Finland prevails at WJC, continuing tradition of punching above weight

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Finland players celebrate after defeating the United States in the gold medal game at the IIHF world junior hockey championship in Vancouver, on Saturday January 5, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — Suddenly, the Finns have won three of the past six world junior championships. They’ve beaten Sweden, Russia and, last night, Team USA in gold-medal games, while KO-ing the Canadians this year in a quarterfinal here in Vancouver.

Their 3-2 win over the United States on Saturday checked every box: superior goaltending, overcoming a blown 2-0 lead, a late goal by their stunningly good 17-year-old Kaapo Kakko.

So what is it with the Finnish player? How can this tiny nation of 5.5 million produce this many good players, and win this many championships, icing superior team after superior team?

Does the Finn possess more skill? Has he a bigger heart? More courage?

“What do you think?” asked Finland general manager Kimmo Oikarinen. “We are Finns.”

Indeed, they are Finns.

And everyone else? We can only wish that we were.

“Tonight,” began defenceman Henri Jokiharju, “we say hello to the people who didn’t believe in us at the beginning at the tournament.”

In an immensely entertaining gold-medal game, the Suomis capped off what was predictably a wildly successful 2019 WJC here in Vancouver and Victoria by raising their flag and singing their anthem. Despite the fact that Canada failed to reach the podium for the first time ever on home soil, the games were still sold out and merchandise sold at a level only bested twice before, 2015 in Montreal-Toronto, and the grand-daddy of them all, 2013 in Edmonton-Calgary.

On Saturday, after Russia easily dusted off the Swiss 5-2 in the bronze-medal game, the gold-medal marquee flashed the names Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko — who are battling for the No. 1 position at the 2019 NHL Draft.

Below them, goalies Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Cayden Primeau, who would steal the show in a goaltending duel for the ages.

This could have been a 7-6 game for all the Grade A scoring chances, but with two minutes to play the game was knotted at 2-2, the Finns pressing. They put the puck to the American net, and in the ensuing mayhem Kakko — digging on the backhand like a farmer pitching hay — shovelled a loose puck behind the brilliant Primeau to give his country gold.

“He’s a winner, he scored the winner, and I think he’s going to be the No. 1 pick for sure. He’s a big guy, he’s playing with men, and he’s ready,” said Jokiharju, who played 32 games this season for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. “The trust? It never failed in our team. Probably the group games wasn’t good, but … we win the right games versus Canada and Switzerland and now USA, and we’re best in the world.”

The skill and speed on display here in B.C. this Christmas season was simply blinding, the world’s top teenagers trying moves and shooting pucks in ways that — even a decade ago — we wouldn’t have imagined. But as much as the game changes, as long as the goalies keep up to the shooters it will stay the same.

Luukkonen was simply unbelievable, and truly just one miraculous save better than young Primeau, the son of ex-NHLer Keith who allowed the game-opening goal to young Jesse Ylonen, whose father was NHLer Juha Ylonen.

“At the end of the day it’s about who stops the puck more. We didn’t get that on our side, so that’s why we came up short,” said Primeau, who really had no business being so hard on himself.

But the time has passed when only Canada shows up here with a “gold or bust” attitude. Now, a handful of countries take time to see the value of a silver medal, not just us.

“It hurts right now,” Primeau said. “Looking back we’ll be able to wear it with honour, and pride. Obviously you want gold, but I’ll remember the memories I made on this trip, the people that I met.”

The Hughes brothers, Jack and Quinn (the latter a Canucks draft pick) came as billed. Fantastic players each.

But somehow, again, it was the Finns who were mobbing their goaltender in celebration as the final buzzer sounded. They’ve got something, these pesky Finns.

Something quite good, we must admit.

“Our players are more ready to come to North America at the moment,” said Oikarinen. “They are more comfortable, and they don’t think so much, ‘We have to win.’ They just go and play. They are in the right position now.

“The biggest thing is that we are finally a champion in the small rink in North America. It’s a huge thing for us.”

Can’t beat ‘em on the big rink, or now, on the small one.

We’re all going to have to find someplace else to play the Finns, it seems.

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