It’s been just over a month since the Olympic flame went out in Sochi, Russia, but for Finland’s Emma Nuutinen, Russia’s Anna Shokhina, and Japan’s Rui Ukita, it feels like yesterday.
Fresh from participating in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship in Budapest, Hungary, the girls admitted that the U18 tournament was a different experience, especially after coming back from hockey’s biggest international stage.
“It took a bit of time to adjust,” said Nuutinen. “The speed of the game was different (in Budapest) and of course the spotlight was not as big.”
Despite all three being in their teens, it’s no surprise that these players made the cut in their national Olympic teams. Shokhina, Ukita, and Nuutinen finished top in scoring on their respective teams at the U18 Women’s World Championship and registered at least one point in their Olympic debuts.
For all three, Sochi 2014 was unsurprisingly an incredible experience.
“First of all, the mass of people at the events, just incredible,” said Shokhina. “The high quality of the games, the professional skill of the players in and out of the ice, and the speed and the surrounding fame of it.”
For Shokhina, 16, the experience of playing at home in front of family and friends was particularly special. At age six, when she began training in a youth sports school in Dmitrov, her coach decided to include her in a local team made of boys of her age because there were not enough players to form a girls' team.
For eight years, she played on the team's main roster and is now with the women’s Tornado Moscow Region team. Nevertheless she was a surprise pick for Sochi, mainly due to her age. But the national team’s general manager Alexei Yashin was quick to assert her inclusion as being nothing more than an acknowledgement of her skill level.
“This is not a PR move or anything like that,” says Yashin. “She has deserved the spot on the national team with her play, both at the U18 Women’s World Championship and for her club team, Tornado. Her inclusion into the Sochi roster is not a surprise for anyone involved.”
Emma Nuutinen is viewed as one of the best young Finnish female prospects to come out in many years. As a forward, she was counted on to produce offence for her team and recalls taking to the ice ahead of her first game.
“I was pretty nervous during the on-ice warm-up, but it went away when I took to the ice for my first shift,” said Nuutinen. “Preparing for the first game, and then scoring the goal in the playoffs, I remember these two memories the most.”
It was certainly a memorable goal she scored, coming against Nordic rivals Sweden in the quarter-final to keep her team alive and in contention for a medal.
“Scoring the goal to tie the game against Sweden in the playoffs was quite amazing,” said Nuutinen. “I got a great pass from (Karoliina) Rantamäki, and I was totally alone in front of the goal so I could get the puck in right away.”
Rui Ukita’s career has been in an upward swing ever since her team won the Olympic Qualification Tournament, culminating with an appearance in Sochi and a top-three finish in scoring at the U18 Women’s Worlds with seven points in five games. She recalled that the opening ceremony in included among her favourite Sochi memories:
“They wanted to do a show off the kind of culture of Russia,” said Ukita. “It was the great big landscapes or the other decorations that were floating in the air were very attractive.”
“I won’t forget the gold medal final either,” she said. “That last comeback by Canada in the final was very impressive. It shows just how entertaining the games can be.”
Living in the Olympic Village, in close quarters with the world’s top winter sports athletes, was a dream come true for all three, including meeting one of hockey’s biggest stars.
“Yes, I made a picture with (Sidney) Crosby, he was nice and wished me luck,” said Shokhina.
“I got to meet him too, he’s pretty good looking (laughs),” said Ukita.
All three girls will look to move up to the senior teams next year, and with four years to go until PyeongChang, look for them to make a big splash in next year’s Women’s World Championship. With the next Olympics being seen as potentially the tournament where the rest of the world might finally catch up with the North American teams, the desire in these young women to be the best is definitely there.
"I've been playing since four years old," said Ukita. "And I want to fight and compete in the next Olympics in PyeongChang, it's the biggest stage there is and all the countries should be great."