Saturday, February 22, 2014

Finland: The little hockey engine that very consistently could

How many times can a team succeed before you stop calling them underdogs?

Nevermind that they have the world's most likable player in captain Teemu Selanne. (And around these parts, the most likable ex-Canuck in Sami Salo.) Or that they just won their third consecutive Olympic medal by toppling the generally-hated Team USA. In international competition, Finland has been as endearing to the hockey world as they are efficient and successful.

Which is extremely odd. Because typically, the teams that can endear themselves to an entire sport's followers are not usually the consistently successful ones. I mean, look no further than Team Canada. But in the NHL-era of Olympic competition, Finland has captured one silver medal and three bronzes, reaching the podium in four of five years. (Not to mention runner-up in the 2004 World Cup, the only other best-on-best competition in that span.) No other country can match that medal output. Not Sweden, not Russia -- not even Canada.

So how is it that they are so damn lovable? It can't be just one or two players' ubiquitous likability. In Finland's case, it is because, despite their track record, they come into literally every Olympics as an underdog. Especially this time around, having been without their top two centres in Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula. (Simply consider how bad the Canucks' pre-Olympic stretch would have been without Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler.)

But besides being perpetually overlooked in best-on-best international competition, the mere demographics of their country would categorize them as an underdog. When considering hockey's Big Seven -- Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- Team Suomi are basement-dwellers when it comes to national population (see table to the right).

Consider them the Ornskoldsvik of hockey countries. For the bare-bones pool of potential hockey stars they have to work with, Finland's output in international competition is paradoxically disproportionate to their population. 

Chalk it up to their coaching and capacity to play as a team. (For all intents and purposes then, chalk it up to being the tournament's antithesis to Team Russia.) Finland is international hockey's little engine that could. Without even having to explicitly defeat them, their success is an implicit insult to the Phil Kessel- and Alex Ovechkin-driven freight trains of the world.

And while vets like Selanne (43 years old), Salo (39) and Olli Jokinen (35) have turned in their final Olympics for Finland, the country's success at this tournament was largely driven by a new generation of alarmingly young stars. With 4 goals and 7 points, Mikael Granlund, just 21 years old, appears to be a lock for the Tournament All-Star Team. Meanwhile, Olli Maatta (19) and Sami Vatanen (22)'s five points apiece currently tie them with Shea Weber for third among tournament defencemen.

That said, it is abundantly clear that, led by underrated stars like Granlund, Maatta and Vatanen, Finland is an engine that will continue to quietly succeed -- even when nobody will care to give them a second thought. And we'll love them for it.


#MyTeamCanada, BTD style

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