It would only take nine seconds for Finland to change the dynamic of a game, a tournament, and an entire sport.
It was, in reality, much more than just nine seconds. It was 58 saves from Noora Räty, many of them jaw-dropping, all of them a necessity. It was 60 minutes of an exhausting defensive effort by a Finnish team hell-bent on capturing the biggest win in their country’s history. It was all of the tiny circumstantial things that happen in a hockey game-a bounce of the puck here, a stick tied up there, a desperate shot fired just an inch too close to a desperate glove or pad, over and over and over again-happening in such a way that would lead to Finland earning their fourth-ever win over the United States and their first-ever ticket to the Four Nations Cup final.
But it was those first two Finnish goals, scored nine seconds apart, that changed everything. Because when Karolina Rantamaki got the Finns on the board 3:59 into the second period, it was absolutely plausible that the Americans would be able to find the back of the net at least once and eventually escape with a victory that had been expected in the first place. But when Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani burst into the U.S. zone right from the very next face-off and buried another one? Well, that was all Räty needed. Team USA ended up throwing 59 pucks at her, but it could have been 100; it could have been 1,000. There was no way she was going to give up that lead, and that opportunity, and everyone knew it.
Finland would concede a goal of their own before the second period was over, but they would withstand wave upon relentless wave of offensive pressure from the Americans for the rest of the game. Jenna Hiirikoski, who was outstanding on defense all tournament, would make it 3-1 with 9:25 to play, and that was all the breathing room the Finns needed. On the same sheet of ice where a team once miraculously taught us to simply believe, this Finnish squad would do the same, though to call it a miracle this time around would be missing the point.
To call it a miracle is to say that Noora Räty’s own ability did not cause her to stand on her head and make those 58 saves. It indicates that fate, and not talent and heart and determination, led to the win. And most dangerously, it implies that Finland never had a chance of beating the Americans, and that the win does not have the possibility of marking a turning point in a sport that severely needs one.
The Finns, however, more than held their own against the Canadians just a few days earlier, despite losing 3-1. And just a few months ago, in April, they nearly upset the U.S. in the semifinals of the World Championships, keeping the game scoreless for 54 minutes. And a few games before that, in the preliminary round against the Americans, they would only fall by a score of 4-2. And on Saturday night in the Four Nations final against Canada, they fought back multiple times and even outshot the Canadians 10-9 in the third period, though they would eventually come up short, losing 6-3. Finland being able to compete with women’s hockey’s two superpowers has become a trend, and that’s not because of luck or coincidence but instead because of all-world talents like Räty and Karvinen, and the contributions and efforts of every player on that roster.
The United States and Canada have met in the championship game of every Four Nations Cup and World Championships, ever. A vast majority of the games that they play where they don’t face each other result in them drubbing their opponents. The sport needs more parity to survive, in the most literal sense. If no other countries can find a way to close the gap between themselves and these two teams, and soon, women’s hockey could potentially be dropped from the Olympic ballot.
But here is Finland, announcing their arrival, at least for right now. It will be awhile before they can dominate the Americans and Canadians for an entire game, and before a win like the one that they earned on Friday night won’t be described as absolutely stunning. However, the Finns have shown that they have reached a level where they can make things interesting, and even dramatic. Their win against the U.S. may not have been miraculous, but it was monumental, and historic. And the hope going forward is that five years from now, or ten, or twenty, it won’t be seen as simply a gigantic upset but as a game that helped to change the course of the whole sport.
Many have asked the question, “Why should women’s hockey be played in the Olympics?” And for the longest time this sport has been in jeopardy because no one has been able to give a good enough reason as to why it should undoubtedly remain on the ballot. But for the time being, we now have this Finnish squad as an answer. And we can ask, “Why shouldn’t women’s hockey be played in the Olympics?”, and demand that the critics look those Finnish players in the eye and say that it’s because no one else is good enough to have the chance, every game, to knock off the United States or Canada.
Finland may have defeated the U.S., and Canada may have won the whole tournament, but women’s hockey as a whole was the real victor this weekend.