Puputti comes full circle
by Andrew Podnieks|16 JAN 2019
Tuula Puputti is helping welcome the world to the 2019 Women's World Championship in Espoo, Finland, in April.
photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images
She is no longer a goaltender, but Tuula Puputti still loves hockey, the rink, the teammates, the passion. And although she retired in 2002—“a long time ago” she laughs—she is still involved in the game as much as ever. 
Puputti was part of the management team for Finland that won a surprising bronze at the recently-concluded Women’s U18 Worlds in Obihiro, but just as important, she is looking forward to Finland hosting the senior Women’s Worlds in Espoo, Finland. It’s doubly important to her not just because she is part of the organizing committee but also because the last time the WW was there, in 1999, she was the starting goalie!
“It was a big thing to play at home in 1999, especially because '98 was the first Olympics,” Puputti recalled. “So there was more awareness of the game, and we were playing in a new arena. It was exciting. I remember I didn’t play as well as I wanted. I got sick before the tournament, but it was definitely a highlight playing in front of friends and family.”
Not the biggest women in the game, Puputti nevertheless always wanted to be a goalie, “even outside when we had two shoes or cones for a goal on the pond. There was no explanation!”
Puputti fell in love with hockey at an early age and was persistent in playing, even when her mother wasn’t necessarily on her side.
“I’m from Kuopio, five hours north of Helsinki,” she related. “It’s a smaller city. We got free tickets to see a game, and we loved it. In the winter there was a pond near us, which my dad would clear so we could skate. My sisters and I played hockey, and at some point after watching and skating enough we found out there was a girls team in town. And my mom, who worked at the hospital, found out that the coach of this team also worked at the hospital! My sister tried out first because she’s two and a half years older. When I asked my mom if I could go, she said I was too young. She knew I wanted to be a goalie. So one time when she was away on a work trip, I went to a practise with the team and she never got me back!”
Puputti developed into an excellent puckstopper and played for the national team at six events, winning four bronze medals. She won bronze at those ’98 Olympics in Nagano, and three more at the Women’s Worlds between 1997 and 2001. 
She retired in 2002, after Salt Lake, but not on her terms. “I had injuries with my back and hip and decided the pain was too much,” she explained. “I didn’t want to play unless I could practise without the pain. My technique was good, but I wanted to improve off ice, but with the injuries I couldn’t. It was a tough time."
Undaunted, she continued in sports. “I was lucky. I had been studying at the university when I was about 25, and a lot of my friends were getting married and starting families and new jobs. I found out about a job with the Finnish Olympic Committee. I applied and got accepted because, they told me, I had Olympic experience as an athlete. This was in preparation for Turin. I had been down and unsure about my future, but when they told me that, I thought, wow, this is the first time my playing career has actually meant something outside of the rink.”
She worked there for five years and then five years at the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation, working mostly on championships. She went to speed skating for two years but quickly returned to her greater ice passion, hockey.
“I was working at the Federation when we found out we got 2019 Espoo,” she explained about her current role. “I was then hired to help grow the game and to work on the championship. But after we got the tournament, the number of teams was increased from eight to ten, so there have been a lot of changes with the project. But it’s also super exciting, coming to the office and knowing we’re going to have the tournament at home again.”
Puputti doesn’t just want the upcoming Worlds to be about games and medals. It should be an exceptional experience—for all players, for the fans, for people watching on TV.
“We wanted to make sure the venues were appropriate, especially with the vertical structure of the teams,” she continued. “We knew the crowds would be good for the Finland games, but we wanted all the teams to feel like they were appreciated and all part of the same tournament. I think all the games will be crowded for all the games, and I think we’ll see super good hockey. The main venue is the same as in 1999, but there is a second arena attached to it now, which helps keep all the teams together.”
Last year the Finns beat Canada in the round robin, 4-3, but couldn’t repeat in the semi-finals, losing, 4-0. Still, Puputti is an optimist and feels the time isn’t far away when European teams can beat North Americans without the word “shocker” attached to the result. Her team for 2019 will be experienced, but will likely have four players from WW18 in Obihiro.
“I think we have a chance [to go to the gold-medal game],” she enthused. “We have a good group of older players, and I think we have four top prospects from the U18 tournament who can play—Holopainen, Vainikka, Vesa, and Laitinen. I think they are ready to play in April.”
Elisa Holopainen led the WW18 in scoring, and she played on a dominant line with Viivi Vainikka and Emilia Vesa. Defenceman Nelli Laitinen was also among the most impressive players in Obihiro.
“It’s a good mix of experience and youth,” Puputti noted. “What really helped was after the Olympics we got great support from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Sports. All the players who were on the bronze-medal team in February received a 10,000 Euro grant, which really helped them to focus on training. This is the best situation we’ve ever had to prepare for the Worlds.”