Laitinen’s star on the rise
by Lucas Aykroyd|07 MAR 2023
Finland’s Nelli Laitinen, a 2022 Olympic bronze medalist, hopes to carry momentum from her strong NCAA rookie season in Minnesota into a 2023 Women’s Worlds medal.
photo: Andre Ringuette / IIHF
You could say Nelli Laitinen leads a globetrotting lifestyle. The 20-year-old Finnish defender has gone from capturing her first Olympic bronze medal in Beijing last year to making her college debut with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers this year.
Now Laitinen – who previously achieved Naisten Liiga superstardom with Kiekko-Espoo – is aiming for more success on both the NCAA and IIHF stages.
The swift-skating Lohja native brings a strong two-way presence with offensive flair. With 18 points in 28 games with the Gophers, she was named to the All-WCHA Rookie Team while majoring in business.
After defeating Wisconsin 4-2 and Ohio State 3-1 to win the WCHA championship, her Gophers advanced to the NCAA tournament, seeking an all-time record seventh national title. The Frozen Four winner will be determined on 19 March at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Internationally, Laitinen has her sights set on helping Finland earn promotion back to Group A and win a medal at the 2023 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Brampton, Ontario (5 to 15 April). The Finns recorded an all-time worst sixth-place finish at the 2022 Women’s Worlds in August after falling 2-1 in overtime to Czechia in the quarter-finals.
Previously, the 169-cm Laitinen won an historic silver medal on home ice at the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo and a bronze medal at the 2021 tournament in Calgary. In U18 Women’s Worlds competition, she earned a bronze medal and tournament all-star berth in 2019, and she was named Best Defender in 2020. caught up with Laitinen by phone from her campus apartment during the Gophers’ playoff run.
This Gophers team is enjoying big-time success in 2022-23. How do you feel about the way you’ve played personally this season?
I think it has been great. Of course, with the little injury that I had before Christmas, I was gone for a couple of months. But overall, we have a good team. It’s nice to play with this talented group. We have a lot of good players, so it has been fun to play with them.
What did former Finnish national team members and University of Minnesota players Noora Raty and Mira Jalosuo tell you about playing here?
Basically, they told me the whole campus area is a nice place to be, but they also talked about the coaches and the winning mentality that we have here. It’s just something that everyone should experience. Every practice, we’re battling hard. I feel like I can like improve myself as a player and as a person.
What are Brad Frost’s biggest strength as the Gophers’ head coach?
He’s a great coach on the ice. But also, he’s good with people. I can talk with him about everything, whether I’m sad or in a good mood or anything. It’s a big thing to have him as a coach.
Nelli Laitinen is the third Finnish member of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in history after goalie Noora Raty and defender Mira Jalosuo.
photo: Bjorn Franke
Did you know any other Minnesota players before you joined the team?
No, I did not. At the Worlds in August in Denmark, I saw Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Heise quickly there. But I didn’t know people personally before coming over.
Zumwinkle, Heise, and Abbey Murphy are long-time rivals of yours with the U.S. national team. You’ve been facing them internationally since 2017. What’s it like to be on the same side?
Of course, it’s fun because they are such good players. It’s always a battle to play against them with the national team. Now I can tell that the next time we face each other in international games, it’s going to be even more of a battle because we know each other’s tendencies and skills. So you kind of can use that as an advantage. I think it’s going to be fun!
What does your normal routine in Minnesota look like on a non-game day?
Usually, I get up between 7 and 8 am. I go to class at 9. And then after class, I go straight to the rink. We usually have a workout before practice. Practice is usually done by 1 or 1:30. Then I head back home, get some lunch, and then usually go back to our student-athlete centre, where we have tutoring space, a dining hall, and stuff like that. I’ll do some homework, eat dinner there, go home, watch some series, and go to bed.
Workout-wise, what’s your favourite workout and what’s the one you hate but do anyway?
I like the lifts that we do here. They’re kind of different from the ones I used to do in Finland, but it has been nice to do something different. The one I hate the most is the “four corners” running drill that we have to do at Mariucci Arena. It’s hard, but we just need to get it done!
What did you do to improve your English before coming to the U.S.?
I didn’t have that good English skills before I came here. I was a little nervous about that, of course. But also, I feel like I’d heard so many stories: “When you get here, you have to speak English all the time and you hear it all the time. So your English will improve so fast.” And that’s happened for me. I’m not nervous about speaking anymore. It just gets easier as time goes by, with school, doing homework, talking to other people, learning new words all the time.
Finnish defender Nelli Laitinen is majoring in business at the University of Minnesota in addition to playing hockey.
photo: Matt Krohn
You’ve become good friends with Zumwinkle, who’s the Gophers captain, and her younger sister Emily, who’s a sophomore on defence. What do you do to relax away from the rink?
We find something nice to do as a group. We usually like to get Starbucks. But also, we like to cook some food, watch some movies, or just hang out. We have a very good restaurant here called Billy Sushi, which has become my favourite place. We all like sushi and I’ve been there many times this year.
Favourite Starbucks drink?
Strawberry acai. I usually get that every time with Grace and Emily.
Have you cooked anything special?
I actually made Swedish meatballs with [former Brynas sniper] Josefin Bouveng, my roommate, for [the Zumwinkles]. So it was kind of nice to make something familiar for us, but not for them.
