Finns full of surprises

Updated: September 11, 2004, 12:21 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- The Finns are like the perfect houseguests.

Miikka Kiprusoff
Miikka Kiprusoff and the Finns tied the Swedes but have out lasted them in the World Cup.
They're generally quiet. They don't eat too much or make too big a mess. And you can generally count on them to leave when asked.

Until now.

Although they lack the star power of the remaining four teams in the World Cup of Hockey, the Finns arrived for Friday's semifinal showdown with the United States firmly believing that this is their moment, their chance to put aside the bridesmaid label that has dogged them for years.

"I think we're all a bit surprised at how quickly we've been able to come together as a team," admitted captain Saku Koivu. "I'm sure we've surprised a lot of people. How we played against the Swedes and the Czechs."

Although the ride has not been without its ruts and bumps, the Finns are unbeaten and quietly confident that they have yet to play their best hockey. They dominated the Czechs and battled archenemy Sweden to a thrilling 4-4 tie, a game that afforded them the top seed in the European pool. And even though they struggled against Germany in the quarterfinals, needing a late goal by Mikko Eloranta to eke out a 2-1 victory, this Finnish team is as good as any iced at this level, said head coach Raimo Summanen.

"When we started our training camp, our dream is we can make our day," said Summanen, who played in two Canada Cups with the Finnish national team. "I ask the players how they believed in themselves. The question was, did everybody believe that we have to have our day. Every day we are creating our day. We know we are underdogs now all the way, all the way to the end. But if we can get our day on game day, then we have a chance to beat anybody."

Because of scheduling issues, the Finns flew from Helsinki to Toronto where they waited out the winner of the Canada/Slovakia quarterfinal on Wednesday, then packed up again and headed to Minneapolis. Summanen said he thinks getting over the jet lag will be the team's biggest challenge although the Americans might have something to say about that. Assuming they don't sleep through their wakeup call, the Finns should match up well against the U.S., even if they don't have a lot of household names in their lineup. They boast one of the hottest goaltenders in the game in Miikka Kiprusoff, who has shown that his stellar work for Calgary in leading them to a seventh game in the Stanley Cup final was not a mirage. Kiprusoff has turned in a .949 save percentage in four games and turned in the first-ever back to back shutouts in tournament history. They can play an edgy, physical game and they have a surprising amount of skill.

"It will be an exciting hockey game," predicted super pest Ville Nieminen. "Two skating hockey teams."

It fits our mentality. When no one expects anything special, we find the motivation.
Saku Koivu, Team Finland captain
But it is the Finnish team's personality that is the most interesting element of the equation. They seem to mirror the national psyche, Koivu said, and are comfortable being the underdog.

"It fits our mentality. When no one expects anything special, we find the motivation," the Montreal Canadiens' captain said.

To assume the Finns are without emotion, though, would be incorrect. There have been battles with Summanen over the way he has handled the team. Defenseman Janne Niinimaa, added late to the roster, bolted prior to the quarterfinal game against Germany.

"Competition on the ice is really something, but competition inside the team, too, who gets the ice time, who gets the position to play," explained Summanen, adding that there were questions long before the tournament about Niinimaa's place on the team. "What kind of role he can play, what kind of role he can accept. These things happen sometime and it's not a big issue at all. I know the team and we are really uniting the team together."

The internal bickering made headlines in the Finnish media and perhaps affected their play in the quarterfinal game against Germany, Koivu said. But, as Koivu added, this type of tournament, which features each country's biggest stars, will have players that are unhappy or disappointed.

"It doesn't mean the whole team's chemistry is off," he said.

It's almost impossible to fathom what a World Cup of Hockey win would mean to this tiny hockey-mad nation. The Finns have flirted with becoming a world hockey power for years now. They defeated Canada to earn a bronze medal in Nagano in 1998, four years after they won bronze in Lilihammer. They won silver in 1988 long before NHL players were invited to the party. But they fell to sixth at Salt Lake City in 2002 and finished sixth, fifth and fourth in the last three World Championships. They have never finished better than third at any of the Canada Cup events and were fifth at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey event in 1996. Their only gold medal in international competition at the senior level was at the 1995 World Championship.

"You have to earn the respect. That's what we're doing right now," Koivu said. "Now it's for us to do some more positive things for Finnish hockey."

The Finns always seem to get close and then lose those "key" games on the big stage, added Florida captain Olli Jokinen. With the team's success early in this tournament, the expectations have risen at home.

"Hockey is everything there. Everyone has been waiting all summer to see the World Cup games," Jokinen said. "It's going to be a huge game Friday.

"Nobody's satisfied yet. Hopefully, it's our turn."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE