HELSINKI – The Finnish women’s national team has set its goal for the Sochi tournament, and it’s a medal. That may not sound like a lofty goal for a team that’s never finished lower than fourth in the Women’s World Championships or the Olympics. Then again, Finland has never finished higher than third, either, and has ten Women’s World Championship and two Olympic bronze medals.
Just as clearly as Canada and the U.S. have been the top two nations in women’s hockey, so has Finland been the top European nation. And this season has been no exception, as the Finns have won all their games against European opponents.
“We’ve played four tournaments this season, have been in the final in four of them, and have won three of them. Tournament wins give us confidence as we approach the main event of the year,” Finland’s head coach Mika Pieniniemi said at a press conference in January.
His team is a nice mix of youth and experience, and nowhere is this as evident as in the team’s offence, where the team has its youngest – Emma Nuutinen, born 1996 – and its oldest player – Riikka Välilä (née Nieminen), born 1973.
In 1996, Välilä was what Nuutinen is today: a multi-sport talent. Nuutinen is also a national team player in football, while Välilä’s got over twenty medals in four different sports in Finland, and has been elected Player of the Year in Finnish pesäpallo, a sport her father and one brother also excelled at. Her other brother, Lasse Nieminen, played for Finland in the World Juniors, and then played almost 500 games in the Finnish league.
It’s that talent that got Välilä into the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame, and the IIHF Hall of Fame. But it’s the desire to play and the winning attitude that made her attempt a comeback after a ten years’ absence from the game.
But after a year as Finland’s team manager, having been able to follow women’s top hockey from up close, the desire to play got to be impossible to control. Välilä started to work out a little, to see how her body would react and when she got the response she had hoped for, she contacted her old teammate Katja Lehto in Jyväskylä, to see if she could play on the JYP Jyväskylä team in the Finnish league. While that’s her former hometown team, and as such an obvious choice, it was also in Finland – and Välilä lives in Sweden.
She’s only played about half of JYP’s games this season, but has scored seven goals and 19 points in 13 games. Her 1.46 points per game average is eighth in the league. She also scored the game-winning goal in her first national team game back, and has scored against all European teams this season.
“It’s been good, even though I could, and should, have scored even more points. However, my game’s got better, and now I just need to get the best out of me,” Välilä told IIHF.com.
“I still have a feeling that I can get better, and that pushes me forward,” she added.
The 40-year-old Hall of Famer has impressed her teammates as well.
“I had never even met her, let alone seen her play hockey before the first national team camp, and yes, I was a little skeptical, but it became soon obvious to me that this lady sure can play hockey,” goaltender Noora Räty told Finnish Iltasanomat.
Räty herself is another key player for Finland. Just 24, she’ll be playing in her third Olympic tournament, and is widely considered one of the best goalies in the world, if not the best. And just like all successful hockey teams anywhere, Finland needs solid goaltending if they want to challenge the North Americans. And they do.
In November, Finland beat the U.S. 3-1, in a game in which the Americans won the shots, 59–16. And even then, the Americans’ lone goal was a power-play goal when Finland had two players in the penalty box.
And Räty has an experienced defence corps in fornt of her. Emma Terho will play in her fifth Olympic tournament, Saija Tarkki in her fourth, and team captain Jenni Hiirikoski her second, even though she was already a member of the 2004 Women’s World Championship bronze medal team. University of North Dakota teammates Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani bring skating and scoring ability into the lineup.
“Our official goal is a medal. We’ve played well this season. Past success won’t help us in a new tournament in Sochi, but at least we know what we’re capable of. That gives us confidence for the Olympics,” says Välilä.
So far, the medals Finland has won have been bronze, and that’s something the top European nation will now want to change. Challenge accepted.
The Finns will get their medal, but it will probably be bronze, again.
Noora Räty is one of the best goalies in the game, and can carry the team deep in the tournament.
Emma Terho may not be tall in stature, but entering her fifth Olympics, she's one of the rocks the defence is built on.
In Vancouver, Michelle Karvinen was still finding her way, but in 2011, she was on the Women’s World Championship All-Star team. She'll have to produce should the Finns want to get to the podium.
Can a Hall of Famer be a dark horse? Riikka Välilä's comeback at 40 definitely gives the Finnish game a new weapon and a new dimension.