After spending your whole life in the Helsinki area, what have been the biggest adjustments for you living abroad?
Of course, it’s different when your family and friends are not here or not close. But still, I like living here. It’s a big city, but this university and the campus area isn’t that big. I can still do kind of the same things I would do at home. So it has been fun. The biggest difference is the food. I’ve missed Finnish food a lot.
Which Finnish food?
It always changes, but right now, I’ll say mashed potatoes and reindeer, which is traditional food in Finland.
Turning back to Europe, the SDHL introduced bodychecking this year. What is your position on bodychecking in women’s hockey?
It’s been interesting to see how it’s going in Sweden. Of course, I already feel some differences between national team games and college games. With the national team, it’s more physical games. I  kind of don’t have an opinion. It’s like, whatever is safe for the players. But I feel it has been done well in Sweden. So maybe that could be something that is introduced everywhere. We’ll see.
How did you feel when your older brother Vili won his first Liiga championship with Lukko last year?
It was a great year for our family! I also won the Finnish women’s league championship, and it was great to see that his career includes some big achievements as well. I was able to get to [Rauma] when they came back with the trophy, so it was a nice moment.
It was your third Naisten Liiga title with Espoo. You also won your third Paivi Halonen Award as the league’s best defender, not to mention being named playoff MVP with 21 points in 10 games. Did you feel like you had accomplished everything you could in Finland?
I wouldn’t say I had those kinds of feelings, but I was more open to see what other countries are able to offer. I spent four and a half years in the Naisten Liiga, and it was nice to be close to family at home. However, I also felt I needed something different to grow as a player.
During your Espoo years, what was it like to have five-time Olympian and Finnish Hockey Hall of Famer Emma Terho as your GM?
She lives in Espoo, so I was able to see her quite often. I remember a couple of times she practiced with us as well. It was fun to see. She still has the same skills! She’s such a legend and it was crazy to see her up close.
What have you learned from playing with another surefire Hall of Famer in Jenni Hiirikoski?
The biggest thing has been watching her, like when she’s in the workout room. She does so much more than other players to be better. That’s just something amazing to see. Even though she’s not the youngest player anymore, she works so hard to be the best player in the world.
When you reflect on winning that historic Women’s Worlds silver medal in Espoo, what comes to mind?
At the time, it didn’t seem like that big of a thing. But now, thinking back a few years later, I realize it was such a unique opportunity for me to be there basically in my hometown. And it was such a great achievement for us. It opened a lot of doors for young girls to see us playing in the final and doing well. So that was huge for women’s hockey in Finland.
What was it like to play your first Olympics in the Beijing pandemic bubble?
Of course, it was different. It was like an experience that you can’t describe to anyone else. It was unreal to see the other athletes from around the world there. The biggest thing for me was to bring a medal home.
Heading into April’s Women’s Worlds, the Naisleijonat will have to do without forward Elisa Holopainen, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in January. How did you feel when you got the news?
I was sad. We all know that she is a big part of our team, and I think this is the biggest injury in her career. But at the same time, it gives somebody else a chance to show her skills with the national team. So it’ll be interesting to see who ends up in her spot.
How do you like Finland’s chances of bouncing back in Brampton after a tough run at the 2022 Women’s Worlds?
Well, I wasn’t part of the European Hockey Tour myself this year. But from what I heard, our team played super-well against the other European countries. So I think they have a good mentality going on there. I’m super-excited to see where we are able to go in April. I have a good feeling about our team. There’s new, young players, who have so much to show. And of course, Jenni Hiirikoski has such a big impact on our team. So I’m confident that we will be able to get back to Group A after these Worlds.
How close is Finland to surprising the Canadians or Americans again like in 2019?
That’s a good question. With the new players we have coming in, I feel like it’s likely something we can do in a couple of years. Maybe right now, it’s kinda harder. Team Canada has such a good team. They came back to win the Rivalry Series and beat the U.S. 5-0 in the deciding game. So obviously they have a good thing going on right now. But I will say that we have chance in a couple of years to to beat the U.S. or Canada.
The 2026 Milano Cortina Olympics will be here before we know it. Have you ever been to Italy?
Yeah, I actually visited Como five years ago, and I like the idea of playing the Olympics in Milan. I’m going to work hard over the next few years to get into the Olympic team. Also, because the Games are in Europe, there’s a good chance that my family and friends would be able to come and watch. So that would of course be a great experience.
Who is the funniest player on Team Finland?
Jenniina Nylund. She’s a super-funny girl. She always makes everyone laugh in the locker room.
The 14-year-old Slovak phenom Nela Lopusanova scored a “Michigan” goal at the 2023 Women’s Worlds in Sweden. Who’s going to pull off that move with your national team?
I would say Petra Nieminen. I would be able to see her doing that in some of the games.
How about you?
This year, I haven’t done it a lot in practice, but last year, I practised it a lot. Hopefully someday! It’s just harder as a defender to do that move. But it’s my goal to do it someday. We’ll see what happens.
Who is your favourite defender to watch in the hockey world?
Cale Makar. He’s a very good D. I like how he moves on the ice. I would like to have those skills that he has as well!
Where do you see yourself playing hockey after you graduate from Minnesota?
I’d like to stay here in the United States if the new [PWHPA] league that they’re planning to have comes. Only time will tell, but I would see myself playing here after my college years.