Innsbruck ’76 : Finns Fancy First-Ever Medal


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ESA PELTONEN (12) utimately appeared at the Winter Olympic Games on four occasions and ended his career as the second-best ever for FINLAND at major international events having totaled 53 points (37 go, 26 as), just two goals shy of matching all-time leader Lasse Oksanen’s exact scoring record.
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No team at the ice hockey tournament of the 1976 Winter Games was, perhaps, more excited by the decision of both Canada and Sweden to skip the Olympics as a result of inability to ice professional players than FINLAND. Indeed, the Finns had finished in fourth place for the past seven consecutive years at the annual IIHF World Championships now. Common sense dictated that, in the absence of the Canadians and Swedes, the skaters of SUOMI had the inside track on a first-ever finish in the top three at a major international event in the nation’s history.

SEPPO LIITSOLA, who had guided Finland to a legendary upset of the Soviet Union at Moscow’s Christmas-time Izvestia Cup in December of 1971 during his first tour of duty with the national team, made wholesale changes to his squad which had finished level with arch-rival Sweden on points at the 1975 IIHF World Championships in West Germany but surrendered the set of bronze medals by virtue of inferior goal differential.

Some of the roster moves were mandated when three top players — forwards LAURI MONONEN and JUHA TAMMINEN as well as defenseman PEKKA RAUTAKALLIO — crossed the Atlantic Ocean to sign professional contracts to play the 75/76 season in the World Hockey Association. Others, such as the omission of 33-year-old national team veteran LASSE OKSANEN, Finland’s leading scorer at the last World Championships who was now turning out for Italian side HC Gardena, in addition to that of TPS Turku center SEPPO REPO, the 28-year-old whose five goals at the ’75 WC tied for second most on the team, and IFK Helsinki winger HARRI LINNONMAA, the 29-year-old whose six points (4 go, 2 as) in West Germany tied for third-best on the squad, came as a result of the proverbial “coach’s decision”. No less than one-third of Finland’s 18-man roster at the 1976 Winter Olympics were rookies who had never before participated in a major international tourney.

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MATTI HAGMAN (20) was one of the very first Finnish players to ever be tabbed by a National Hockey League team when the Boston Bruins chose the IFK Helsinki center in the 6th round (# 104 overall) of the 1975 NHL Draft. The rival New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association rated Hagman even higher and picked the youngster in the 3rd round (# 43 overall) of the WHA proceedings that same year. Hagman, who also later skated with Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, would become the very first player from Finland to ever compete in the Stanley Cup Finals when the Boston Bruins battled the Montreal Canadiens in 1977.
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One player at the ’76 Innsbruck Games to whom Liitsola was looking for both experience and skill was 28-year-old IFK Helsinki forward ESA PELTONEN, the would-be four-time Olympian who had missed the last World Championships in West Germany on account of injury. Another was Peltonen’s teammate with the Finnish capital city club, MATTI MURTO, the 26-year-old winger who had spent the 74/75 campaign with VEU Feldkirch in the Austrian Bundesliga. The rising star was IFK Helsinki center MATTI HAGMAN, the 20-year-old NHL draft choice who had debuted as a teenager at the ’75 WC and had collected five points (2 go, 3 as) in nine contests played.

Tappara Tampere rearguard PEKKA MARJAMAKI had put on an outstanding performance at the annual global tournament in West Germany by scoring six goals to lead Finland and was selected both an All-Star by the accredited media as well as Best Defenseman by the IIHF Directorate. 34-year-old blueliner SEPPO LINDSTROM, the former SC Berlin legionnaire now with 1976 Finnish domestic champion TPS Turku, was competing at his third Winter Olympics. The number one netminder for the Finns at Innsbruck figured to be ANTTI LEPPANEN of Tappara Tampere, the 28-year-old who had started seven of Suomi’s ten games at the 1975 World Championships.

The Finns, for their part, saw the Bundesrepublik Deutschland as their biggest rival to attaining the goal of an Olympic bronze medal at the minimum. The United States, with its so-called “university” team, was viewed as less of a threat in Liitsola’s country. Of course, there was always the chance that Finland might rise up and ambush the Czechoslovaks, as had already happened at the IIHF World Championships in both 1970 and 1974.

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PEKKA MARJAMAKI (7), who spent most his time with Tappara Tampere but did skate two seasons with HV 71 Jonkoeping in the Swedish top flight, still holds a share of the all-time mark for Finland defenseman having shot 17 goals at major international tournaments over the course of his accomplished career.

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