For most of you it will have completely escaped your notice that the International Ice Hockey World Championships were on recently. I found out while watching the second Eurovision semifinal with a friend, whom we shall call ‘Finn 1′, as this blog entry involves heavy generalisations about Finnish culture, from a totally legitimate sample size. The conversation went like this:
Finn 1: Finland is playing in the ice hockey semifinals.
Me: Oh COOL! So you could be playing in the Finals! That’s EXCITING!
Finn 1: Yeah, but we will probably play for bronze. (ie, Finland will probably lose this game.)
It struck me as somewhat pessimistic, but i went back to watching trashy pop music, and plotted how i could best see this apparently-doomed game.
So, the following night I found myself at the Finn Family Yli’s, watching the Finnish Lions play Russia with Finn 2 and Finn 3.
(A crash course in ice hockey: Lots of boys run around with sticks on ice, with knives strapped to their feet, occasionally trying to get a puck into a goal, but mostly trying to slam each other into walls. Genius game. There are three periods of twenty minutes each.)
We watch the first period mostly in silence, except for when I can’ handle the silence any more and I have to make noise. Bloody Australians. A whole lot of intense no-scoring happens.
Halfway through the second period, Finland’s 19-year-old Granlund scores the first goal. Finn 2 smiles a little. It is an amazing, unorthodox goal – the best in the series. Finn 2 laughs a little.
That is the only goal that period, but at the end of it, the following exchange occurs:
Finn 3: So, we will lose 1-4?
Finn 2: This is not good.
Finn 3: It is always like this.
I look confused.
The third period begins, and Finland scores again. Finn 2 points, closes their fingers into a fist of satisfaction, and returns to ‘at ease’. “It could still end 3-2” comes from Finn 3 (Obviously, not in Finland’s favour.)
At some point a Finn’s stick collides with a Russian’s face and there is blood. The Finn receives a four-minute penalty. This seems to be as disastrous as the first goal is amazing. It is the beginning of the end. Apparently, the Finns start to ‘tremble’ when they realise they are winning.
Surprising only the Finns themselves, they go on to win, which means they are through to the ‘gold medal final’, where they will be playing Sweden. For me, trying to collect ‘cultural experiences’, this is very exciting, because Sweden and Finland have a sporting rivalry probably even more intense than the Australian – New Zealand one. For the Finns, it seems to be only a source of stress, merely prolonging the inevitable loss.
Finland is a small country, sandwiched between two much larger countries, both of which have ruled over Finland in the past. (Finland only gained independence in the early 1900s.) It has a major inferiority complex.
More than just Finland’s apparent habit of losing, they are playing Sweden. The last time Finland won the Ice Hockey World Championships, sixteen years ago, they beat Sweden. The way Finns tell it, that was the most recent time Finland has managed to beat Sweden. Beating Sweden would be like Australia beating England after having lost every single game for twenty years.
So, for the gold medal final I find myself back at Finn 1’s house. Present is one Finn, and four exchange students. Again, there is a lot of very fast no-scoring in the first period, punctuated only by the Latvian or the Australian yelling “Fight!Fight!Fight!” whenever players flew into walls.
Halfway through the second period, Sweden scores the first goal. This is terrible. There is a moment of dejected flopping before we return to trying to work out where the puck is. At the end of the secind period, Finland equals the scores and there is the possibility of sunshine again. The exchange students yell excitedly, and the Finn looks nervous.
In the third period, Finland scores again and again and again and again and again. With every successive goal, the exchange kids get louder and more obnoxious, and the Finn gets more and more tense. It is inly in the last minute, with Finland ahead 6-1 and Sweden not really knowing what to do with themselves, that our Finn starts to relax.
The siren goes, and Finland has won 6-1.
Helsinki EXPLODES. I find myself waving the Finnish flag and singing Danish eurovision songs. (I don’t know why.) The woman next to us at the bus stop is yelling into her phone the equivalent of “FUCKING SIX-ONE! SIX-ONE! SIX-FUCKING-ONE! FUCKING!”
We get on the bus heading to the impromptu party in the city. There is a hush as we get in the bus, but then someone catches someone else’s eye (Yes, in Finland!), and someone else grins, and the whole bus bursts into song. I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And I am in Finland, of all places. People are dancing and yelling and boys are giving each other manly hugs and manly kisses. The bus is rocking. It is amazing.
I piked on the impromptu party (the bus went past my house), but all the available evidence suggests the singing, cheering, rambunctious flag-waving, and picking up of cute police officers continued well into the early hours of the morning.
The following day 100,000 people descend on Market Square, to see the players arrive home. There are people everywhere, in blue and white, cheering pretty much just for the hell of it. Everywhere there are posters that say “Kiitos Leijonat!” (Thank you Lions!). How cute is that? Can you imagine the Australian cricket team returning with the Ashes, or the Socceroos with the World Cup, to be greeted by posters all saying “Thanks guys!”? No, I didn’t think so.
By the time the players arrive home from Slovakia, they are so totally wasted that some of them can’t make it to the stage to greet the President. Of Finland. Pretty much, Finns can wuhuu just like you.
Only once every sixteen years, mind you. The rest of the time they are their usual taciturn, unflappable selves. My other story involving President Halonen is a good indication of this. The President walks in to the cafe where I happen to be. She sees that it is full, and walks out again. The table nearest the door goes quiet for a moment, and then continues their conversation. Nothing else happens.
*That is how the Finnish spell it. Perhaps I was just spelling it incorrectly?