One of the great things that makes Washington among the most vibrant places in America to live…are the non-Americans living here.
Specifically, we’re talking about DC’s huge international and diplomatic community that extends into just about every aspect of life here – government, development and economics, media, restaurants, the social scene, you name it.
Now, add sports to the list. Starting today, we will be profiling Ambassadors to the U.S. who represent some of the great hockey-playing nations – you can pretty much guess who they are – and listening to their thoughts on all things hockey. As it turns out, Ambassadors have quite a lot to say on the subject.
We’re especially pleased to begin with Finland’s current Ambassador to the U.S., her Excellency Ritva Koukke-Ronde. A 30+ year veteran of Finnish diplomacy, Mrs. Koukku-Ronde is also quite a fan of the sport, due in no small measure to the truly impressive number of talented Finns on the ice.
We were honored to meet with Amb. Koukku-Ronde in her office at the Finnish Embassy – a stunner of a building, by the way – and hear her thoughts on hockey, resilience, what makes for a strong defense, and the Finnish soul.
Give me a sense as to what role hockey plays in Finnish culture?
It’s a national sport, similar to European football in southern Europe, or maybe something like football, baseball and basketball all combined in the US.
We have much more winter than summer in Finland, so ice hockey is a natural sport – and always, there’s natural ice everywhere. We were playing our first games in 1899, of course, all on natural ice, but nowadays we have indoor rinks and ice as well.
The other tradition we have here are sports in schools. Sports have always been a part of our education, and we always do outdoor sports, so if it’s winter, it’s skating and that also means ice hockey. In my day, the boys would play ice hockey and the girls would play ice ball – I don’t know the English term for it, it’s kind of like field hockey.
Then, of course, there are all sorts of sports clubs for after-school hours. If you travel around Finland, small towns and even big cities like Helsinki, you find ice fields, and always there’s hockey being played, and these days many more girls are playing as well. So overall people follow hockey and many play it just as an amateur activity.
Finland is turning out some amazing players these days…men and women.
Exactly. I might even go as far to say that hockey is somewhere in our genes, in our backbones. Because in some way or another, you are always involved with hockey. Very often it’s the fathers and the mothers who are car-pooling the kids to the hockey. As you know, hockey bags are really big, and you can’t easily take public transportation to get to the ice or the rink. So the family is spending hours and hours watching they’re kids play, or fund-raising for the clubs and the teams.
And then of course it’s a very popular game to attend, and it’s great on TV, so World Cups and other games are always highly watched. It’s almost cradle to the grave. My father used to say he can’t watch World Cup games any more because his blood pressure was getting too high!
How much attention are Finns paying to the NHL?
That’s an interesting question, because the Finnish broadcasting corporation, and all the channels really, they’re always covering the NHL. The last time I was in Finland I was astonished to see how closely it’s covered – I got a much better sense there of how Finnish players or the Minnesota Wild were doing than I do here.
In Helsinki there are two [professional] teams, and people are always asking which one you’re supporting! These ice hockey players are celebrities in Finnish society. Many of them are actively involved in fund-raising activities for charitable causes. It’s common to see them visiting hospitals or helping with children’s needs. Teemu Selänne and Saku Koivu were recently invited to our President’s Independence Day celebrations. We celebrate in various ways, and one of the highlights is the President has a ball on the 6th of December. Teemu Selänne and his wife flew in from Los Angeles and Saku Koivu came in, and everyone had to meet them.
Oh yes. Teemu Selanne every summer holds various ice hockey camps, and many of the other players are as well. And one of the heroes is Urpo Ylönen. One could say even that some of the teams in the NHL rely on Finland and having a good Finnish defense.
What is it in the water there that Finland is producing so many good netminders?
Well, as I say, we’ve had several really good keepers who weren’t just good at the game but they were great teachers. But there’s something else I think…something deeper. Of course ice hockey is a team sport, but of course the keeper is rather alone. Somehow I think that reflects the Finnish spirit. Many times in our history we’ve felt very lonely – as recently as the Second World War and the Cold War. We have a word in Finnish: sisu. Secretary Kerry when he was sending greetings to Finns for Independence Day party. It’s something to do with that: when you’re keeper you want to defend your own place. That’s something deep in the Finnish soul I think.
How much competition is there between Finland and the other hockey powers – Sweden, Russia, like that?
I have a Dutch husband and when the Finns were winning the ’95 world cup, we were watching together and he asked how would Finns react? I thought, well it’s pretty cold outside, maybe a couple hundred people would come together to cheer. When the team came back , there were hundreds of thousands of people in the main square cheering them home.
It’s always an interesting situation when you’re squaring off with your neighbors. We all have long history with each other – we were part of Sweden for more than 600 years. We were a grand duchy of Russia for more than 100. So matches with Sweden are of particular interest. It’s always a great thing to win a game against the Czech and Slovaks, but I’d have to say Sweden first, then Russia, the U.S. and then Canada.
Are there particular players or teams you enjoy watching?
As a fan, I closely follow those clubs with a lot of Finns playing. Unfortunately in DC now you only have Swedes…although we still follow that a little because we’re good Nordic neighbors. But typically if there is a club coming to play in DC, I try to keep up on that. Like last November when Anaheim came, we gathered together to keep an eye on Selänne and Koivu. And of course when we were in Minneapolis the Wild were playing Pittsburgh. Unfortunately they lost, but we got to meet with the four players. I couldn’t meet with Tuukka Rask but I do have his sweater, and I’m very happy to have that.
Are there players helping build ties?
Several times Selänne has visited the consulate in Los Angeles; he’s very active in helping us with public diplomacy. Our hockey players, all 47 of them, are very much popular ambassadors for Finland here. The more successful they are on the ice, the better it is for Finland. And of course Finns follow the NHL very closely, so hockey is really building human to human relations, and that’s the foundation of diplomacy. Especially in our world today, where we need to try and better understand each other, who we are and where we come from, sports can play such a crucial role in that.