Finland, which probably has the world’s most improved junior hockey program, has won two IIHF World Junior Championship gold medals since 1987.
The first was tainted slightly, won in 1987 when Canada was disqualified from the tournament after getting involved in a full-scale brawl with the Soviets in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. There were no clouds hanging over the second however, as the Finns beat Russia fair and square in the gold medal game on an overtime goal by Niklas Hagman in 1998.
Finland has a gold, silver and bronze medal to show for the last five WJC tournaments. Most scouts believe that on a per-capita basis, the Finns are turning out the best NHL prospects among all European countries. The population of the country is slightly more than five million.
Coach Erkka Westerlund, a former Director of Development for the Finnish Hockey Association, has had a lot to do with the restructuring of the training system for coaches in the country, which began in 1991. He’s currently Head of the Association of Finnish coaches.
North American teams frequently use the excellent facilities at the Finnish Olympic training site in Vierumaki as a base before participating in international tournaments in Europe.
In Kari Lehtonen, the Finns could have the best goaltender in the 2003 WJC competition in Nova Scotia. Lehtonen became the highest drafted European goalie in history when he was selected by the Atlanta Thrashers second overall in 2002, after being named best goalie in the 2002 WJC, when he had a brilliant 1.17 GAA and .943 save percentage.
Centre Jussi Jokinen, the team’s leading scorer last year in the Czech Republic, is back for the 2003 tournament. Jokinen contributed two goals and eight points to the Finns’ bronze medal effort.
Mikko Koivu, younger brother of Saku of the Montreal Canadiens, will be competing in his third World Junior Tournament. A 6-2, 183-pound centre, he is not as fast as his brother, but is very clever with the puck and has an excellent shot.
Also back and driving for gold is center Tuomo Ruutu, Chicago’s first choice (9th overall) in 2001. Ruutu, whose older brother Jarkko plays for the Vancouver Canucks, scored four goals for the Finns at last year’s tourney in the Czech Republic.
Defenseman Joni Pitkanen was selected fourth overall by the Philadelphia Flyers after making his WJC debut at the age of 17, while Sean Bergenheim, taken 22nd overall by the New York Islanders, scored eight goals and 12 points in eight games at the 2002 World Under-18 Championship.
Some NHL GM’s say Bergenheim was the fastest skater selected in the 2002 draft and has all the tools to become an excellent two-way forward in the NHL.
At the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, centre Valtteri Filppula had 10 points in eight games and won 60 per cent of his faceoffs before being selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the third round of the NHL draft in June.
Finland scored a decisive 4-1 win over Canada last year, outshooting the Canadians by a margin of 43-28. The Finns will be quick and aggressive.