A TOAST TO FINLAND!


(Mårten Beijar photo)

You may have missed it, but the land of my ancestors recently celebrated it’s centennial. On Dec. 6, 1917,   small but mighty Finland officially severed itself from Russia, becoming an independent country for the first time. Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers did not protest. I remember leafing through one of my great aunt’s photo albums and seeing a grainy picture of the raising of the Finnish flag in their small community for the first time. A bit more than two and a half years after independence, my mother was born in the fishing/farming village of Sideby. When I first visited “the relatives” in the winter of 1971, I was given the very room where her birth took place. Under the mountain of blankets my two great aunts supplied, I remember going to sleep that night looking at the same walls that oversaw my mother’s first breath of life and pondering the chains of existence. Because my great-grandfather August Jossfok, a rough-looking, bearded fellow in big boots, and a young woman down the road, Ida Mathilda Karlsdottor, found favour with each other 130 years ago, I am here today. (My grandmother’s family was from the small farming community of Karperö, further north.)

My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, part of the predominantly Swedish-speaking communities that line the Gulf of Bothnia, left over from the several hundred years when Finland was part of imperial Sweden. In the old days, Swede-Finns spoke only Swedish. When the family left for Canada in 1928, my mother didn’t know a word of Finnish. Few outside Finland realize that the country remains officially bilingual, although mixed-marriages and migration to Sweden have reduced those for whom Swedish is their first language to barely 6 percent of the population.

In fact, there is probably much else people don’t know about Finland, besides saunas, Sibelius (a Swede-Finn, incidentally), the prowess of its hockey players and its remarkable education system, which consistently produces student results among the best in the world. Herewith, in honour of Finland’s 100th birthday, are a dozen things you might like to know about a country that has punched above its weight for a long time, and continues to marches to its own drummer. (Even before independence, Finland had been the first jurisdiction in Europe to give women the right to vote, in 1906–10 years before good old Canada.) First, some history.

 

  1. The fierce polarized politics of early Finland were frightful. Immediately after independence, conservative Whites and socialist Reds duked it out for ascendancy, resulting in a short, brutal civil war that claimed 36,000 lives in a country of just three million people. With the critical assistance of several thousand German troops, the Whites were victorious.

 

  1. The bitterness of the civil war had a tangible impact on far-away Canada. Thousands of “Red Finns” left their divided homeland, now in the hands of the vengeful Whites, and emigrated to Canada. Many found work in the logging camps and mines of northern Ontario. The new arrivals did not leave their politics behind. A number became political activists and radical union organizers. In 1929, Janne Voutilainen and Viljo Rosvall “drowned”, while trying to organize some nearby loggers. Most believe they were murdered by anti-union thugs. Their funeral was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay, which retains a Finnish flavor even today, most notably with the venerable, 100-year old Hoito restaurant, still on the bottom floor of the Finnish Labour Temple. My grandfather was also among the “Red Finn” contingent, but thankfully, he brought his family to Vancouver.

 

  1. In World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. Hitler made a brief visit in 1942 to wish the country’s military leader, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a happy 75th birthday. The previous year Finnish forces had attacked the Soviet Union to regain territory lost to the USSR during the Winter War. After some initial success, the venture ended disastrously. After the war, the Soviets exacted heavy reparations, claimed a chunk of border territory, and took jurisdiction over a strategic peninsula not that far from Helsingfors (as Swede-Finns call the capital) until 1956. Finland was also required to remain “neutral” in world affairs, a position they scrupulously maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

  1. During the post-war years, Finland established one of the most extensive state social services systems in the world, believing, along with other Nordic countries, that governments have a duty to intervene on behalf of their citizens. Shredding the neo-con argument that taxes and government get in the way of economic development, Finland’s per-capita income has more than held its own among other Western industrialized countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked tiny Finland first in terms of World Human Capital. Other international reports found Finland the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016, and second best in terms of the gender gap. As baseball broadcaster Mel Allen used to say: “How about that?!”

 

  1. Finland has military conscription. All my male cousins, on turning 18, had to interrupt their education to serve at least six months with the Finnish army.

 

  1. Coalition governments are the order of the day. For many years (until 2015), the small Swedish People’s Party (Svenksa Folkpartiet), supported by just about all of my relatives, was part of the government.

 

  1. In 2014, Finland became the first, and so far, only country to put homoerotic drawings by a gay artist on its stamps. They were the work of the artist known as Tom of Finland (Touko Lasksonen), subject of a recent bio-pic this year by director Dome Karukoski. (The one below is the mild one.)

