Tuominen’s time
by Lucas Aykroyd|14 FEB 2019
Finland's Minttu Tuominen captured her second Olympic bronze medal at the 2018 Olympics in Korea.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Finland will enjoy home-ice advantage at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Espoo, and that goes double for Minttu Tuominen, who is a leader on and off the ice.

The 28-year-old defender has captained the Espoo Blues for four of the last five seasons – she spent 2016/17 in Sweden wearing the “C” with Linkoping HC. She can’t wait for the puck to drop in Finland’s opener against the four-time defending champion United States on 4 April.

What will it take for Finland to medal on home ice?

“We’ve got to be better than we were in the Four Nations bronze medal game, even if we beat Sweden,” said Tuominen, who owns three bronze medals from the last six Women’s Worlds. “We’ve got to play a whole 60 minutes in the deciding game. Just keep working on our skating, on the tempo of the play. That’s the biggest thing. Against the North Americans, we need shots on net. We need people crashing.”

Tuominen felt that in some respects, the 3-0 round-robin loss to Canada was Finland’s best outing in Saskatoon. Even though Finland was outshot 48-14 and relied on star goalie Noora Raty to keep it close, the requisite battle level was there. Last week they finished the Euro Hockey Tour in second place after losing the final game to Russia.

“Against Canada, we had a 2-0 game, pretty much, and they scored in the empty net,” Tuominen noted. “We were missing our top-line forwards, so that says a lot about our character.”

The Finns have some positive history against the motherland of hockey. They beat Canada for the first time ever at the 2017 Women’s Worlds, a 4-3 upset. And personally, Tuominen has plenty of positive associations with Canada.

For three seasons (2009-10 to 2011-12), she was Natalie Spooner’s teammate with the Ohio State Buckeyes. The talented Canadian power forward, who would capture Women’s Worlds gold in 2012 and Olympic gold in 2014, left a permanent impression.

“Oh my God, I can’t say enough good words about her,” Tuominen said of the Toronto Furies star. “She’s the nicest person I’ve met. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. She never said anything bad about anyone, opponent or not. Even if you did something to her, she just wouldn’t say a bad word. I remember working out with her a couple of summers. We took the same classes too. We had similar majors. It was always fun to be around her. She’s a hard worker.”

Hard work and perseverance were also the keys to Tuominen’s international rise. The Helsinki native, who was recruited by Ohio State on the recommendation of five-time Olympian and national team captain Emma Terho (nee Laaksonen), didn’t get chosen for the 2009 Women’s Worlds in Hameenlinna, the last time Finland hosted the tournament. She was nursing an injury from the Finnish playoffs. But any disappointment from that omission faded when she made her senior IIHF debut at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Ecstatic crowds packed Canada Hockey Place (now Rogers Arena), and an all-time IIHF women’s tournament attendance record of 162,419 was achieved. Better still for Tuominen, the Finns defeated Sweden 3-2 in the bronze medal game.

“I absolutely loved Vancouver,” recalled Tuominen. “Great city. The atmosphere was just unbelievable. As a young player, in my first Olympics, my first big tournament with the national team, it was just amazing to be part of.”

The 165-cm, 71-kg veteran has suited up at the last two Olympics as well. While the Finns underwhelmed with a fifth-place finish in Sochi in 2014, they roared back with another bronze medal in Pyeongchang. Tuominen also experienced the thrill of her first Olympic goal in 2018. In a 5-1 win over the Russians, she scored Finland’s fourth goal on a third-period power play, dooming the comeback hopes of coach Alexei Chistyakov’s team.

Now, she is excited about what teenage prospects like forward Petra Nieminen and defender Nelli Laitinen can bring to the Naisleijonat. Nieminen, a gifted 19-year-old puckhandler, roared to prominence in PyeongChang with three goals and two assists. Laitinen, just 16, made her Four Nations Cup debut in Saskatoon, and fit right in playing big minutes with decorated captain Jenni Hiirikoski.

“I think it’s great,” Tuominen said. “They have the courage to play with the puck. They’re really good with the puck. So it’s great for our team in the future. Obviously they’re not used to playing at this high physical level. But they’ll get stronger. They just need some years and experience in games. I think this team in 10 years will be totally different.”

As both a youth hockey coach and the Blues captain, she brings a special perspective on developing young talent. While Tuominen has a ready laugh and the kind of smile that lights up a dressing room, the five-time Finnish league champion is serious about making sure the Blues stay on top. She cracked the first all-star team and led the league in goals by defenders (12) last year, but it’s not just about personal achievements.

“Being captain is a huge responsibility,” Tuominen said. “This team is the most successful in Finnish women’s hockey in the 2000’s. I just want to keep building the legacy the team has and remind the younger players who are coming on the team what the team is about. It’s all about winning and doing your best. We go into every game and we want to win it. We’re not going there like, ‘Let’s get a tie. This other team is so good.’ No, we’re the better team and we want to take charge of it.”

For Women’s Worlds fans attending games at the Metro Areena, Tuominen has recommendations on what to do between games, both in Espoo and in Helsinki, which is less than 30 minutes away by Metro.

“There are big churches you want to see. There’s the Gulf of Finland and you want to see that. There’s also a cruise to Suomenlinna, the small island with a fortress, which can be nice in April, depending on the weather. But even in Tapiola, where the rink is located, there is water around. It’s getting more and more inhabited. The nature and ocean there are my favourite.”

Tuominen, who has a bachelor’s degree in human nutrition and community health from Ohio State, also suggests that visitors sample Finnish delicacies like reindeer meat at local restaurants.

Of course, she will work hard to ensure that life is neither a holiday nor a picnic for the teams facing Finland at the 2019 Women’s Worlds.