Savolainen eyes the future
by Lucas Aykroyd|25 AUG 2019
Finland’s Ronja Savolainen shakes hand with Canada’s Jilian Saulnier after her team’s semi-final win at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. She cemented her reputation as a Canada-killer in that game.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
When Ronja Savolainen scores, Finland wins. It’s an IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship streak that her teammates, head coach Pasi Mustonen, and Finnish fans hope keeps going.

Already a veteran of one Olympics and four Women’s Worlds at age 21, the Helsinki-born defender has five goals – all of them consequential – in 25 Women’s Worlds games.

Savolainen notched the third-period winner in Finland’s opening 5-3 win over Russia in Kamloops, British Columbia in 2016. She surprised Canadian goalie Genevieve Lacasse with another winner with just 1:41 left as Finland edged Canada 4-3 in Plymouth, Michigan in 2017 – the first Naisleijonat round-robin victory ever over Canada at this tournament. And she added the second goal in an 8-0 bronze-medal romp over Germany that year.

In the 2019 Women’s Worlds semi-finals in Espoo, Savolainen cemented her reputation as a Canada-killer. She tipped in captain Jenni Hiirikoski’s centre point drive for the host team’s first goal, and also won a foot race with Canadian star Natalie Spooner for the 4-2 empty-net clincher. In front of an ecstatic Metro Areena crowd, the Finns made history by finally defeating Canada in a playoff game.

Mustonen’s team achieved its greatest success ever with a silver medal in a drama-laden 2-1 final shootout loss to the five-time defending champion Americans. However, Savolainen is more interested in taking the next step on the international stage than reminiscing about the past.

“I think the U.S. and Canada know now that we’re not just an easy game,” she said. “They know we can challenge them now and actually win those games when we have a good day and really want to do it. There are things we can do better on the ice against them. We need to challenge them more. They’re still more in our zone than we’re in their zone. We need to be more willing to have the puck and not just give it up all the time.”

The 176-cm, 72-kg defender is uniquely powerful and versatile, and Mustonen’s trust in her has skyrocketed over the last two years. She went from an average ice time of 14:56 at the 2018 Olympics, the second-lowest among defenders on the bronze-medal Finnish squad, to 23:23 in Espoo, the second-highest after the tournament-leading Hiirikoski (26:03).

Interestingly, Savolainen also played more in Espoo than any North American blueliner, outstripping Canada’s Laura Fortino (21:32) and the U.S.’s Lee Stecklein (20:59). She was paired mostly with Hiirikoski and long-time Espoo captain Minttu Tuominen.

The lionesses lost some stalwart veterans to retirement this off-season, including 29-year-old Linda Valimaki, 31-year-old Venla Hovi, and 46-year-old Riikka Sallinen, who became the first European woman to enter the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2010. However, Savolainen is confident that Hiirikoski, who at 32 recorded her best Women’s Worlds numbers ever (2+8=10) en route to MVP honours, is nowhere close to hanging up her skates. The two are also teammates with Lulea HF, which has won three of the last four Swedish championships (2016, 2018, 2019).

“I don’t think she’s going to retire for a while,” Savolainen said. “You can just see the burning in her eyes when she’s working out. Every day, she wants to get better and better. So I don’t think she will stop playing for a while. I think she will probably not play as long as Riikka did, but for sure she will play maybe four or five years more. To be with her every day, that’s actually great, because you can just ask whatever you want and she will always help you. I have huge respect for her. I get to play with her with the national team and the whole season, so that’s something that keeps me moving forward. You can take experience from the world’s best defender. I love to watch her.”

Heading into her fourth season with Lulea, Savolainen will appear in her 100th career SDHL game in the home opener against MODO Ornskoldsvik on 13 September. The northern Swedish city of 77,000 has established itself as the women’s hockey capital of Europe. Last season, Savolainen posted career highs there, with 29 regular season points and seven playoff points.

Along with Finnish snipers Michelle Karvinen, Noora Tulus, and Petra Nieminen, Lulea has attracted international talents like Japanese captain Chiho Osawa, Danish winger Josefine Hoegh Persson, and Hungarian veteran Zsofia Jokai Szilagyi. When Lulea beat Linkoping 5-1 in the deciding Game Five of this year’s SDHL final on 21 March, 4,804 spectators cheered them on at Coop Norrbrotten Arena.

Beyond Lulea’s excellent funding and facilities and the savvy coaching of Fredrik Glader, who also helped Denmark achieve promotion to the 2020 Women’s Worlds, Savolainen appreciates the media coverage. It will only increase after the SDHL signed a ground-breaking six-year deal in June to broadcast its games on Swedish TV.

“In Sweden, after every game, there is media in front of our locker room and waiting for people to come out,” Savolainen said. “I think that’s great. When we have a home game, maybe it’s five to 10 reporters. It’s media for newspaper, radio, sometimes for the whole country. Women’s hockey in Lulea is huge. You can go into the city and see pictures of us women’s players: ‘Come to our games.’ That’s a place I love to be. You know that they really care about you. It feels easier to come there and just do your thing.”

As much as she loves Lulea, she doesn’t rule out the possibility of joining a top women’s league in North America someday. She has voiced her support for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). PWHPA members are not playing in North America in 2019/20, hoping to establish a more sustainable and well-funded league the following season.

“That would be a dream come true for me if there would be a league and I would have the opportunity to play somewhere abroad,” Savolainen said. “I want to go forward as a player, as a human, and be more adult, I guess. I’m still young. That would just be a great opportunity for the future to have a really big league for women somewhere out there.”

The mobile, left-shooting rearguard has yet to hit her full potential, both on and off the ice. Outspoken and cheeky, she is evolving into one of the faces of Nordic women’s hockey. With Lulea pal Rebecca Stenberg, who just announced her retirement from Team Sweden at age 26, she created a YouTube series that showed what it’s like to train and travel as SDHL players. She also promotes sponsors like Nocco, a Swedish energy drink, and Lunette, a Finnish period cups company.

Savolainen even got a shout-out in “Maaliverkot repee,” a comedic hockey-themed hip-hop song produced by the Finnish TV sports talk show Villi kortti. It was played during intermissions at the Women’s Worlds, and the video included cameos from Finnish starting goalie Noora Raty and legendary six-time Finnish Olympian Raimo Helminen.

As the national team targets an historic gold medal at the 2020 Women’s Worlds, Savolainen is excited about a budding youth movement. In Espoo, the speedy line of 17-year-old rookies Elisa Holopainen and Viivi Vainikka and 21-year-old Sanni Hakala combined for 10 points. And defender Nelli Laitinen, just 16 in her Women’s Worlds debut, saw time alongside Hiirikoski and averaged 13:54 per game.

“Oh yeah, I think they showed the whole country here that they’re coming,” Savolainen said. “They’re young players and they will have a great future. So I think they will get a bigger place in the team. They already have a really good start there. They’ve showed they can do a lot of things on the ice and they’re not afraid to make mistakes.”

Savolainen, naturally, will look to capitalize on her opponents’ mistakes, as she has done at previous Women’s Worlds. In fact, she’s done some advance scouting. She recently vacationed with friends in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, which will co-host the 2020 tournament (31 March to 10 April) with neighbouring Truro. The best might be yet to come for this young star on Canada’s Atlantic coast.