Swedes, Finns: 1,000-year rivalry

Sweden and Finland's sporting rivalry goes back centuries.

By Randi Druzin

Canadian fans can't forget Canada's 5-2 win over the United States in the final game of the men's hockey tournament at the 2002 Winter Games. But Swedish fans can barely remember it.

The Canadian-American hockey rivalry is compelling in Saskatoon, but not Stockholm. There, sports fans are more interested in Sweden's long-standing rivalry with Finland.

The rivalry comes to a crisp fruition Sunday when Sweden and Finland meet in the gold-medal game in men's hockey at the Olympic Games in Torino. For the two northern neighbours, it couldn't be a finer matchup.

"Sweden and Finland are neighbours and friends," explains former NHL player Anders Hedberg. "There's a warm but competitive atmosphere between the two countries."

Hedberg, who was born in a town 550 kilometres north of Stockholm, says the countries have a "big brother/little brother relationship."

Politically, Sweden dominated Finland from the 11th century, when Swedes crossed the Baltic Sea to convert Finnish tribes to Christianity, until Finland fell to Russia in 1809.

Today, the Swedish population is nine million while the Finnish population is 5.2 million. Also, Sweden's Gross Domestic Product is $267 billion and Finland's GDP is $153 billion.

Swedish is one of the official languages of Finland, but the opposite isn't the case.

"Finns study Swedish in school but Swedes don't understand a word of Finnish," says Hedberg, who played four seasons in the WHA and seven in the NHL in the 1970s and '80s.

Swedes and Finns are passionate about the same sports, and are fierce rivals in all of them.

Both countries send their best track and field athletes to an annual competition between the Nordic neighbors.

The Swedes call the event Finnkampen, which means "The Finn Battle" in Swedish. The Finns know the event as Suomi-Ruotsi-maaottelu, which means "The Finland-Sweden International."

The event was first held in 1925, and competition has been fierce ever since. Middle distance races, in particular, have been heated contests. All six runners in the 1,500 metres were disqualified for foul play in 1992.

Hedberg, now head of player personnel for the Ottawa Senators, says hockey has replaced track and field and cross-country skiing as the big sports rivalry between the countries.

Sweden has won seven world titles compared to Finland's one. In Olympic competition, Sweden has won one gold, two silver and four bronze medals. Finland has won one silver and two bronze medals.

Hedberg skated in some big competitions, including the 1976 Canada Cup. In that tournament, Sweden had to beat Finland and Czechoslovakia to advance to the final against Canada.

The Swedes were much stronger than the Finns, and were heavily favoured in their showdown.

Sweden burst out of the gate and forged a 5-1 lead. But the feisty Finns turned the hockey world on its helmet and won the game 8-6.

The win rendered Sweden's subsequent win over the Czechs useless.

"I barely remember the event because it was so painful," Hedberg says, half-joking. "I've blocked it out."

Hedberg played for the Winnipeg Jets that season.

"Two Finns were on the roster so, believe me, I heard all about the big loss when we resumed WHA action. They teased me about it in the sauna," he says.

"The history between the two countries makes this a special rivalry," says Swedish NHL player Nicklas Lidstrom, 35. "All the players go into a Swedish-Finnish game with that in the back of their minds.

"It's been fun throughout the years. We've had some really great games against the Finns," Lidstrom says.

He remembers skating in a game against Finland at the 1991 world hockey championship in which the Swedes came from behind to win.

Lidstrom, now with the Detroit Red Wings, also remembers competing in Sweden's 5-2 come-from-behind win over Finland in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

That victory was especially sweet because the game was in Stockholm.

"In Sweden, people follow international hockey a lot closer than the NHL," Lidstrom says. "Representing Sweden is something I always wanted to do. To be part of the Olympics is really big."

"Games between Sweden and Finland are always fun," Finnish NHL star Saku Koivu said in a crowded dressing room after a recent Montreal Canadiens practice. "Growing up, I used to love watching those games."

Koivu, 31, has vivid memories of watching hockey in the 1980s, when Finns Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen were among the biggest names in the NHL.

Koivu has represented his country at several international competitions.

He and linemates Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen led the Finnish team to victory at the 1995 world championship. They defeated the Swedes in the final game.

Koivu also skated on the Finnish teams that won bronze medals at the 1994 and 1998 Winter Games. He was a member of the team that won silver at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

"Internationally, we play against Sweden so often the rivalry has become bigger over the years. A game against Sweden is one you don't want to lose. They are always emotional contests, and there is always a lot of intensity.

"The Swedes always think they're better than us," he says, "and we always want to beat them."