Finland is rarely regarded as the favourite heading into an international hockey competition at either the junior or senior level. But by the same token, the Finns are usually capable of beating any other team in the tournament, and their gritty, cohesive style of play means a game against them is no walk in the park. They captured four straight medals from 2001 to 2004 (a silver plus three bronzes). This year’s team won’t feature stars equal to forward Tuomo Ruutu (Chicago), defenceman Joni Pitkanen (Philadelphia), or goalie Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta), who played major roles in those recent medal runs. Still, the blue-and-white brigade is certainly capable of improving on 2005’s fifth-place finish. For starters, don’t be surprised if the Finns come away with a point or two against the North American powers in Group A Round-Robin action.
Coaching: Hannu Aravirta is one of the most experienced bench bosses in this tournament. The 52-year-old worked with the Finnish senior national team as an assistant coach (1992-97) and as the head coach (1997-2003). His greatest triumph at that level was winning the bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, while his worst failure was blowing a 5-1 lead and losing 6-5 to Sweden in the 2003 IIHF World Championship quarter-finals in Helsinki. In 2004, Aravirta guided Finland to a World Junior bronze on home ice. His disciplined approach should help keep the Finns out of penalty trouble as they forecheck aggressively.
Goal: Toronto fans should keep close tabs on Finland’s starting netminder, Tuukka Rask. That’s because the 18-year-old Savonlinna native was drafted 22nd overall by the Maple Leafs in 2005, and if he continues to improve his acrobatic style with Ilves Tampere of the Finnish Elite League, he could soon join the wave of Suomi-trained goalies flooding into the NHL. “Tuukka has quite good technique,” says Arto Koivisto, who works regularly with Rask and is considered arguably Finland’s top goalie coach. “He moves very well on the ice.” Rask is still working to improve his strength and use of the stick, but the 6-3, 190-pounder knows how to cover the net and is incredibly fast side to side. He posted a 2.96 GAA and .902 save percentage at the 2005 IIHF World Junior Championship. Rask’s backup will be Karri Ramo, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect who plays for HPK Hameenlinna.
Defence: With two returning veterans from last year, this will be a solid if not formidable blueline. Expect Aravirta to rely on Risto Korhonen, a gutsy shot-blocker who was drafted in the fifth round by Carolina this year, and Teemu Laakso, a Nashville prospect who’ll see some power play duty. Laakso was named the best defenceman at the 2004 Viking Cup in Camrose, Alberta, which Finland won.
Forward: Gritty right wing Lauri Tukonen should be well-prepared to compete on the smaller North American ice surface after starting this season with the Manchester Monarchs, the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. Lauri Korpikoski takes a regular shift on left wing with TPS Turku in Finland, and the New York Rangers noted his speed and enthusiasm when they drafted him 19th overall in 2004. Jesse Joensuu will be watched closely by scouts at this tournament, as the 6-4, 194-pound power forward is considered Finland’s top 2006 draft-eligible prospect, although he’s not quite in the same class as the USA’s Phil Kessel or Michael Frolik of the Czech Republic. These returning talents will be counted on to generate offense, along with newcomer Perttu Lindgren, who is emerging as an offensive contributor at age 18 with Ilves Tampere this season. Aki Seitsonen, a hard-working centre with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, should bring confidence and experience as another returnee, helping his teammates acclimatize to Western Canada. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, forward Tomas Sinisalo is the son of former Philadelphia Flyer Ilkka Sinisalo.)
Projected Results: Can the Finns keep up with powers like Canada, the USA, or Russia? That remains to be seen. Setting the right tone versus Canada in their opening game on December 26, win or lose, might prove to be key. That’s because Finland historically has shown fragile confidence in international hockey. If things fall into place, however, a medal is not out of the question.