VANCOUVER, B.C.--It may not have been the most anticipated hockey matchup, but there was plenty of excitement inside Canada Hockey Place on Wednesday as Finland took on Belarus in the first game of the day.
Like many of the fans I talked to, I chose this game because it was the one I could get tickets to. Among those in that camp was Gareth Farfan, who brought his daughter Lily. Outside the arena, he stopped to get her a Finnish flag, choosing to cheer for them because Sami Salo, a member of the local Vancouver Canucks, plays on Team Finland.
Farfan got his flag from Ross Woo, a local vendor whose brother has a store that carries flags from all the competing countries. Woo was doing brisk business selling cowbells and flags, ranging from small $5 ones to $20 large ones. The only problem--Woo didn't bring enough change. "I'm just trying to survive here," Woo said.
As I got to the arena, I was a bit worried, having paid a scalper about $90 for a ticket with a $140 face value. Despite the fear that I might have been duped, the ticket was indeed legitimate and I headed to my seat, which ended up being in the fourth row and close to one goal.
Inside, the arena was well stocked with Finnish fans, both those that had made the long journey as well as some from the area.
Glassmaker Erkka Heikkila and his frend Joona Korpimaki, a construction worker, were pleased to be finally at the Games after a challenging trip from Finland. Heikkila said that the pair had a glitch with their hotel and looked to be without housing. "Some family took us in for the rest of the games," he said. "People here are so kind."
As the game got under way, I got my first lesson in Finnish. Cheers of "Hyva Suomi (pronounced Uva Sue-a-mi)" filled the stands.
That means "Go Finland," explained Sanni Kallio, the Finnish woman sitting next to me. Although she is here for a week, Kallio said this was the only game she had managed to get tickets to. "Hockey is very popular in Finland," she said. "It's like the national sport."
Kallio was there with friend Pauliina Meri. Meri's boyfriend, Tapio Luusua, was in Vancouver skiing moguls as part of the Finnish delegation. He finished 21st, one place shy of making the finals.
"He's getting old," Kallio joked to her friend.
As the game started, Kallio was confident of the outcome. "We all know what is going to happen," she said.
Behind me, semi-retired provincial judge William Diebolt agreed that we probably wouldn't see much action in our end until the teams switched sides and the Finns skated toward us. However, Diebolt warned not to count Belarus out. "They whacked the ol' Swedes," he said, in a reference to the 2002 Winter Games, when Belarus upset Sweden in the quarterfinal round of the Salt Lake City games.
In the end, though, Finland was dominant, allowing just four shots in the first two periods, cruising to a 5-1 victory. But, as fans waving Belarussian flags till the end demonstrated, it really wasn't about the score. It was about people from around the world connecting around a shared love of hockey.