Finns' lacrosse rise worthy of movie

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

Take a bow, Steve Stifler.

The foul-mouthed, lacrosse-playing anti-hero depicted by actor Seann William Scott in the American Pie teen comedy movies is a huge reason the meteoric Finnish team has gone on to become one of the hottest stories at London's sweltering world field lacrosse championships this week.

Five years ago, semi-pro soccer player Antti Salomaa was in Helsinki watching the movie and became intrigued by footage of high school field lacrosse set at fictional East Great Falls in Michigan.

"I was watching the movie and lacrosse looked like a fun, tough game, so I ordered a couple of sticks from the U.S.," the 29-year-old general manager of the Finnish team said yesterday after his players ran their record to a perfect 4-0 with a 14-4 victory over Denmark at North London athletic fields. "Karo Nikkila (a current Finnish player) and I were just throwing the ball back and forth. No one had seen the game before and people started to ask what we were doing.

"Soon, we had 10 guys and thought we should form a team. Not long later, we became the Finnish national team."

Thanks to the unique cross-over format at the world championships, the Yellow Division-leading Finns will face the second-place team in the top Blue Division -- host Canada -- in a playoff game tonight at TD Waterhouse Stadium.

The star-laden Canadians, who are the favourites to join the mighty United States in Saturday's championship, are expected to overwhelm the surprise Finns in their first worlds.

But no matter how Finland finishes, this is a watershed moment for lacrosse in the country.

"Gary Gait-- I grew up idolizing those guys," said 20-year-old attack/midfielder Rob Griffith, a Calgary native and the lone Canadian on the Finnish roster. "But now we're playing them, so I guess we're peers."

Griffith, who is eligible because his grandfather is Finnish, played lacrosse last year at Bishop's University in Quebec and is transferring to Dalhousie this fall. He calls his Finnish mates a close group of guys with plenty of talent.

"This is a new team in lacrosse. We weren't ready for 2002 (in Australia)," Griffith said. "But we came here expecting to do well and win our division. Getting to play Canada -- it means a lot for our team to play at that level and it means a lot for the sport in Finland."

The unofficial record for starting from scratch and evolving into a top-flight team belongs to Japan, but the Finns are making a bid for the title. The team was given 3,000 euros by its government and raised the rest by selling lacrosse sweaters, T-shirts and hoodies.

"One of the officials on the Japanese team who was here told us that we reminded him of them when they started out," said Finnish goalie Kristian Herrmann. "We've come a long way in a short time. We have the hockey mentality, which helps, and we have three middies (midfielders) who are six-foot-five and nobody has that.

"Five years ago, there was nothing -- just Antti -- and now there's eight or nine teams that compete at the national lacrosse championships."

Herrmann, another North American, spent a 1 1/2 years in the lacrosse program at the University of Pennsylvania. He isn't fazed by facing the talented Canadian shooters.

"I'm used to all-world guys because at university, I took shots from some of the best," Herrmann said. "I think we're opening a lot of eyes here. We can't finish any worse than 12th now and we're making a bid to show that we belong in the higher divisions.

"Now, we have the opportunity to face Canada. That's huge for our program. We get the chance to show we can compete with the best in the world."

It won't be as easy as pie, but the Finnish rise this week has the makings of a pretty good Hollywood script.


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