Canada-Finland: History of a new rivalry
by Andrew Podnieks|02 JUN 2022
Canada and Finland have met for gold several times in recent years.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
These are unprecedented times for Finnish hockey. The nation has now won four medals in the last four major tournaments, something it has never achieved before, and three of those games pitted them against Canada, the birthplace of hockey, where the sport is ingrained in the very culture and fabric of the country.

Never before have two nations played in three successive World Championship gold-medal games, and it can now be said a true and rich rivalry is developing between these nations who respect each other so much. Finland’s hockey development came much later than Canada’s, and much slower, so the Canada-Finland rivalry that we know today takes a bit of time to analyse. It didn’t happen overnight the way the Canada-Soviet Union rivalry did in 1954. 

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1968 that Finland beat Canada for the first time, 6-4 at the Olympics in Grenoble, France. That 5-2 score is a monumental one in Finnish hockey history, and it paved the way for greater results in the coming decades. They beat Canada again in 1980, a result that didn’t mean much to the final placings except that Finland went to the medal round (finishing fourth) and Canada didn’t. Suomi won for a third time at the Olympics, 3-1, right in Calgary in 1988, during the preliminary round.

That game was perhaps the first truly important Finland win over Canada because it counted as a carry-over result in the medal round as well and helped Finland win silver, its first-ever Olympic medal. And the loss also pushed Canada into fourth place and off the podium in the first Olympic Winter Games ever played in Canada.

But the biggest Olympic victory for Suomi was surely 1998 in Nagano when Wayne Gretzky and the NHL participated for the first time. In that tournament Canada and Finland met in the bronze-medal game, the first time they played a game against each other with a medal on the line. Finland won, 3-2, taking a medal directly at Canada’s expense.

There was a similar trajectory in World Championship play. Finland didn’t win a game against Canada until 1978, after 14 straight losses dating back to 1951, but that result had little meaning in the standings or medals. But in 1994, they met in the gold-medal game, their most important matchup ever, and Canada eked out a 2-1 win in a penalty-shot shootout thanks to a Luc Robitaille goal. In both 2000 and 2006, the teams met for bronze, a game Canada traditionally has trouble getting motivated for, and the Finns happily claimed both games by 2-1 and 5-0 scores.

In between, though, there was another monumental game. The teams made it to the finals of the 2004 World Cup, in Toronto, and the hosts won that by the narrowest of margins, 3-2. Tuomo Ruutu tied the game 2-2 late in the second, but Shane Doan scored in the first minute of the third and Canada skated to victory. As well, Canada continued to dominate at the World Championships, beating Finland for gold in 2007, 4-2, and again in 2016, 2-0. 

Notice a pattern? When bronze was on the line, Finland had no problem winning, but when gold or a major championship was on the line, Canada proved superior. Time and again. Well, all that ended, finally, in 2019, in the gold-medal game in Bratislava. With the score tied 1-1 in the middle period, captain Marko Anttila took matters into his own hands and scored twice, giving Finland a 3-1 win and – finally – a gold medal at Canada’s expense. It was a victory for the ages. 

Canada, however, reasserted itself two years later, beating Finland in overtime 3-2 for gold. That set the stage for 2022 in Tampere’s new and magnificent Nokia Arena. Fans started to celebrate after Joel Armia made it 3-1 for Finland with six minutes to play, but Canada mounted a rally with two late goals to silence the crowd. When Max Comtois tied the game at 18:36, essentially taking a sure Finland victory now to overtime, you could have heard a pin drop.

Finland, however, had the experience by this time, experience in winning, and, as important, experience in beating Canada in the big game. They won in overtime, on a power play, to reclaim what Canada had taken from them.

Now? Well, you can’t help but feel the teams are more or less even at the World Championship level. The final mountain, the ultimate challenge, might come in a proposed 2024 World Cup or a 2026 Olympics with NHL participation. Canada has been to the finals of every Canada Cup/World Cup competition, and lost only in 1981 and 1996, so if Finland could somehow prise that trophy from the Canadian grip, well, a new and more impressive victory will have been had by Suomi.

For now, fans can enjoy the team’s current streak, a dynasty the likes of which the nation has never seen before in some 80 years of IIHF play.