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HOCKEY

Finns look to replicate 1995 glory against Sweden

When Team Finland takes to the ice on Sunday to play Sweden for the gold medal at the 2011 World Championships, it will be carrying the hopes of an entire nation on its shoulders. It has been 16 years since Finland won its first -- and only -- gold medal in a major, senior-level international tournament. In many ways, Finland's gold medal at the 1995 Worlds marked the start of a new chapter in the country's hockey history and stands to this day as an enduring symbol of national pride that goes far beyond the rink.

The Finns' gold medal in 1995, won at Stockholm's Globe Arena at the expense of Sweden, left an indelible mark on every member of the current squad. Just as the Miracle on Ice squad is venerated in the United States, the members of Finland's gold medal winning squad and the memories of the culminating effort against Sweden will forever be held in the highest esteem among Finns.

"Pretty much everybody in Finland remembers where they were when we won the gold," said former NHL defenseman Ossi Vaananen, who was a few months shy of his 15th birthday at the time. "Being a young hockey player, I dreamed of being a part of something like that. That team showed it was possible for a Finnish team to win it all. It made a big impression for sure -- not just on me, but on everyone."

Prior to Finland's gold at the 1995 Worlds, the country had won a gold medal at the 1987 World Junior Championships in Czechoslovakia. But it was a somewhat tainted honor because both Canada and the Soviet Union had been disqualified from the tournament as a result of a bench-clearing brawl in the final game. Even had the Finns won the gold under traditional circumstances, the World Juniors did not carry the same level of importance to the average Finn as the senior tournament or the Olympics.

To understand why the 1995 championship -- especially the accomplishment of beating Sweden on its home ice -- was so important to the Finns, one must look not only at the hockey histories of the two countries but their geography, economic and political histories. Many Finns self-identify as scrappy underdogs who have to battle for their keep.

For much of its history, Finland was a pawn of Swedish and then Russian rule. In more modern times, Finland has generally been a little less prosperous than Sweden. In the international hockey realm, the Finns have often battled to the brink of hockey glory only to lose at the end to powers like the Swedes, Russians, Czechs or Canadians. The 1995 title marked the first time the Finns finally won the big one, and the win sparked a massive nationwide celebration.

Current captain Mikko Koivu was 12 years old when Finland won its gold medal. He had an even more intense rooting interest than most of his friends and countrymen because his older brother, Saku, played a key role in the victory.

"I remember how exciting it was, and all the happy faces," said the younger Koivu, who is playing in his fourth World Championships. "We were all very proud of Saku and the entire team. For me, it would be a dream come true for sure to win a gold medal."

Back in the spring of 1995, Saku Koivu was a highly touted Montreal Canadiens prospect entering the tournament. Coming off a Finnish championship with TPS Turku, Koivu centered a line with fellow youngsters Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen. Dubbed the "Hughie, Dewey, and Louie" line, the trio was a sensation at the tournament. Sixteen years later, there's a new young sensation on Team Finland. Coming off a Finnish championship with HIFK Helsinki (where he is a teammate of grizzled veteran Peltonen), Minnesota Wild center prospect Mikael Granlund has been a revelation in Slovakia.

Granlund, who has often been called an even more offensively gifted version of Saku Koivu at the same age, has racked up 8 points in eight games. Most notably, he opened the scoring against Russia in Finland's 4-0 win in the semifinals with an electrifying lacrosse-style goal in the second period. Later, he added a nifty assist, centering a pass from behind the net to Jarkko Immonen for the former New York Rangers winger's eighth goal of the tournament.

Sixteen years ago, the Finnish nets were manned by veteran Jarmo Myllys. A superstar in European hockey but a bust in the NHL and for much of his international career, Myllys answered his critics by backstopping the team to gold. This time around, the Finns will rely on another veteran goaltender who is unknown or lightly regarded by many in North America but who is an accomplished player in the top European leagues.

Petri Vehanen, now 33, has never played outside Europe and is only on the national team for this tournament because so many of the country's top goalies were in playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (Pekka Rinne, Antti Niemi, Antero Niittymaki and Tuukka Rask) or otherwise unavailable (Miikka Kiprusoff, Nicklas Backstrom and others).  Entering the tournament, there was a lot of concern over whether the goaltending would hold up; however, with some help from his team's usual strong defense, Vehanen has been as solid as his better-known NHL counterparts.

In the 16 years since Finland took gold in Stockholm, the country has gone on to win another gold at the World Juniors in 1998, and back-to-back golds at the Under-18 Worlds in 1999 and 2000. At the senior level, though, it has been nothing but frustration. The Finnish teams at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 2006 Olympics raised hopes sky high in their homeland -- especially the latter team -- but the dreams ended in heartbreak in the finals.

Almost every television set in Finland will be tuned in on Sunday to the gold medal game against Sweden. If the Finns defeat the Swedes, there will be huge celebrations not only in the capital of Helsinki, but everywhere from Tampere in the south to Oulu and the Lapland in the north. If the team with the lion crest comes up short, there will be disappointment -- followed by renewed hopes the next time Team Finland is one win away from celebrating its second gold medal.