The lakeside city of 34,000, a 4.5-hour drive east of Vancouver, is home to the renowned, 1963-founded Okanagan Hockey Group. Hovi, a three-time Olympian from Tampere, moved to Penticton back in July to become the school’s new U17 female prep head coach.
No stranger to Canada, the 33-year-old previously resided in Winnipeg, where she played forward for the University of Manitoba Bisons and completed her post-graduate degree in teaching English as a second language.
What led Hovi to become a teacher of hockey in Penticton?
“First and foremost, it was about the job opportunity,” Hovi said. “I worked with the Bisons as an assistant coach for two seasons, and my fascination with coaching a team started during that time. Getting this opportunity to be a head coach was the next step. That challenge definitely sparked something in me. I thought this U17 age group was really suitable for me with my focus on skill development. Also, I’d never really been in this area. The outdoors and the scenery were a factor for me too, as I enjoy hiking, biking, and going snowboarding in the winter. Nature is so close here.”
Of course, it’s nice to live in a city nestled between Okanagan Lake and Skaha Lake with easy access to 80 area wineries and the famous Kettle Valley Rail Trail for cyclists. Penticton also has a rich hockey history as the home of the BC Hockey Hall of Fame and the 1955 World Champion Penticton Vees.
Yet for this two-time Olympic bronze medalist, the number one priority is getting the best out of her young players at the $90-million South Okanagan Events Centre, which boasts three NHL-sized rinks and a 5,000-square-foot performance centre.
Hovi, who won her first Olympic bronze medal in Vancouver in 2010, has made her mark elsewhere in Western Canada. In 2018-19, she scored four goals and 10 assists in 25 games with the Calgary Inferno, capturing the Clarkson Cup in the final season of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).
2019 was also the year the 169-cm, 63-kg attacker helped Finland earn an historic silver medal on home ice at the Women’s Worlds in Espoo. In Penticton, the strong work ethic that brought her success as an IIHF and pro star is reflected in her Okanagan Hockey Group schedule.
“I wake up around 6:30 am,” Hovi said. “And then I have my very, very slow morning with my cup of coffee and some breakfast. Next, I go to the gym and work out for about an hour before coming into the office at nine. I prepare for the day, plan practice, answer emails, deal with recruiting, and all the rest of it. My team gets here to the academy around 12 noon or 1 pm every day. Then it’s a busy schedule till 4:30 pm when the girls go home. So we’re on the ice, we go to the gym, we do yoga, we do skills in the shooting centre, we do coaching time with Zoom calls – basically anything you could imagine. By the end of the day, when I go home, I’m pretty tired, to be honest. So I like to cook and relax to wind down.”
One interesting challenge for any retired hockey player is deciding how best to maintain one’s fitness. When you’re not gunning for an Olympic or Women’s Worlds roster spot anymore, a brutal regimen of squats, dead lifts, and sprints isn’t necessarily called for.
“My whole world has flipped around when it comes to that stuff,” Hovi said. “I’m way easier on myself. I had a training plan for years for the Olympics, with constant soreness and training every day, sometimes twice a day. Things were way more intense. Now, it’s felt pretty good to not have a plan and just listen to myself in terms of what I can mentally do on top of my workday. I do lots of yoga and body weight stuff, things that make me feel good. Since retiring from hockey, my body’s been struggling quite a bit because it’s so different being in the office. I have a standing desk, but still there’s back problems, going on the ice to demo something when I'm cold. I don’t get as much movement as before. So it’s really different. I’m just trying to find a balance.”
Hovi’s worlds collided in January when she got to coach some former Canadian rivals and teammates in Penticton. COVID-19 restrictions limited the number of games players in Western Canada have been able to play this season, and members of Team Canada and the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) were having a hard time getting ice time in Calgary, so they travelled to Penticton. Participants included the likes of Brigette Lacquette, Emily Clark, Meaghan Mikkelson, Sarah Potomak, Blayre Turnbull, and Micah Zandee-Hart. Lacquette, Turnbull, and Hovi teamed up on the 2019 Inferno.
Things have improved since then, as the PWHPA will stage the Canadian leg of the Secret Dream Gap Tour in Calgary (24 May to 30) with a round-robin, three-team tournament.
Speaking of weirdness, Hovi spent 2019-20 as a development coach with the Jets Hockey Development organization, and now supporters of both Team Finland and the Winnipeg Jets have had to adjust to seeing Patrik Laine in a new NHL uniform. The 22-year-old sniper swapped places with Columbus Blue Jackets star Pierre-Luc Dubois as part of a blockbuster trade on 23 January, and is heading into restricted free agency after a tough season.
