Hockey fever grips Helsinki

If you're in Finland or around Finns over the next three weeks, you'll probably hear about the Ice Hockey World Championship. The annual spring festival is one of the most-watched sporting spectacles in the Finnish calendar, when even the most hard-hearted sporting refuseniks tend to get swept up in the hoopla.

Image: Yle

With that in mind, this light background might help hockey novices tell their Mertarantas from their ilmaveivit.

Defending champions

Finland won last year’s worlds in Slovakia with a 6-1 win over Sweden in the final, and are now defending the title on home ice in Helsinki. They have a difficult task ahead: no team has retained the championship at home since the Soviet Union in 1979. No hosting team at all has won since the Soviets in 1986. The 64-game tournament features 16 teams, all from Europe and North America. Half the games in the preliminary rounds are being played in Stockholm, as well as two of the quarter finals.

Coach Jukka Jalonen made some tough decisions in naming his roster for the tournament, including just four NHL players. That is the lowest number of any of the major hockey-playing countries in the tournament.

Jalonen also included three World Championship novices: Tuomas Kiiskinen, Jani Tuppurainen and Joonas Järvinen. The 1995 world champion Ville Peltonen, who at age 38 did not have quite enough left in the tank, did not make the list.

One who had no worries about making the cut is Mikael Granlund, the Minnesota Wild prospect who stunned everyone in last year’s tournament with a superb ‘airhook’ (_ilmaveivi _in Finnish) goal in the semi-final against Russia (siirryt toiseen palveluun). Granlund played the last season with Helsinki side HIFK, but could leave for the NHL in the summer. The team will be captained by veteran Mikko Koivu, also of Minnesota.

Watching the games?

Those planning to go and see the Lions play had better have deep pockets, as tickets for the home team’s games cost a minimum of 155 euros. Co-host Sweden took a radically different approach, offering tickets at 44 euros to some of their games.

The Finnish Ice Hockey Federation is hoping for a profit of around eight million euros from the tournament, and says it will spend the surplus on junior coaches’ salaries. Even so, there has been strident criticism of their strategy, and the likely effect of preventing families and children from attending.

Thankfully, tickets for matches not involving Finland are much more reasonably priced.

Mertaranta mania

If you can’t quite stretch to 155 euros a ticket, then the chances are you will experience this annual celebration in the company of the legendary Finnish ice hockey commentator, Antero Mertaranta, formerly of Yle. He is famous for the kind of enthusiasm that would get children in trouble if they displayed it at home in front of the TV.

His energetic reaction to Granlund’s airhook goal (siirryt toiseen palveluun) last spring was a typical example of the Mertaranta experience. His screaming soundtrack to Finnish victories has even formed the basis of a sideline as a recording artist, and he is pretty much a national treasure.

The games will be televised on the subscription channel Canal+, with some appearing free-to-air on MTV3 and Ava. The International Ice Hockey Federation’s YouTube channel (siirryt toiseen palveluun) will stream all games free of charge to countries where the TV rights remain unsold.

Finns often gather in bars and at home to watch important matches together, betraying the stereotype of a taciturn and placid nation with wild celebrations when their boys win. It is an excellent alternative for those that cannot stretch to some of the most expensive tickets in Finnish ice hockey.

“Den glider in”

What made the organisers think they could get away with the high prices? Ice hockey’s central position in Finnish popular culture is a large part of it. Many of the trappings of the world championship and ice hockey have entered the public consciousness. It all started, as most sporting infatuations do, with a fairytale success story.

Finland’s love of the World Championships burgeoned in the late nineties following the country’s first title in 1995. That the first victory came, almost unbelievably, with a 4-1 win in the final over our dear neighbours Sweden, made it all the sweeter.

The Swedes, hosting the tournament at the Globen Arena in Stockholm, were widely expected to triumph in the final. Not least by most Finns. Their perceived arrogance was heightened by the recording of a song called “Den glider in” before the tournament. The title means “it’s sliding in” which was Swedish commentator Lennart Hyland’s reaction to Nils Nilsson’s winning goal in the 1962 final.

Not surprisingly, the Finns appropriated the song, giving rousing renditions at victory celebrations and even recording a version of it themselves. The song is now an integral part of the hockey-watching ritual, and you might well hear it if you spend time in bars when Finland play. Last May’s victory celebration drew more than a hundred thousand people to the market square in Helsinki, and when Leo Komarov started the song, everyone knew the words (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

You can count on there being many more renditions this year, if and when the Lions lift the trophy.