Although ice hockey is not the Finnish national sport, it is by far the most popular sport when measured by attendances and by national television coverage. Despite the country’s tiny population, the Finns punch far above their weight on the international scene, and Leijonat (The Lions) are considered a member of the ‘Big Seven’, along with Canada, Russia, the USA, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
The Lions finest moments came in the 1995 & 2011 World Championships when they won gold, beating arch-rivals Sweden 4-1 and 6-1 in the finals. In total, Finland has won 2 gold, 8 silver and 3 bronze medals in the World Championships since 1992.
The strength of Finnish ice hockey can be seen in the fact that their top professional league, the SM-liiga, is ranked as the second strongest league in Europe. The SM-liiga was created in 1975 to replace the SM-sarja, which was in essence an amateur league. There are 14 teams playing in the SM-liiga, and the league takes the format of 58 matches over the course of the season, with the six best teams proceeding directly to the quarter finals. The teams between seventh and tenth play preliminary play-offs, with the best two filling the last two slots of the quarter finals. The losers of the semi-finals then play for the bronze medal, with the gold and silver fought out between the last two.
The winners of the playoffs receive gold medals and the Kanada-malja, the championship trophy of the SM-liiga. The winners of the regular season receive a trophy (Harry Lindbladin muistopalkinto) as well, though it is considered less prestigious than the bronze medals of the playoffs, similar to the difference in the National Hockey League between the status of the Stanley Cup and the Presidents’ Trophy.
Of the 14 teams playing in the SM-liiga, there are two apiece from Helsinki and Tampere, with teams representing Espoo, Hämeenlinna, Jyväskylä, Kuopio, Oulu, Rauma, Lahti, Lappeenranta, Turku, and Pori.
In 2009 a new system was introduced and it includes the last placed SM-liiga team facing the Mestis, the second-highest league in Finland, champion in a best of seven playout series.