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Puckarinen Hits A Post

We are the champions

On May 20, in some European capital*, people will be storming the streets, bathing in the city’s fountains, and dressing up statues with their national team hockey sweaters. They’ll be driving up and down the streets, honking their horns, with their flags sticking out of the car windows, waving in the wind. People will be singing national anthems in unison, and they will be screaming the names of their hockey heroes to nobody in particular.

That’s what winning the hockey World Championship does to people.

While the annual World Championships may not get first billing in North American fans’ minds, it is a great event, and it is a fantastic hockeyfest that, for a couple of weeks, brings together a huge amount of skill, talent, and grit in celebration of the sport.

And that’s just the fans. Then there’s the talent on the ice. Even with eight NHL teams still going for the Stanley Cup when the puck drops in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden, there’s still enough talent to go around. Canada may not have Jonathan Toews - although they may - and the US may not have Patrick Kane - or they might - but Canada will have Corey Perry, and the US will have Bobby Ryan.

Finland may not have Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, but they will have Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu. Sweden’s got Zetterberg but no Lidström.

But in the end, even that doesn’t even matter. National heroes are made in national teams. Last year’s final between Finland and Sweden gathered 2.5 million viewers in Finland, a country of 5.3 million. And 1.7 million people saw Mikael Granlund weave his way into a postage stamp when he scored the 1-0 goal in Finland’s semifinal game against Russia.

Tens of thousands people met the victorious Finnish team in Helsinki the day after the final. In 2010, the happiest hockey fans were found on the Main Square in Prague, and in 2009, people drove up and down the streets of Moscow after Russia’s second consecutive World Championship.

In 1995, I was one of the people meeting the team on the Helsinki Market Square. Finland, the perennial fourth-placed team at the Worlds, had suddenly won World Championship silver (1992), Olympic bronze (1994), and another silver at the Worlds in 1994, and then, in 1995, won the gold.

For my generation of Finnish hockey fans, the gold medal was not even a dream. It was so far beyond one that there was no point in dreaming it.

I remember sitting at home with a friend of mine, watching the final against Sweden. When Finland had a 4-1 lead with just minutes to go, we started to believe they - or we - might actually win it. But we also knew that anything was possible. In 1991, Finland had a 4-2 lead with 52 seconds to go, but Mats Sundin tied the game in 15 seconds. In 1986 the Swedes had come from 4-2 to 4-4 in just nine seconds, scoring the 4-3 goal with 40 seconds remaining in the game.

And when the final buzzer went and Finland had won their first world championship gold, we stood in my apartment, and wondered what to do next.

“Well, Finns won’t go nuts and storm the streets or anything like that,” my friend said.

“There’s probably not going…,” he said then, but the rest of his sentence got buried under the sound of honking horns on the other side of the building. We ran to my kitchen window and saw people hanging out of their cars, waving Finnish flags, screaming and yelling – and honking.

My friend had a few cans of Guinness in the back of his car, so he opened one of those, and made a toast. “To Finland, the world champions.” And that was the end of our celebration.

The next day, I read in the paper, there was going to be an event at the Market Square.

I went there. But because I still didn’t understand the magnitude of things, I went there in roller blades. Now, I lived just some eight kilometers from downtown, so skating to the market square wasn’t a big achievement. Usually. That day, though, the crowd started to get bigger and bigger the closer I got to the square, making it almost impossible for me to move ahead. What made it absolutely impossible was the fact that the area surrounding the square is paved with cobblestone - something I had completely forgot about. I also forgot to take shoes with me.

After all, I was just going to get in, check out the players and the turnout, and head back home again. In and out. Easy.

The streets of Helsinki were filled with people as the players rode through town in convertibles, on their way to the square. One of the cars stopped and wouldn’t start again, and the people pushed it all the way to the square, goaltender Ari Sulander told me a decade later.

But then, I was tip toeing, walking very slowly holding onto buildings close to the square, and the stage, waiting. I took off my inline skates and walked a little closer in my socks, and then realized I would see better if I wore the inlines. As soon as the team got to the square, I started my trek back home, determined to beat the traffic.

I wasn’t at the square last year when Finland won their second world championship - I was at home - but like in 1995, tens of thousands of other Finns were there, waving their flags and loving their heroes.

In a few weeks, a new set of world champions will be crowned.

Make sure your face paint is waterproof. Don’t go to the parade in your inlines.

* I’m not saying Canada or the US won’t win it. Just that the party will be in Europe.

Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer. He once wrote a book about the 1995 gold medal team. You should follow him on Twitter (@puckarinen).

Filed in: | Puckarinen Hits A Post | Permalink
  Tags: finland, henrik+zetterberg, mikko+koivu, nicklas+lidstrom, saku+koivu, sweden, teemu+selanne, valtteri+filppula, worlds

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About Puckarinen Hits A Post

Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden.

That's right, he's deep behind the enemy lines. He's also a regular contributor to IIHF.com, NHL.com, The Hockey News, and several publications in Finland and Sweden. He's also covered four World Championships and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for the IIHF.

And since he foolishly hoisted the Stanley Cup in his twenties, he wakes up every morning knowing he will never be able to win it.