Finland to Slovakia: Thanks for the Hospitality!



BRATISLAVA – At least, that’s the thank-you letter Finland should send Slovakia.


I’ve never been to a Helsinki block party. But earlier this month, for a solid fortnight of the World Hockey Championship, Bratislava sure felt like one. By the end of their two-week drinking binge, I wanted the pickled Finns to grab their gold medals and get the hell out.


I would never describe myself as a “hockey fan,” as that requires a curious affection for gap-toothed smiles – particularly among those who had involuntarily eaten a puck traveling about as fast as my car. However, I sure do love a good story. Living in tiny Slovakia, I hoped to live one through their hockey.


Slovakia spared little expense to throw a memorable bash as host of the 16-nation tournament, held every year. Hockey is a passionate pastime in this nation of only five million, with toddlers barely beyond diapers carving figure-eights on rounded hockey skates. Slovakia won the world title in 2002, and finished an eye-opening fourth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. I cheered these underdogs every step of the way, as I did their thrilling World Cup run. Meanwhile, Slovak star Marian Hossa helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup last year; the towering Zdeno Chara may soon do the same for the Boston Bruins.


The 2011 world championship would mark the first time Slovakia, independent only since 1993, had hosted alone. Finally, a chance to distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia.


Hype began months ago. The wolf mascot, “Goooly,” was stationed at area malls, digitally counting down the minutes and seconds. As full-blown hockey fever hit, the national flag of red, white and blue fluttered from many cars. I came this close to buying my sons foam fingers and Dr. Seuss top hats in Slovak tri-color. I’ll take four more dust-collectors, please.


All this while officialdom weathers the arrows of the latest in a never-ending drumbeat of corruption that mars the post-Communist era, not only in Slovakia, but across the entire region. This scandal, naturally, was over the massive facelift performed on its main hockey stadium, plus the gleaming new hotel built illegally next door.


That moves a Slovak hockey fan and colleague of mine, Brano Ondrasik, to help create an apostatic Facebook page with the no-frills name, Bojkotujeme Majstrovstvá sveta v ľadovom hokeji na Slovensku v roku 2011. In English, now: “We Boycott World Championship in Ice Hockey in Slovakia in Year 2011.” In an age when everything seems to “go viral,” this campaign does not, drawing only 22 "Friends." Still, civil society has spoken!


“Knowing from the very beginning who was associated with the tournament, it was a slam-dunk that ‘something will pop up’ quite soon,” says Brano, a media professor at Pan European University in Bratislava. He still hopes for a full-fledged investigation.


So it was that karma was already plotting her cruel surprise for the home side, when hordes of rowdy Finns descended upon serene Bratislava for a bender to remember. Less flattering, it was mostly an older set: pruned men in their 40s, 50s and 60s, some joined by pruned wives. Give them credit for their evident loyalty and devotion, traveling en masse from hockey-mad Finland. Yet with their unquenchable thirst for one-euro pints, Finns nearly managed the unimaginable: causing the Slovak beer taps to run dry. I can still hear their slurred, raspy howls of Suuu-oooo-mi! echo off the Old Town cobblestones.


For answers to the Finn phenomenon, I turned to my local Finnish “expert” – the melodically named Niko Savikko, who is father to one of my 7-year-old’s two Finnish classmates.


In Finland, my insider tells me, not only is alcohol exorbitantly priced, it’s somewhat of a societal taboo. Any two-bit Freud, then, can imagine how these two factors fuel a let-your-hair-down mindset when overseas. (Did I mention that not only are Slovak and Czech beers cheap, but highly esteemed?)


Moreover, says knowledgeable Niko, “Finns are somewhat quiet and ‘shy’ to make contact. Having a good alcohol blood level makes interaction easier. Finns are also heavy users of cognac, for example.”


But then along came Finnish hockey, to redeem them. Slovakia was already teetering on the brink of elimination, with only an opening win against puny Slovenia, followed by three nail-biting, one-goal losses to Germany, Russia and the Czechs – who seem to intimidate their little cousins to the east.


The fleet Finns then hip-check Slovakia into the abyss, 2-1, with a pair of heart-breaking goals in the third period. While the aging Slovak hokejisti are now day-dreaming of chores to do around their country cottage, Slovak nation is darn near catatonic from the disappointment and humiliation.


Which leaves less-fragile Slovaks shaking their head.


“They say hockey is good because it brings Slovaks together,” says Katarina Stone, a waitress (and singer and artist, she points out) in one of the Bratislava cafés I frequent. “But it’s artificial emotions. It’s like bread and games for the people. And I don’t like this mass psychosis, which is up when we are doing well, down when we aren’t. It can also turn us against other nations.”


Nations like Russia! Nothing like a European sports tournament to pick at the scabs of historic hatreds and rivalries. What’s not to love about that? The Czechs and Slovaks, for example, will never forgive Russia for 1968, when Moscow sent in the tanks to crush the "Prague Spring" revolution. Which makes every win or loss between their sports teams such a wrenching affair.


