OTTAWA – Just as Canada and the United States were the dominant teams in the 1990s in women’s hockey, Finland was always the top European team.
Suomi won bronze at every major IIHF event from 1990 to 2000, including six Women’s Worlds and the '98 Olympics in Nagano.
The captain of that first team, in 1990 in Ottawa, was defenceman Anne Haanpaa, who played through the 1997 worlds before turning her sights on officiating after her playing days. Haanpaa lived in a suburb of Tampere, Finland, and started playing hockey (sort of) when she was four years old.
“We were only 200 metres from a sports field,” she began, “and in the winter it was a very popular skating rink. One year my mom put skates on me and gave me a hockey stick to help my balance, so I started playing hockey very young. I was very disappointed because girls weren’t allowed to play on boys' teams and I had a lot of friends who were boys who played hockey.”
The first women’s team in Finland was founded in Tampere in 1971, and Haanpaa joined it. Later in the decade the team played Canadian opponents, and in 1982 the first Finnish league was established complete with playoffs and a champion (HJK Helsinki).
Although Finland didn’t send a team to Toronto for the first unofficial world championship in 1987, a national team was formed a year later, a major event in the development of the game in that country. A year after that, Finland won the first IIHF European Women’s Championship, and out of that success came participation in Ottawa in 1990.
Haanpaa, meanwhile, led a full life. She played mostly for Ilves Tampere, but in 1982-83 and 1986-87 she was with Pori Assat. In the first instance, she was attending Commercial College, and in the second she had a son. In the summer of 1989, Team Finland held a training camp for the Worlds in Ottawa, but it consisted mostly of players from the team’s European Championship roster. After two more smaller camps and some exhibition games, it was off to Canada for the historic tournament.
“Many of our players had never been to Canada,” Haanpaa recalled, “and they were amazed by so many people, big cars, tall buildings. It was amazing. I remember Canada’s pink sweaters, and it was all around the city as well—pink, pink, pink! The fans were great. You really got a sense of how important hockey is to Canadians.”
What may be lost by history, though, is the closeness of Finland’s games against the North Americans. The final preliminary round game saw the United States eke out a 5-4 win. The game was actually tied 3-3 late in the second period. And in the semi-finals against Canada, it was a 6-5 victory for the home side. Canada led 6-3 after two periods, but the Finns stormed back and nearly tied the game.
In the playoff round, Haanpaa scored a goal to help Finland beat Sweden, 6-3, for the bronze medal. “I was the captain, so I received the bronze plate after we got our medals,” she recalls. “I was so proud of that. I’ll never forget that moment on the ice. It was an awesome tournament and awesome experience.”
Haanpaa played in four Women’s Worlds, winning bronze each time. Leading up to the Olympics in Nagano, the Finns played in Japan. “We had a training camp in Ikaho, Japan,” Haanpaa recalled. “We played three times against Team Japan. In one game we couldn't see very far because there was so much fog on ice! If you stood at the bench, you couldn't see what was happening on the other side. It was very memorable.”
But just like Angela James with Canada and Cammi Granato with the U.S., Haanpaa’s great career came to a sudden end on the cusp of the Olympics. She was the final cut by coach Rauno Korpi, one of the worst days of her life. “That was a really tough moment for me,” Haanpaa admitted. “Why was I cut? I never asked. That was my second difficult experience in my hockey life. The first one happened when I was seven and I wasn’t allowed to play on a boys’ team.”
Of course, life goes on, and Haanpaa decided to retire after this disappointment. She was offered coaching jobs but turned them down, fearing they were too demanding of her time. Finland’s former referee-in-chief, Jarmo Jalarvo, however, urged her to become a referee, which she also declined.
“I refused his offer three times because I just wanted just play,” Haanpaa said. “But after couple of months, I realized how much I missed hockey. I called him, and told him I was ready to become an official. I could still plan my schedule, and my son was only 12, so I wanted to spend more time with him.”
Haanpaa’s knowledge of the game and superior skating made her an ideal referee. Even better, players respected her as a former player, making the transition all the smoother. Her first season was 1999-2000, and she was named to work the 2000 Women’s Worlds in Mississauga, Ontario. She also reffed in 2001 and then the 2002 Olympics.
Today, Haanpaa maintains many friendships with teammates from 1990, and she works as a referee supervisor for the IIHF (including Ottawa 2013). By day she works as a sports facilities manager at Tampere City Sports and Leisure Services at Nääshalli. And, of course, she still plays a little hockey in her spare time. “I play in a women’s league and also officiate oldtimers’ games. It’s so fun.”
Hers has been a long and fruitful journey, and 23 years later she’s back where it all began, the player who became a referee and who is now a supervisor.