BEIJING (Reuters) -Finland’s men’s ice hockey team finally reached the top of the Olympic podium on Sunday by beating the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) 2-1 to claim the final gold medal on offer at the Beijing Winter Games.
Ville Pokka and Hannes Bjorninen each had a goal while Harri Sateri was rock solid in net when called upon, facing 17 shots as the inspired Finns capped an unbeaten run to gold by overcoming the Russian defending champions.
“This means a lot, first time we made history today, it feels great,” said Finnish forward Markus Granlund. “It was early game, fans probably woke up early, it’s a big thing for Finland.”
Finland have made regular appearances on the Olympic podium, returning home with a medal from five of the previous seven Games, but until Sunday had never reached the top step.
Twice before the Finns had contested the final, at the 1988 Calgary Games and 2006 Turin Olympics, and came up short but the third time proved the charm.
The last medal to be decided in Beijing – the men’s final – was supposed to provide a sporting crescendo to the Games with the world’s best battling for gold.
But Beijing was denied that spectacle when the National Hockey League opted out of Olympic participation after a COVID-19 surge through North American locker rooms forced the postponement of more than 100 games.
Instead the players going for gold on Sunday were taken mostly from the Russian-based KHL and Finnish elite league teams.
“What a way to end it and on this day we’re the best hockey country in the world,” said Finnish forward Harry Pesonen.
“There are so many good players, even if North American guys were not here.
“There were no easy games in this tournament.”
It was certainly not an easy one for the Russians, who hit a wall after their early opening goal.
“If we compare our team with theirs, we need to restructure ourselves, to adapt ourselves to this new type of hockey; one of the factors is the discipline during the game,” said ROC coach Alexei Zhamnov, who won Olympic gold with the Unified Team as a player at the 1992 Olympics.
“You should stick to your plan in hockey.”
The gold, however, lost none of its lustre for the Finns who tossed helmets, sticks and gloves into the air and mobbed each other in pure joy as the final second ticked off the clock.
When Finland defeated Sweden in Stockholm in 1995 to win the ice hockey world championship for the first time, the team received a fighter jet escort home, and no doubt will receive another rousing reception when they return to Helsinki.
“I can’t even describe it, it was an emotional incredible moment,” said Sateri. “I don’t even realise yet it’s such a huge thing, just a huge thing.
“It’s been a dream since I was a kid. An Olympic gold medal is just unreal.”
Finland dominated the early going but it was the ROC going ahead on a power play goal from Mikhail Grigorenko on what was just their second shot of the game.
Finland continued to carry the play into the second where their persistence was finally rewarded when Pokka’s shot from just inside the blue line beat Ivan Fedotov.
Deadlocked at 1-1, Bjorninen put the Finns in front just 31 seconds into the third, and then the defence and Sateri shut down the ROC attack to seal the victory.
Slovakia, with the help of two goals from teenage sensation Juraj Slafkovsky, beat Sweden 4-0 on Saturday to claim the bronze and their first ever Olympic medal in men’s ice hockey.
“Incredible feeling to get a gold medal, thinking that everybody was up (back in Finland),” said Pokka.
“I’m sure everyone in Finland is pretty excited even if it’s super early in the morning.
“But not too early to drink beer in Finland.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Additional reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris, Jacqueline Wong, Himani Sarkar, Peter Rutherford)