Some countries have footballs, some countries have rugby. In the Nordic countries, ice hockey is the sport of choice for many (both to play and follow). In Finland and Sweden in particular, ice hockey is extremely popular, and a big part of Nordic life. Read on to find out more about the great sport that is Nordic ice hockey…

A bit of friendly neighbourhood rivalry

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When it comes to ice hockey in the Nordics, Sweden and Finland are by far the most successful and prominent teams. So not surprisingly, the two have a pretty intense  deep-rooted rivalry. Sweden being the more successful, the Finns are the more bitter. If the two countries were siblings, Sweden would be the older brother always coming first, with Finland trying to keep up.

But despite being bitter rivals, Finland and Sweden have something in common: a love of ice hockey. The national team is a source of national pride, and both being relatively small countries, ice hockey is a great way to stand up against other larger nations.

Sweden and Finland: the big ice hockey nations

Officially formed in 1912, the Swedish national team is the oldest and most successful – winning their first gold at an international level in 1953. Since then, Sweden has won countless medals. The Swedes are a sports fanatic nation, successful in a wide range of sports; despite all the interest that ice hockey has, the favourite sport is actually football.

For Finland, the most popular sport by far is ice hockey.The Finns won their first gold in 1995 and their second in 2011 in the World Championships. What makes these golds more memorable to the Finns is that they won against Sweden, both times Finland beating the Swedes by a long stretch. In Finland’s defence, they’ve been seen as medal contenders long before their first gold and they;ve racked up plenty of silverware in the meantime.

Norway and Denmark: budding ice hockey nations

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A distinct lack of international success and never winning a medal can probably best describe the hockey culture in Norway and Denmark. Frankly, people are just more interested in other sports. Even in Norway, a winter sports nation, ice hockey doesn’t hold much interest compared with things like cross country skiing – it is said Norwegians are ‘born with skis’, not skates. (Though in both countries, football is the national sport.)

However the Danes are pushing through, despite their limited resources. As Danish players play in the NHL there has been a spark of interest in the youth. Denmark has also put effort in youth development, borrowed from the other top European nations. The results can be seen in the under 20s World Championships, where they finished 5th in 2017.

In recent years, Norway and Denmark have cemented themselves on the international level, both competing in the highest tier of international hockey (albeit jumping up and down divisions for some time before). 

Iceland: when will it begin?!

Iceland and ice hockey haven’t found each other yet. Our last Nordic nation have approximately 550 registered players and three official rinks. On the international scene they play in division II – the third tier –  against other countries with no hockey culture. The Icelanders turn to the weather to explain their dismal success in ice hockey In south, contrary to public belief, Iceland stays relatively warm, which creates problems in making ice rinks.

National hockey in Norway and Denmark

Norway, is slightly ahead of Denmark when it comes to national ice hockey; everything is a bit bigger and better. Although Denmark comes second, with less ice rinks and less registered players, they can compete at the same level as the Norwegians, nationally as well as internationally.

Ice hockey is on the rise in both of the smaller Nordics, to some extent. The Norwegian national league is becoming more commercialised and the focus is on how to make the league more lucrative. In Denmark, young talent is increasingly seen in the national leagues. However, both national leagues still struggle to be professional and in Denmark most coaches are only part time, holding a full time job on the side. And once again, other sports have a larger interest.

When it comes to the competitiveness of the national leagues, the Danes and Norwegians are almost level pecking. Nonetheless, in comparison to the top European leagues, the Danes and Norwegians are still behind. And, unfortunately for supporters, the leagues are used by players as springboards to successful European careers, outside of the two leagues.

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National hockey in Finland and Sweden

Both leagues, in their current form, were founded in 1975. They are fully professional and are the top leagues in Europe. The leagues attract high class foreign players and have a large base of native born players. As with the Danish and Norwegian leagues, the leagues are used as springboards. Players that stand out have a chance to further their careers in bigger leagues such as the KHL (Russian league) or the NHL (the top North American league). This is a source of heartache to the fans who have to see their favourite players leave. However, the next step is to follow, one way or another, the progress of their favourite player.

The leagues are keenly followed and every team has a fan base, despite what their level of success. The supporters act as an extra player, pushing the team on. Every supporter has a favourite and in the Finnish league, the team’s highest point scorer wears a golden helmet. Players with successful careers coming home to wind down with their boyhood teams are welcomed with open arms.

Not just a team

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Both Finland and Sweden have emblems that are seen everywhere in the country. Finland’s emblem is a lion – leijona – like in the Finnish coat of arms, military and police. Sweden’s emblem is three crowns – tre kronor – visible in the Swedish coat of arms, the monarchy, national legislature and the government. Their kits also match their countries flags (Finland’s is white and blue, Sweden’s is blue and yellow): clear examples of how the national ice hockey team is not just a team but something that represents the nation.

In the 1900s Icelanders went to Canada in search of playing time in the Canadian teams. After being rejected, they formed their own team – the ‘Winnipeg Falcons’. This was to become the inspiration to the Icelandic emblem: a falcon on a maple flag.

Legends of ice hockey

Since the introduction of ice hockey, both Sweden and Finland have had countless ice hockey players but some stand above others.

Teemu Selanne is one of them. Apart from breaking records and winning awards, Selanne is known for being a fan favourite, affectionately named as the ‘Finnish Flash’, and spearhead for Finnish hockey internationally.  Selanne managed to gain his place in the hearts of the ‘Anaheim Ducks’ fans. He played countless seasons with the team and only towards the end of his career, which made it only more memorable, he won the Stanley Cup with them. Nowadays his jersey is frozen on the roof of the arena.

He’s the most successful Finnish NHL player, scoring 76 goals in his rookie year in the NHL, becoming a prolific goal scorer. He amassed over 100 points playing with the national team. Nowadays Selanne is retired, but remains on the hockey scene, fuelled by the desire to take Finnish hockey further.

A famous Swedish player is Peter Forsberg. He was known for being a power forward and excelling in the passing game. His career was marred with injury, though no less successful, and he won many awards and broke many records. He is also a member of the ‘Triple Gold’ club, winning the Stanley Cup, the Olympics and the World Championships before retiring in his late 30s. Although not that high in all time points, he’s up there with the best, considering his points per game and his massive impact on the sport.

The uniting power of ice hockey

Ice hockey is by far the most popular sport in Finland, and Sweden definitely isn’t far behind. The international matches bring each nation together; the hockey season is followed eagerly, and whole cities will go behind their teams. The success of the national team can affect the mood of the whole nation – success is remembered for a long time, and defeats are taken to heart. For Denmark and Norway, there is a growing interest but it doesn’t help that the national teams have had little success. And when it comes to Iceland, only the future will tell…