Finland Goes Ice Hockey Crazy
On Monday night, Finland witnessed almost unparalleled scenes of joy. What is it with Finland and ice hockey? 65DN tried to find out.
Watching the televised celebrations on Monday evening, you’d have thought Finland had won a war. The homecoming parade of the triumphant Finnish Lions (who had vanquished the Swedes 6 – 1 in the World Ice Hockey Final the previous night) was broadcast live on two major channels. More than 100,000 people squeezed into Helsinki’s square to cheer them on, screaming ‘Suomi!’ ‘Suomi!,’ painting Finnish flags on their faces and waving them aloft.
Pop songs were penned for the occasion, nationally famous singers and comedians warmed-up the ecstatic crowd and finally President Tarja Halonen ascended the stage to congratulate the national heroes, one of whom was so excited, and possibly drunk on champagne, that he came close to snogging her. Footage of the goals was re-played, for everyone to savor, and now a Swedish tabloid is arguing that ‘100,000 people turned out to ridicule Sweden.’ Apparently the Swedish police wished they could have ‘shut the border’ to stop Finns pouring into Haaparanta on Sunday night to rub in their victory on Swedish soil, including (according to Swedish tabloid Expressen) burning the Swedish flag.
For many expats, the national passion is football (or occasionally baseball). It is difficult to get quite so excited about ice, pucks and hockey sticks. But you can still get caught-up in the euphoria.
Sandra Rugina, a Romanian photographer who used to live in Oulu, was with the crowds in Helsinki on Sunday night and found this happening to her.
‘The whole game and atmosphere was really great and I felt really good to be part of the big crowd that was cheering at every important moment of the game,’ she told 65DN.
‘I felt really happy that they won! They were yelling and honking and hugging each other in the streets!’
An Interminable Wait
Prof. Hannu Itkonen, who is professor of Sports Science at Jyväskylä University, attempts to understand the euphoria. For him, Finland has been eagerly waiting for this moment for sixteen years, since Finland last won the gold.
‘Ice hockey is a very big phenomenon in Finland,’ he explains. ‘It is a very powerful sport. Since 1995, every year we have been waiting to win and wanting to win and now we have won. The media and other organizations have been waiting for this process.’
A sociologist of sport, Prof. Itkonen thinks that the attraction of ice hockey is related to the kind of country Finland is.
Small Nation Nationalism
‘We are a very small nation,’ he argues. ‘It is impossible for us to win at football. But we can in ice hockey because it is a small sport all around the world.’
And sporting triumphs were highly significant in the wake of Finnish independence, so they are a vital part of Finnish identity. ‘Sport is always very important to a young nation,’ Prof. Itkonen suggests. ‘When we built up our nation, our sports associations were built up at the same time, so it is an important part of Finnish history.’
It’s an excuse to have a ‘carnival’ as well but Prof. Itkonen also sees a political side to celebrations. In his view, the meteoric rise of True Finns at the recent parliamentary elections shows that people are moving to right and that Finns are becoming more nationalistic. The extent and emotion of the celebrations, and the fact that victory involved beating old colonial masters Sweden and Russia, reflects this renewed nationalistic spirit.
‘I think this is one reason why there are so many Finnish flags. For some people, it is a racial thing,’ Prof. Itkonen adds. This was evidenced in ‘some stupid processes’ such as a young Finn burning a Swedish flag in Haaparanta. Also, the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet has been particularly offended by the mocking singing of the Swedish words ‘Den glider in!’ (‘It slides in!’) at the victory celebrations. The victorious Finnish fans sang the same line when Finland beat Sweden for the gold back in 1995.
‘Why else would the Finns have translated this into Swedish other than to stick a knife into the Swedish wound?’ asked the newspaper.
Warriors in the Dark
Ice hockey began life in the Low Countries in the Middle Ages. It became popular with British soldiers and spread to Canada, where it really took off, with the National Hockey Association being established in Montreal in 1917.
Kimmo Leinonen, General Secretary of Organizing Committee for the 2012 World Championship, explains that the first hockey game in Finland was played on a frozen lake on 15th January 1928. Finland took part in the championship in 1939 and lost all its games.
‘But it really began to become popular in the 1950s and 1960s. People started playing it at night-time, lit up. And people seemed to like standing and watching it in the dark. It was more exciting to watch these warriors in the darkness.’
For Mr. Leinonen, the emotion of the Finnish celebrations can be explained by the way that, ‘There is a long history of identifying with sport for Finnish people. We have always been a sports country. It is through sport that people have become aware of us in the world.’
But he doesn’t agree that the celebrations reflect a growing Finnish nationalism. ‘It was exactly the same when we won in 1995 . . . there’s no politics.’
Despite the national celebration, the ice hockey victory has left some Finns feeling distinctly underwhelmed.
‘I really feel left out of this,’ explains 34 year-old Elina, a teacher. ‘It’s such a big fuss over nothing. It’s unbelievable that the home-coming was broadcast on two channels.’
But she’s in the minority. Half of all people living in Finland watched the long awaited victory on Sunday night. In fact, Elina admits that was amongst them and even she couldn’t help screaming ‘Hyvää Suomi!’ when the Finnish Lions scored their third goal. By the time the sixth goal came, she was speechless.