Thursday, April 1, 2010

Those fabulous Finns

In proof that you never know where you'll find another hockey fan, I had to pick up a U-Haul van tonight to lug a rather large home improvement purchase home, and I happened to be wearing my Niemi 31 shirt. (Yes, the autographed one. Hockey fans actually wear their signed gear.) 

The counter guy, coming back from helping another customer out in the parking lot, saw the back of my shirt, and asked, "Is that... is that Niemi's autograph on your shirt?"

"Yes," I said, smiling. Yay! Another Blackhawks fan!

His face lit up. "God, I love Niemi," he said breathlessly. "He's an amazing goalie." We then went on to discuss the Blackhawks for the entire time he was ringing up my rental, and in the end, I think he was distracted by all the hockey talk, and ended up forgetting to give me the furniture dolly I had reserved. Thankfully I didn't end up needing it, but it was oddly reassuring to meet somebody else who is driven to distraction by the end-of-season run to the playoffs. 

Thanks to Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago for a nice article on Antti Niemi today. Niemi is just the 10th Finn to play for the Blackhawks, and the 1st Finnish goalie for the team.

I have had folks ask me why I tend to support the Finnish players the most. Well, my mother is from Finland, for a start; so there's the simple and obvious reason. Unfortunately I didn't learn much Finnish as a kid (although I can sing you a song about a bunny rabbit, and wish you merry Christmas, and order you some ice cream or say a few polite phrases), but I've always had a fascination for my mother's homeland. I have visited there just once, a few weeks back after high school, and thought it was beautiful and the people were fantastic. I would highly recommend visiting there, even if there isn't an NHL season opener in town!

Finns make up just 4% of all NHL players. (In comparison, Canada has produced roughly 54% of NHL players, the US about 18.5%) Interestingly enough, by contrast, 12% of the NHL's goalies are Finnish, so there is something to be said about the "Finnish goalie factory". Further fun statistics? There's around 40 Finnish players in the NHL, 8 of whom are goalies; and 18 Finnish NHL players went to Vancouver for the Olympics.

I really enjoyed Tuomo Ruutu's run - albeit brief - with the Blackhawks, and was disappointed to see him traded to the NC Hurricanes. (Although I can't complain too much there... the Blackhawks got Andrew Ladd in the trade, and Ladd has been solid.) In general, there are a lot of fantastic Finnish players around the league.

It's not surprising that the percentage of Finns in the NHL is so low, despite the fact that Finland has quite a few hockey teams. The country's population is about 5.35 million - roughly the population of Minnesota. But as demonstrated by Finnish players throughout the league, they are dedicated, hard-working people, with a tendency towards quiet modesty.

Video below on Finnish goalies - warning: contains a lot of jiggling camera for some reason. I don't know if the guy did that to make it seem more dynamic, but if you can get past that, some amazing goalies in action.

As for why I tend to favor goalies - well, back in the day when I played (field) hockey, I was a goalie. My best friend is also a goalie for a team in western Michigan. I think goalies work hard, and it takes a lot of strength and persistence to be a really solid one. Oh sure, I like other players too, but I'm always rooting for the goalies.

And Finnish goalies? Even better!

One quick Finnish language lesson: if you see somebody wearing a t-shirt or jersey that says "Suomi" on it, that's what the Finns call their own country. It is not pronounced "Sue-OH-mee", but I can't spell out the pronunciation very well (it'd be close to "SOOah-mi", where the "ah" sound is almost swallowed in the middle). I'm willing to bet, though, that anybody wearing such a shirt can pronounce it properly for you. 

If you meet a Finn, you can always offer a friendly "Hyvää päivää" (hello) or "mitä kuuluu" (how are you doing?). And if you ask "Olisiko mahdollista saada teidän nimikirjoituksenne?" (would it be possible to get your autograph?), a sincere "Kiitos" (thank you) afterwards is always proper.

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