OTTAWA – The math is very simple but incredibly deceiving. Maren Valenti played at the 1990 Women’s Worlds. That’s 23 years ago, and today, living in Frankfurt, Germany, she is 37 years old.
In other words, she was 13 years old at that inaugural championship in Ottawa, and to this day she remains the youngest ever competitor in the women’s events.
How can that be?
“I had been invited to play in the Bundesliga when I was 12,” she explained. “That was when the national coach saw me. I got to the team for 1990 and there were 25-year-olds and 30-year-olds—and there was me. I was only 13. When I look back, I think the experience made me an adult overnight in some ways.”
Valenti had to get permission from her parents and her school to travel to Ottawa for the tournament. “I did well at school, but they also knew I was talented at hockey and should play in this World Championship, so they let me leave for two weeks.”
Despite her youth, and despite playing on a weak team, Valenti managed a goal and assist in five games, her goal being the first of the game in a 4-1 win over Japan. Her entrance into hockey was as natural as any boy playing in Sudbury or Ornskoldsvik or any small, wintry town in between.
“When I was growing up my dad was playing professional hockey,” Valenti explained, “and I had a brother who is a year older. He also became a pro. We started playing hockey together as kids. All I wanted to do when I was young was play hockey. I was born into it. I was two and a half when I first put on skates in Ravensburg, close to the Alps. After that, we moved to Freiburg and Mannheim. We’ve had a lot of stops in my hockey career.”
Indeed her father, Danilo, was a defenceman who played with REV Bremerhaven, while her brother, Martin, was also a defenceman who played 15 years in Germany, mostly with Ravensburg. Maren not only played hockey; she lived for it and wanted to get better and better as she got older.
“When I played with my brother, I hated it when he was better and he hated it when I was better, so I had good competition with him as well as good friendship. It was easy for me to improve. I think when the national team selected me I was a well-educated hockey player. I could skate and handle the puck and score.”
That process was also pretty simple, despite her age. “When I was 12,” she started, “I had to play on girls’ teams. Before that I played with boys. In 1989-90, I was in a girls’ league, and some national team people saw me and picked me for the national team. I sort of knew I was a good player, but I didn’t care about knowing that. I just wanted to play hockey.”
Regardless, Valenti was good enough to go to Ottawa, an experience she recalls with great fondness, of course.
“I remember all the teams stayed at the same hotel, and it was just like a big family. We all stood together—Canada, Switzerland, Germany, all of us. I didn’t go to the party at the end. I went to bed. My teammates asked me to come, but I was too young and I told them I just wanted to go to bed. That was a difference between the older players and me.”
Like anyone who was there, Valenti remembers the most visual element of the tournament. “I was happy to see the Canadian team wear the white pants and pink sweaters,” she said with a laugh. “It was a big deal being there and seeing so many other countries playing. We were part of a revolution in women’s hockey, and I was really happy to be a part of it, playing.”
She also recalls what she brought home as a keepsake. “I remember we all got a soapstone carving of a duck. I also got a special puck with “World Championship Ottawa 1990” on it that I still have as well. I also kept my media accreditation.”
While some players from 1990 never played again at the Women’s Worlds, Valenti was just starting out. She returned to school, kept on playing, and went to several more tournaments over the next decade and more. In 1998, EHC Freiburg signed her to a contract, and she became the first woman to play in the Bundesliga, the second-tier men's leauge. She dressed for 24 games and wore number 99, a gimmick thought of by the team, not her.
“I know it's the number of Wayne Gretzky. They gave me this number because they said it will never happen again that a girl is playing in the top league. They said that Wayne is special and this is special, too. On the one hand, it was a great honour, but on the other hand I had great respect for the number. It wasn’t my wish to wear it.”
Two years later Valenti came to Canada and played in the NWHL, after which she returned home to prepare for the Olympics, her longtime dream. The Germans finished sixth, but this turned out to be the last tournament of her career.
“The reason I retired is complicated,” she started. “After the Olympics, I started falling. People would joke and say I was getting old, but I started to see doctors to see what the problem was. No one could figure out why I was falling. I had to stop playing hockey. It took more than three years to find the problem, but doctors finally discovered that I had MS. When I found out, I was okay. I just told myself I had to live with it—but I have to find out how. I was not even sad. I knew the reason why I was falling and couldn’t play hockey properly any more. I didn’t even know the name of this illness. When I found out, I did research to see what it was, how I would handle it, what sort of medicine I would need.”
That is pure Maren. No tears. No sympathy. This is life, and now she can move on.
“I love being creative,” she explained of her life after hockey. “I live in Mannheim. When I don’t work, I paint. I work in graphic design. Right now I work as an artist in pop art, painting.”
Understanding her illness freed her, and she quickly got back into the game she loved so much. “One girl asked me if I wanted to coach her hockey team. I had coached kids before, so I said sure. That’s how I started my second career as a coach. From 2004 to 2006, I coached kids about the technical part of the game. Right now, I coach boys age 11-13, but I teach younger kids how to skate. I love doing this.”
One day in 2009, Maren got a phone call from the German Ice Hockey Federation. She had been selected as an inductee for the hall of fame. “I couldn’t believe it! I was only 32 or 33 years old. I’m in a museum and I’m still alive!”
And so Valenti, young and vibrant, has had a quarter of a century of the game even though she isn’t yet 40. For a German player, she has done it all, continues to do what she can, and even continues to support the national team. “I keep in touch with a lot of players [from 1990],” she says. “I even went to the qualification tournament for Sochi to support them. I want to know what’s going on.”