 

  1. Of course, Finland isn’t perfect. Alcoholism remains a big problem, no doubt contributing to the country’s relatively high homicide rate, while youth unemployment is stuck at around 20 per cent. And, as in most European countries, anti-immigration sentiment has become an issue, fueling the growth of a worrisome, nationalist party. The good news, however, is that political leaders banded together in June to freeze out the Finns Party, after it elected a hard-line, anti-immigration leader. Twenty elected members of the party left to help the coalition government maintain its majority. “This decision will likely ruin our political careers, but we are determined to do this,” they said in a statement. “Today, we are not politicians, but we are doing this for the fatherland’s sake.” How rare is that in today’s political world?

 

  1. In the final of the world hockey championship in 2011, playing against their loathed, arch-rivals, Finland whacked neighbouring Sweden 6-1. It was the greatest triumph in the history of Finnish hockey.

 

  1. Believe it or not, the national sport of Finland is not hockey, but baseball. However, banish any thought of the North American version of rounders.  The Finns call it Pesäpallo, and the rules seem to come from outer space. Would anyone else other than the fun-loving Finns have three designated players on each team called “Jokers”? You think cricket is complicated? It takes this guy more than five minutes to explain all the ins and outs of Pesäpallo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yom1_q8WRck Unlike any sport you’ve ever seen.

 

  1. Well, maybe not. There’s also the Finns’ fondness for fen football, otherwise known as swamp soccer. The august New York Times had a hard time taking it seriously, headlining their story on the  competitive bog slog: “Finland has a sports screw loose.” This from a country that relishes bowling. But never mind. Read about it here. Try hard not to laugh. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/sports/finland-has-a-sports-screw-loose.html

12. Last, but certainly not least: according to the Guinness World Records, the 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor), is the world’s longest palindromic word in everyday use. That prompted my friend Lorne Slotnick to ponder: “Why would the word for a soapstone vendor be in “everyday use”?” And the answer is: Because it’s Finland!

Happy 100th birthday, land of my mother’s birth, and a Merry Christmas/God Jul/Hyvää Joulua to you all.

 

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THE GOOD OLD HOCKEY GAME

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We are all Canadians. As I write, thick snowflakes are falling in usually-balmy Vancouver, as if to underscore that yes, indeed, we are all winter. (sorry, Sweden…) This is one of those increasingly rare times when, despite tireless efforts to reshape the country in their own image by those cold, calculating politicians in Ottawa, we can reach back to our roots and celebrate just being Canadian. Together, as a nation, we rose yawningly early (4 a.m. on the West Coast!) to watch a game for ice supremacy taking place thousands of miles away in Russia.

Of course, there was really no doubt we would rise to the occasion, There is something about Canada and hockey that grips us, still, and today, it seems, more than ever. Perhaps this renewed embrace of our national game was nourished a few decades hence, when Canada seemed to be losing its place in the sports world. Olympic medals were few and far between. In fact, we made Olympic history as the only host country to fail to win a gold medal on its own soil. Not once, but twice!

Our hockey teams also fell short ar more often than they succeeded. We bemoaned our lack of skill, our emphasis on being tough and crashing opponents into the boards, while hockey players from other countries seemed wondrously fast and agile.  Articles on “our troubled game” abounded. Fans despaired. Many fell off the bandwagon. Then, surprisingly, much against type, we began to learn from the Europeans. We found we could pass, skate and move the puck quickly, too. We didn’t have to brawl our way to the top. Our junior teams started the trend, winning a dozen world championships through the 1990’s and 2000’s. They did it with basic hockey, abandoning the fighting that yet mars junior play back home, and buying into good, positional team play.

And now, at the Olympics, our hockey guys have won three of the last four gold medals. Canadians are way back on side. Though nothing could equal the magic of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal before the home folks in 2010 (“Iggggy…!”), this was pretty wonderful, too. The thought of us all, collectively bleary-eyed, blinking back sleep or shedding hangovers, in bars and living rooms across the country, from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, is moving. A nation, once more.

The Olympics also demonstrated that, in spite of fighting, sky high salaries and Gary Bettman, hockey remains at heart a winter’s game, beautifully played by Canadians. The Sochi version of Team Canada is arguably the best national shinny squad ever assembled. From the hesitant opening match against Norway to the final seconds of their dominant gold medal showdown against Sweden, the players never abandoned their composure or commitment to team play. Egos and individualism were put on hold. The forechecking and backchecking of star forwards paid millions of dollars to play in the NHL was relentless.

