Saturday, 13 April 2019

Steps Forward

For years, we've been hearing about the disparity in women's hockey. Yes, the Canadians and Americans have been the world's best for some time, and there's always been some promise of a team rising up and knocking off one of these two common foes. We saw Sweden do it at the 2006 Torino Olympics when they shocked the Americans with a 3-2 victory in the semifinals, but the Swedes have fallen from grace quickly as funding was cut and players opted to retire. As it stands, Finland was the next challenger, and we got to see what it looks like when the Finns execute their systems perfectly as they took down the Canadians in the semifinal at the 2019 Women's World Hockey Championship.

I've written about how upsets are good for the sport. I mention it time and again when one of the "underdogs" rises up to beat Canada or the USA, but it remains true to this day that seeing these other countries win against the two powerhouses is good for the sport.

We can sit here and make excuses for what happened today, but that's not going to happen. I'm very aware that Canada was without Marie-Philip Poulin and that Blayre Turnbull left the game midway through the action. There are all sorts of footnotes that one can put on this game, but Canada's roster on paper has all sorts of talent that should allow it to rise above a Finnish team that, on paper, isn't close to being comparatively talented.

Finland won because they executed their game plan, they capitalized on chances, they got amazing goaltending, and they had 19 players who went over the boards with one singular goal. That's not to say that Canada didn't have the same goal from their 19 players, but the fact that Finland accomplished said goal means that they were better on this day. If this game is played 100 other times, Canada likely wins more often than not. But today, the Finns were the better team and deserved to advance to the gold medal game.

Winning today is the culmination of years of heartbreak, disappointment, and back-to-the-drawing-board for Finland. It's years of tinkering, trying, failing, trying again, finding things that work, replicating those successes, and putting it all together in sixty minutes. Finland downed Canada in the preliminaries at the 2017 Women's World Championship for their first-ever win against Canada, but had yet to replicate that success until today when they pulled off a 4-2 win in the semifinals.

The stats will show 43 saves by Noora Raty and a Canadian power-play that went 0-for-4 as being large reasons for the Finnish win today, but the stats won't show a coordinated team effort on defence to thwart the Canadians time and again while the Canadians failed to give the same effort in their defensive zone. The results now speak for themselves as Canada will face Russia for an unfamiliar bronze medal while Finland will look to thrill their home crowd as they have a date with the Americans and the potential for another monster upset.

And while I celebrate this major victory for Finland, the reality of the situation also rears itself in that outside of Finland, there really isn't any other country who presents itself as a legitimate threat to Canada and the US on the world stage. The fact that Finland is the only country to even move the needle at this World Championship is once again a problem for every country not named "Canada" or the "USA" based on the results at this tournament. With Finland having a number of women on its squad who possibly will be retiring following tomorrow's gold medal game or soon thereafter, the pipeline of talent on the world stage has never been more pressing for all teams who hope to replicate Finland's success.

The problem that the world faces is that there simply isn't a program at this point who has invested in its program as well as Finland has. This is a double-edged sword as Finland is on the verge of joining Canada and the US as powerhouses, but will likely see significant player turnover in the next few years. With no other country even on the radar of an upset win at this point, can Finland maintain this current level of success if the players who have worked tirelessly to put Finland at this point decide to retire? On top of that, will we ever see Russia or Switzerland or another country or countries join Finland in being legitimate threats to the long-time reigns of Canada and the US at the top of the hockey world?

Finland's win over Canada is monstrous for the Finnish program for a number of reasons, but one has to be aware that there could be a potential void on the world stage if a number of the current Finnish women decide to move on following this tournament. For now, no one will give that problem much thought as Finland prepares to compete for its first gold medal in women's hockey at any level, and that accomplishment cannot be understated when highlighting the importance of today's win. Beyond tomorrow, there may be bigger issues in women's hockey once again, but I'm quite content to allow Finland to celebrate this victory over Canada today on home soil. They earned this celebration after the biggest win in their program's history before playing the most meaningful game in their country's women's hockey history tomorrow.

Hyvä Suomi!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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