Saturday, September 11, 2004

FINN-ishing Touch On The American Dream

Saku Koivu sent them happy to the streets in Suomi, as he put away the American hopes for a return to the World Cup final with a go ahead goal late in the third period of Friday’s semi final game in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Koivu led his Finnish team to victory when he put away an Ossi Vaanenen pass to the side of Robert Esche, scoring the go ahead and eventual winning goal with 3:54 to go in the game. A defensive breakdown by the Americans, one of many in this game led to the finishing goal as Brian Leetch left Koivu unattended by the American net. Koivu originally fanned on his shot, recovered the puck and had time for a second shot at victory.

Ollie Jokinen had opened up the Finnish scoring with a goal at 5:04 of the third period answering Doug Weights power play goal of the second period. For the most part this was a boring hockey game, if you’re a hockey fan who loves the intricacies of the neutral zone trap then this was your kind of game. The Americans bogged down the play in the first two periods, gaining only 10 shots on Miikka Kiprusoff with only Weight’s shot making past the Finnish goaltender. At the other side of the rink Finland were equally cautious, registering only 7 shots after 40 minutes. A period of hockey that Finn coach Raimo Summanen described as a two very balanced periods of play. The Mike Keenan of Finnish hockey apparently is not a fan of fire wagon hockey.

For the Finns it’s the biggest victory in a long time, erasing memories of past losses and near misses like the quarter final scare by the Germans. Finnish papers have been following the fate of their fair haired boys, with the various sideshows between coach and players getting almost as much ink as the actual scoring summaries. Somehow despite all the discord and finger pointing the Finns have persevered, they now await the winner of the game Saturday between Canada and the Czech Republic.

For the Americans the game brings them full circle to the start of the tournament, slow, sloppy at times and showing some mental mistakes, the Americans dropped back from the heady heights of the defeat of the Russian squad earlier this week. Instead, they retreated backwards to a degree; gone was the crash and banging of the net, replaced by a cautious approach that eventually worked into the hands of the Finns.

The USA is now at the kind of Rubicon that Canada was at a number of years ago, that old gang of theirs will be broken up now. The older hands will be given their gold watches, thanked for their service and sent on their way. Loyalty has its place in hockey, but results speak louder than sentiment and there will be an examination of the American selection process now. Fortunately for the Americans there won’t be the same media attention to their tournament failure that would accompany the same form of exit by Canada.

Sometimes it’s beneficial not to play in the fishbowl; there will be a few days of discussion over the lack of success in defence of their title. But then the sports pages will turn to the NFL, NBA and Baseball playoff races. Hockey will revert to its lower strata status in the American sporting culture. A 2-1 loss to Finland a mere footnote, with the Americans out of the World Cup and professional hockey apparently about to similarly disappear for a length of time, Hockey’s shelf life on the nightly American sports reels is about to expire.

The exit of Team USA is probably not how Gary Bettman envisioned things at the start of the tournament, but when time marches on someone gets left behind. This time someone was wearing a red, white and blue uniform.

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