At the Olympics, they were not playing for the big bucks but for national pride, corny as that sounds, and their work ethic was exemplary. Though scores were sometimes close (three one-goal games), Canada was the better team in all six of its matches. Most IMG_1715of all, they smothered teams with a suffocating defense, from impeccable Carey Price between the pipes, to their solid defense core, to forwards coming back to help whenever their opponents ventured across the blue line. And Canada’s goals were almost always the result of skilled plays, rather than the boring old style of putting the puck on the net and trying to cram it in during a scramble.

Vintage hockey at its best.

Afterwards, assistant team captain Jonathan Toews, still only 25, waxed rather elegant about their gold medal achievement:

“It’s a great team that we had in this tournament. You could see it developing, the chemistry, in the locker room. The guys start to understand their roles,” he told reporters. “It’s not easy for some guys. You look at Roberto Luongo or Marty St. Louis or even Sharpie tonight, guys that have made sacrifices to win the gold medal.

“But you ask them, I don’t think they care. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of a team like that, whether your role was big or small. You watch us tonight, we’re an amazing team to watch, the way we work together. We were just all over them.”

Yep.

There’s a good chance this may be the last Winter Olympics to have NHL players competing.  The USA did poorly, some top players suffered serious injuries during the Games, and a large majority of NHL owners hail from south of the border. Not much national pride there. But right now, it feels pretty  good. Eh, Canada?

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A CURLING SUPERPOWER AND MEMORIES OF NAGANO

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Hockey, schmockey. What about curling? Let’s see. Not only are we a moguls behemoth and a hockey colossus. We rock at throwing rocks. Hardly news, of course. But these Winter Games are the first time both our men’s and women’s rinks have claimed gold at the same Olympics. Do I feel your eyes glazing over? Hey, it’s the roaring game!

But the women’s gold medal curling final, which almost got lost in the national euphoria over the thrilling victory by Canada’s never-say-die distaff hockey side, brought back some fond memories. It was Canada versus the tough Swedes, and the first crack at Olympic glory for one of this country’s greatest skips. Jennifer Jones had won so much at home, but often faltered internationally, and twice flubbed out at the country’s Olympic trials. This time, she was ready.

But it was no rock in the park, so to speak. Jones curled wonderfully, the rest of her rink not so much. In fact, without a key miss by the Swedes in the 9th end, and a measurement that gave Canada a point in the previous end by the width of a cat’s whisker, the result might have been silver, rather than gold.

The Jones girls were the first rink to go through an Olympics competition without losing a single match. Much was also made of the fact that this was also the first Olympic gold medal for Canada’s crack women curlers since the legendary Saskatchewan rink skipped by another great competitor, Sandra “The Curler” Schmirler.

That took place at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and I was there. It’s one of my favourite memories.

This was the first Winter Games to include curling (thank you, IOC), and the competition took place at a small, chilly venue in the charming, snowbound village of Karuizawa. There wasn’t much to recommend the host city. Rain, dreary streets, not a hint of winter. But when I got off the fast train from Nagano, I was immediately charmed. Little Karuizawa was beautiful, blanketed by great piles of snow everywhere, which lent a pristine silence to the air. There was no Olympic buzz, no hype, no noise. The Japanese knew nothing about the game. Matches took place before friends and family of the competitors, and that was about it. Those of us who made it out to the curling rink felt like stranded travellers, holed up in a snowbound inn.

But that made it more intimate than any other Olympic event I’ve ever covered. I happened to catch the Canadian team as it crossed a wooden pedestrian bridge on its way to the Olympic final. “Hey curlers!” I yelled. And I was rewarded with lovely warm smiles from the often serious Schmirler and her fun-loving third Jan Betker.

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The match, itself, was rather anti-climactic. Canada was in firm control from the beginning as they easily toasted their Danish opponents. When Schmirler’s last rock made a routine takeout to clinch the gold medal, the Canadians gathered together for an emotional group hug. There was almost no noise from the small spectators’ area. It was if they’d just won a bonspiel at their local curling rink.

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There was no holding back, however, when Schmirler, Betker, lead Marcia Gudereit and second Joan McCusker received their Olympic gold medal. Their eyes welled with tears. As they sang along to O Canada, Betker shed more tears, streaming down her face. And I headed back through the snowy streets, my own heart was glowing, too.

But my look back is also bittersweet. Two years later, Schmirler was dead, felled by a lethal, rare cancer at the age of 36.