A fantastic Finnish

TURIN — Saku Koivu has fought bigger battles than the one he’ll face today at the Olympic Games.

The Montreal Canadiens captain has come out a winner in a fight against abdominal cancer, which will help him put today’s gold-medal final into perspective.

While he couldn’t play in Salt Lake City in 2002 — he had been diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2001 — Koivu will lead Finland into today’s championship game against Sweden.

“Cancer affects so many people,” Koivu said. “I’m sure there are people in this group who have been touched by it in their lives.

“When you hear that, it makes a big difference in your life and it makes you approach things differently. It has made people feel more at ease around me and people want to talk to me about it. I think when you have cancer it helps that you can share your experiences with other people who are going through it.”

Missed opportunity

Checked thoroughly and given regular blood tests by doctors in Montreal, Koivu has a clean bill of health and that’s why he’s here competing, trying to help his country reach the top of the hockey world after not getting that opportunity four years ago.

The Finns have never won Olympic hockey gold, so Koivu and his teammates will be carrying the dreams of five million countrymen on their shoulders today.

The matchup against Sweden couldn’t be more perfect. The Scandinavian nations are friends and neighbours, but they are also arch-rivals in sports, especially hockey.

“When I was a kid, I remember playing hockey outside and whenever you did, you thought about playing for Finland vs. Sweden. That’s just the way it was,” Finnish winger Teemu Selanne said.

He is not alone.

“Of course it was that way,” Koivu said. “I remember watching the Games when I was a kid with my father and you wanted to play for your country. The NHL seemed like it was so far away for us.

‘‘(Sweden) is probably the most hated rival that we have. Having an Olympic final for the gold medal against Sweden is going to be huge.”

The unbeaten Finns have looked like the team to beat throughout this tournament. They have allowed only two even-strength goals in seven games and goalie Antero Niittymaki has stolen the spotlight on the world stage.

Remember, this is a team nobody said had a chance for the gold after it was forced to make seven roster changes — including goalies Mikka Kiprusoff and Jari Lehtonen who said no to the Finns.

“We have players here who want to be here and I believe that has helped us have success,” Koivu said. “We work well together and we have every guy pulling in the same direction.”

Whether they bring home gold or silver today is going to be big in Finland, but Koivu already has had the biggest victory of his career, over cancer.

January check-up

He will be checked in January to make sure he’s still cancer free and, if that’s case, he’ll be considered cured because he will have been clean for five years. He missed a couple of NHL games with a stomach flu earlier in the season and started to wonder.

“That was scary,” Koivu admitted. “It makes you wonder if it has come back.”

Koivu has shown cancer can be beaten. Today, he’d like to show the Finns that so can the Swedes.