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Lions music

by Kaj Ahlsved

The Lions have an interesting musical repertoire associated with them, and to the delight of many and the disgust of others this repertoire is revived every year. Thanks to the media that function as extensions of the ice hockey arena, these songs are ubiquitous, and new ones are added every year.
The men’s Ice Hockey World Championship has evolved into the culmination of the Finnish ice hockey season. Supporters of ice hockey teams who are bitter rivals in the Finnish championship league suddenly turn around and close ranks under our blue-and-white flag, with Finland’s lion coat of arms on their chests, united by a common foe. Forget Kärpät on rautaa [the hockey song of supporters of a championship team in Oulu] and Tappara on terästä [ditto Tampere]: the national team has its own dedicated fight songs. Songs like this go back a long way in team sports, their function being to strengthen group identity among supporters and to spur the team to victory.

The Finnish national men’s ice hockey team is known colloquially as the Lions, after the heraldic animal on Finland’s coat of arms, and ‘Lions music’ is all over the media (old and new) at this time of year. The Lions songs du jour are played at home, in restaurants, and practically everywhere when there is a victory to be celebrated.

Blue-and-white symbolism

The Lions have an interesting musical repertoire associated with them, and to the delight of many and the disgust of others this repertoire is revived every year. Never mind that many supporters have never been to see the national team play live, or that some of the songs in this repertoire have never actually been played at an ice rink. Thanks to the media that function as extensions of the ice hockey arena, these songs are ubiquitous, and new ones are added every year. The music culture around the Lions is above all a mediated and media-ised music culture.

The fighting songs that have actually been written for the Lions often employ national symbols such as references to war, brotherhood, the lion symbol and the blue-and-white colours of the Finnish flag. Finland’s long and complicated history with Sweden is also an inexhaustible source of inspiration. For instance, Kendo Anthem released by the rap group Teflon Brothers last year is steeped in national symbolism, used in much the same way as local symbols are used in the fight songs of regional teams. (Finnish football supporters refer to ice hockey somewhat deprecatingly as ‘kendo’, while ice hockey supporters similarly refer to football as ‘kickball’.)

The unforgettable year 1995

While writing an essay for the book Kiekkokansa (‘Hockey Nation’, eds. Benita Heiskanen & Hannu Salmi 2015), I conducted a survey to find out which ‘Lions music’ songs Finns themselves associate with the national team. The winner hands down was Den glider in [It’s going in] from the Ice Hockey World Championships at Globe Arena in Stockholm in 1995. It was then that Finland won their first gold ever and appropriated the Swedish team song along the way. Celebrations were held on streets and squares in Finland to the singing voice of Nick Borgen and the legendary Swedish radio commentary by Lennart Hyland from the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1962. Anyone who was there in 1995 can scarcely forget Ville Peltonen, the player who scored three goals in the final match. Another enduring image is that of reserve goalie Jukka Tammi, who did not get a single minute of ice time in the entire tournament, dancing wildly with the championship trophy to the tune of Den glider in.

It is a moot point whether Finland actually stole Den glider in, since it is still played at ice hockey matches in Sweden. And we should also note that when Finns gloat over how the arrogant Swedes went and released a ‘victory song’ before the 1995 World Championships had even begun, it is somehow conveniently forgotten that the Lions also recorded a song of their own before the tournament, a cover version of the ballad Sankarit [Heroes] by Finnish singer-songwriter J. Karjalainen.

Not only is Den glider in considered to be looted property, its interesting idea of using a commentator’s speech as musical material was picked up and further developed by A-tyyppi some years later in Ihanaa, Leijonat, ihanaa! [Wonderful, Lions, wonderful!] (1999). This piece is based on the assumption that the default soundscape of an ice hockey match is that which one perceives by TV or by radio, not on site at the arena itself. This is nothing new, though. For instance, New Order did much the same with their first major international hit World In Motion, written for the England national team before the 1990 Football World Championships.

The DIY cut-and-paste approach used by A-tyyppi has inspired others to create similar mashups as ‘Lions songs’ and to insert them into the buzz surrounding the national team. We should note, though, that both A-tyyppi and Finnish Hockey Mafia (creators of Taivas varjele! [Good heavens!], 2011) are pseudonyms concealing experienced professional musicians.

2011: topping the charts

When Finland won gold for a second time in 2011, victory was celebrated with ‘Finnish’ music throughout the following summer. Not even the head coach of the national team was Swedish any more, as had been the case in 1995. Poika saunoo [Sauna for the Boy] by Poju, together with Häissä [At the wedding] by a Finnish rap duo JVG and the oldie but goodie Ihanaa, Leijonat, ihanaa! became the soundtrack of choice for the gold celebrations.