“I wasn’t surprised [about the trade],” said Hovi, who also likes Laine’s longtime Jets buddy Nikolaj Ehlers. “One reporter from Finland asked me beforehand, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ And I said, ‘I have a feeling he’s going to get traded.’”
Retiring as a player has given Hovi time to sort through her feelings about the past and future of the Naisleijonat. Many of her most vivid national team memories relate to Canada.
At 19, she played her first of eight Women’s Worlds in Winnipeg in 2007. Even though she was often stapled to the bench as a rookie under then-coach Hannu Saintula, she relished the chance to suit up at the MTS Centre in front of big Canadian crowds.
“One game, I think the only time I got on the ice was when we were losing, late in the game, and I remember just feeling excited and grateful to be there,” Hovi said. “I was proud to make it that first time my dreams came true in hockey. Even though I wasn’t playing, I was part of the team, and just playing in an NHL rink full of people is an incredible experience.”
She recalls a similarly hyped-up vibe at the 2013 Women’s Worlds in Ottawa, where she played through injury, going into the rink on crutches after tearing a ligament.
Even though Finland lost the bronze medal game 1-0 to Sweden in 2007 and 2-0 to Russia in 2013, she was able to help her country claim third place in 2008 (China), 2009 (Finland), and 2017 (U.S.).
Her memories of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver are a happy blur.
One of the most disappointing results in Finnish women’s hockey history was the 4-2 quarter-final loss to Sweden at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The Finns were favoured, but Emma Elliason’s goal with 4:15 remaining gave the Damkronorna victory.
Hovi has a philosophical take on that defeat: “Anything can happen in sports, which makes it so exciting and so interesting. At the same time, the failure gave us so much more to work for in the future. Because of that, we got to the next level in our game as a team. In the moment, it was dream-crushing, but it turned into something we almost needed to give us that boost to keep developing.”
Coach Pasi Mustonen’s Naisleijonat have medaled at four out of the last five major IIHF tournaments, including bronze at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. But there have been a lot of changes since the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo.
Riikka Sallinen, Annina Rajahuhta, and Linda Valimaki join Hovi among the notable veterans who have left the national team. Meanwhile, in Finland’s Naisten Liiga, teenagers who made their Women’s Worlds debut in 2019 have dominated. Forward Elisa Holopainen (KalPa), 19, led the league this season with 64 points in 25 games, while Nelli Laitinen (Kiekko-Espoo), 19, paced all defenders with 37 points in 24 games.
With the rescheduled 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship coming up in August, Hovi is optimistic that the national team isn’t in need of some protracted rebuild: “Seeing the younger players coming in, I think the big difference with them – compared to, for example, myself at their age – is they're just ready to go and play right away. Their skill set is so much higher than for any of us that retired. For the younger players, especially against Canada, they don’t go in to just do their best – they go in to win. That’s one of the biggest differences for Finnish women's hockey culture now. We can play and win against anyone, and I don’t see that going back with all those young talented players.”
Despite the difficult global situation with the pandemic, Hovi has many projects to keep her motivated. For example, she’s an ambassador for Saving Pond Hockey, which focuses on climate change action through the lens of hockey players. Other well-known ambassadors include Vyacheslav Fetisov, Niklas Hagman, Noora Raty and Emma Terho. Fetisov has also been involved with the IIHF’s proposed collaboration with UN Environment on the “Last Game at the North Pole” to raise awareness about global warming.
“Looking back at my childhood, everything was outdoors,” Hovi said. “I want younger generations to have the same opportunity for those experiences. It brings back so many positive memories. I think this initiative is a great approach. It puts in context how climate change affects us as hockey people. It’s like a straightforward way of saying: ‘This will be taken away from you unless there’s a change.’ I’m a big advocate for biking and public transportation, and those are some values that I think, especially in North America, we could do a way better job in. So that’s why I wanted to be part of Save Pond Hockey. It’s a fresh voice in the climate change conversation.”
She’s also looking forward to offering video analysis-based coach through 44 Vision Hockey, founded by ex-NHLer Rob Schremp, and operating a second edition of her own VH Hockey camp for youngsters in Finland in the summer.
Tampere will co-host the 2022 IIHF World Championship with Helsinki, and the Ilves-trained Hovi is excited about what that means for her birthplace, which last hosted the tournament back in 2003.
“It’ll be a perfect place to be, so much fun!” Hovi said. “Watching that new rink coming together, it’s beautiful. It will definitely be world-class facilities. Tampere is also one of the most historic cities in Finland when it comes to hockey.”
For the time being, Venla Hovi will keep on cultivating young hockey talent amid the vineyards and orchards of southern British Columbia.