Winter Olympics: Golden Finnish as Russians fail to retain ice hockey title

(clockwise from top left) Finland's Harri Sateri, Atte Ohtamaa and Ville Pokka celebrate after winning the men's gold medal game against the ROC in Beijing on Feb 20, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - Finland's men's ice hockey team finally reached the top of the Olympic podium on Sunday (Feb 20) by beating the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) 2-1 to claim the final gold medal on offer at the Beijing Winter Games.

Ville Pokka and Hannes Bjorninen each had a goal, while Harri Sateri was rock solid in net when called upon, facing 17 shots as the inspired Finns capped an unbeaten run to gold by overcoming the Russian defending champions.

Finland have made regular appearances on the Olympic podium, returning home with a medal from five of the previous seven Games, but until Sunday had never reached the top step.

Twice before the Finns had contested the final, at the 1988 Calgary Games and 2006 Turin Olympics, and came up short but the third time proved the lucky charm.

"It is hard to put in words what this means. Hockey is a big thing in Finland," said captain Valtteri Filppula.

"We have come close a couple of times and it is finally nice to get the first one (gold)."

The last medal to be decided in Beijing - the men's final - was suppose to provide a sporting crescendo to the Games with the world's best battling for gold.

But Beijing was denied that spectacle when the National Hockey League (NHL) opted out of Olympic participation after a Covid-19 surge through North American locker rooms forced the postponement of more than 100 games.

Instead the players going for gold on Sunday were taken mostly from the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League - widely considered the world's second-best after the NHL - and Finnish elite league teams.

The gold, however, lost none of its lustre for the Finns who tossed helmets, sticks and gloves into the air and mobbed each other in pure joy as the final second ticked off the clock.

It was the second straight time that NHL superstars were absent from the Winter Olympics, which clashes with the North American league's schedule.

Luc Tardif, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said in Beijing on Thursday that the NHL absences were "frustrating". Tardif said the sport's governing body would hold talks with the NHL and he was "optimistic" an arrangement could be worked out to ensure the participation of NHL stars in future Games.

When Finland defeated Sweden in Stockholm in 1995 to win the ice hockey world championship for the first time, the team received a fighter jet escort home, and no doubt will receive another rousing reception when they return to Helsinki with their golden plunder.

In Sunday's final, Finland dominated the early going but it was the ROC going ahead on a power-play goal from Mikhail Grigorenko on what was just their second shot of the game.

Finland continued to carry the play into the second where their persistence was finally rewarded when Pokka's shot from just inside the blue line beat Ivan Fedotov.

Deadlocked at 1-1, Bjorninen put the Finns in front just 31 seconds into the third, and then the defence and Sateri shut down the ROC attack to seal the victory.

Slovakia, with the help of two goals from teenage sensation Juraj Slafkovsky, beat Sweden 4-0 on Saturday to claim the bronze and their first ever Olympic medal in men's ice hockey.

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