And who could forget Taivas varjele! [Good heavens!], the tribute by Finnish Hockey Mafia to the spectacular goal scored by Mikael Granlund. In the semi-final match against Russia, Granlund acquired the puck behind the goal, lifted it up on the blade of his stick and slung it around the corner into the goal for a 1–0 lead in a match that Finland eventually won 3–0. This manoeuvre is known in Finnish as ilmaveivi, a neologism somehow far more expressive than its usual English equivalent ‘airhook’.

Various videos of Granlund’s shot went viral on the internet, and the video of the aforementioned song was one of the most popular on YouTube that week, with more than two million views. The title of the song, Taivas varjele!, quotes the astounded response by Finnish sports commentator Antero Mertaranta to Granlund’s goal.

On Latauslista 21/2011, four of the top five song downloads had some connection to the Ice Hockey World Championships. Poika saunoo was the best selling single in Finland in 2011, narrowly beating Jenni Vartiainen’s Missä muruseni on [Where is my darling?].

Suitably ambiguous lyrics

Rap duo JVG were among the performers who appeared at the ‘gold party’ on Senate Square in Helsinki. JVG were represented on the 2011 Lions CD with two tracks, no less (Häissä and Iha finaalis [All tired out]). JVG went a step further than most other performers on the market: while they used the Lions as a vehicle for promoting their music, the sports-oriented tracks they produced are not markedly different from their other repertoire. The duo also often point to their own background in sports as a credibility factor.

At the same time, JVG skilfully avoided using musical elements that would tie the music to a specific team and thereby undermine its identity-shaping function. After all, no performer wants to deliberately limit the domain of potential listeners. It has become commonplace to use lyrics susceptible to alternative interpretations, as with Karjala takaisin [Return Karelia!] and Voitolla yöhön [Victory into the night].

An excellent example of suitably ambiguous lyrics may be found in Poika saunoo [Sauna for the Boy] by Pasi ‘Poju’ Heinonen. He originally wrote the song as the victory song for the ice hockey team JYP from Jyväskylä in central Finland in 2011. While JYP did not place even in the top three in the national championships in spring 2011, the fact that Poju had consciously avoided any references to that specific team in the lyrics meant that the song could be freely appropriated by the entire nation.

‘Poika’, the Boy, is the nickname for the trophy, and at the surface level the song Poika saunoo refers to a homecoming sauna bath for both the trophy and the player carrying it. However, in Finnish popular culture ‘Poika’ is also recognised as the nickname for the vessel in which soldiers in the well-known novel Tuntematon sotilas [The Unknown Soldier] by Väinö Linna secretly and with great care make a home brew, with predictably intoxicating results.

Today, Poika saunoo has spread beyond ice hockey and is used as a victory song in other sports too, even in women’s events. Granted, there are not all that many victory songs written for women’s teams.

Sparking moments 2015

The song that many will no doubt think of as the Ice Hockey World Championships song in Finland this year is Kipinän hetki [Moment of the spark] by Robin and Elastinen. The music itself contains nothing referring to the Lions except perhaps for the (very abstract) crowd noise in the background. So how does a song become a team’s ‘official’ song? Kipinän hetki is a perfectly ordinary pop song by two major Finnish performers whose message is to take a chance, to believe in yourself and to do what you want. The fact that the lyrics contain no mention of ‘we’ could of course be considered a contradiction of the nature of team sports, where ‘we’ should come before ‘I’.

But being associated with ice hockey can give just about any song new meanings and applications. Only one day after Kipinän hetki was released, it was used (as planned) as the background music to the goal sequence concluding the TV broadcast of the Lions’ EHT match against Russia. This visual material leads the viewer to associate the ‘spark’ in the lyrics with the determined members of the national team, or indeed sportsmen in general. And I use the word sportsMEN advisedly: the only woman in the official video of the song, which was released one week after the song itself, is figure skater Kiira Korpi.

At the time of this writing, the Lions’ success in the World Championships in the Czech Republic has yet to be seen. From our perspective, one would of course hope that the very last song played at the tournament in Prague will be the Finnish national anthem.


Kaj Ahlsved is a PhD candidate in musicology at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. His research focus is on the ubiquitous music of our everyday life, especially how recorded music is used during sport events.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: HHOF-IIHF Images


The book Kiekkokansa (‘Hockey Nation’, eds. Benita Heiskanen & Hannu Salmi 2015) on ice hockey culture in Finland includes essays by music researchers Kaj Ahlsved and Susanna Välimäki. Ahlsved writes about Lions songs and Välimäki about soundscapes at ice hockey matches. The book will be published on 15 May 2015.