did you know, for example, that Finland has more summer Olympic medals per capita than any other country in the world? It’s second only to Norway in the number of winter Olympic gold medals per capita. And that’s largely because Norway dominates in cross-country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined, where there are a total of 78 medals to won. There are just six in hockey. Finland also has the most winners of Formula One championships per capita.
When it comes to players in the NHL, Finland has 26 skaters and 10 goaltenders who have played at least one game this season. Russia has 32 skaters and four goaltenders and the Czech Republic 31 skaters and three goaltenders. Perhaps the best comparison for Finland is Switzerland, a country that exceeds Finland in population by almost three million and has a well-financed pro league and a long history of winter sports participation. But the Swiss don’t even come close to Finland in terms of success in international hockey or at the NHL level. It has just 10 NHL skaters and two goalies. It also has only 159 indoor rinks and one-third the number of players registered.
So it should come as no surprise that the Finns found it in themselves to go on some kind of wild run and ended up on top of the junior world in early January – knocking off world powers Canada, Sweden and Russia in the process. Those who know the little hockey nation that could certainly weren’t.