Finland was now on its way to the semi-final and eyeing a medal. When I learn their next foe is Russia – ranked No. 1 in the world – I rush to Google the history of Finnish-Russian relations. Surprise, surprise: the Finns also have an unpleasant history of warfare with Russia, which lurks along the vastness of Finland’s eastern border. This one’s for the invasion of 1713!


For me, a crisis of conscience. Who the heck to pull for? Drunken Finnish fans to get more boisterous? Or, heaven forbid, Russia? As an American son of Cold War refugees, now having lived in two countries occupied by Soviet troops for forty years, and repelled by near-impunity for journalist-killers in today’s Russia, I find myself unable to root for their teams. In fact, only Russia could now make me a fan of Finland.


Wouldn’t you know it: a ticket to Friday night’s semi-final magically lands in my lap. Courtesy of my 9-year-old’s French classmate, whose father invites us both. I feel for my younger son, who’ll have to stay home. Can I get you a souvenir? He’s rooting for Finland, of course, for the Finnish classmates he’s fond of. What if he had a Russian classmate? This is the realpolitik of a 7-year-old.


My older son and I show up with time to spare, head to the souvenir stand. Let me tell you, whenever you see a baseball cap marked down from 18 to 10 euros, well, I say you gotta get two of them. Even if it’s a sky-blue Suomi cap.


I’ve already seen Finn fans in one natural habitat – the pub. Now, a second: the hockey arena. They’re decked out in face-paint, hockey jerseys, fake wigs, Viking horns, even a quartet dressed as cows, with protruding udders. I ask my French benefactor, “What’s the connection between Finland and cows? Or between cows and hockey? I’ve heard of Nokia, but is Finland also famous for its milk?” He shrugs, very Frenchly.


The hallways are filled with Finns, who seem to outnumber Russian fans. The Russians are similarly adorned in all their hockey finery; some of the young men are even wearing striped sailor-suits, like they’re casting for a WWII film. Barely a Finn to be found without a pint in their hand. No drinks allowed inside, so they’re belting a quickie. Let’s get our impressionable sons into their seats, shall we?


Inside, the rink is rocking, with competing chants of Su-o-mi! … Ros-si-ya! … Su-o-mi! … Ros-si-ya! The teams are knotted in a scoreless duel, but the action is riveting. Even so, my mind wanders. Imagine if during my job, I was getting hit as hard – and as often – as these guys do in their jobs. Dear editor, you didn’t like my first draft? Whack on the shins! Fact-check? No, hip-check! And so on.


During a 15-minute intermission, the lines are thick with Finns, joined by their Russian counterparts. If there’s one thing that unites them – with Slovaks and Czechs, too – it’s a love of hockey and drink. (The scene repeats itself between the second and third period, as well: Let’s squeeze in a pint!)


After the break, Finland mounts offensive pressure, which is great for us, since we’re about 20 rows behind the Russian goalie. Suddenly, I see Finland’s #64 circling behind the goalie, pushing the puck and … BOOM! Goal. I have no idea what happened. Did it bounce off the goalie? Neither do the 9,271 fans, until they see it replayed on the Jumbotron overhead. In fact, even the referees need time to review the play, because 19-year-old Mikael Granlund has just scored one of the most spectacular goals in the history of international hockey – a “lacrosse-style” lift-and-whip trick that must be seen to be believed.


Finland tacks on two more, wins 3-0, to skate into the final Sunday against Sweden. As we wade through the throngs of delirious Finns – dozens of them hovering around the concession stands, downing another pint for the road – my son considers the geography of Finland-Sweden. “They’re neighbors, good friends, right?” I dunno. Google it!


Turns out, Sweden, for hundreds of years Finland’s overlord, is the country that Finns “love to hate.” What, you haven’t heard the Finnish joke, Tärkeintä ei ole voitto, vaan se, että Ruotsi häviää? Cracks me up every time. (“The most important thing is not victory, but that Sweden loses.”) Niko tells me the rivalry is actually rather good-natured, borne of a “big brother-little brother mentality.”


That is, until they face-off on the ice. Sweden, historically the Scandinavian superpower in hockey, is another factor in Finnish tippling: the Swedes beat Finland in the 1992 world championship final, again in 1998, then for the Olympic gold in 2006. Finland has exacted revenge … once. Sandwiched between those world titles, in 1995, Finland beat Sweden – in Stockholm, of all places – for its one and only world championship. And this time around?


By now, I’m invested in the Finnish fate. Their hockey team is too good, as is their story-line. To make a long story short, with the teams tied at 1-1 after two periods, the Finns erupt for five goals in the third. They claim their second-ever cup, and first in 16 years. I stay away from my beloved Old Town.


The Slovaks finish 10th out of 16 teams. (The Americans fare not much better, placing eighth.) Slovakia has done so poorly, it won’t earn an automatic invitation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.


However, my colleague Brano, the Slovak skeptic, may get his wish. Less than 24 hours after the tourney ends, Slovakia’s Finance Ministry calls for an investigation into the hockey-arena renovation.


“The championship is over, it’s time to make out the bill,” said a ministry spokesman.


As for the Finns, they stagger toward their flights back to Helsinki. Good. Take your gold medal, your sweet memories, your abused liver – and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.



Corruption, Sports