Whenever Finland’s women’s teams are playing international games, you’ll find their GM Tuula Puputti somewhere in the stands. And yes, she will be smiling. Because she most often is.
Puputti, a former Team Finland goalie – and a Finnish, European and NCAA champion and a Worlds bronze medalist, and a historic first women’s Olympic medalist from Nagano 1998 – has been with the Finnish federation for overa decade, and the Finnish women’s teams’ GM since 2018.
After the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, there was a lot of chatter about whether women’s hockey belonged in the Games, and the IOC practically gave the IIHF an ultimatum. The gap between the Niorth American teams and the others would have to be narrowed and the level of play improved.
In Finland, one way to ensure that promising female athletes get to develop and learn the craft, was to establish a hockey high school where the athletes could train and go to school in a way that supports both endeavours.
“It gives the girls a chance to get good coaching in a nurturing environment so that thet can combine learning to becoming an athlete with their studies. The rink, the school and their apartments are within a couple of kilometers in a small town;” Puputti says.
Team Kuortane also plays in the Finnish women’s league.
“Traditionally the Kuortane head coach has been the U18 coach as well,” Puputti says.
The tradition still holds as Team Finland’s head coach in Ostersund is Mira Kuisma, head coach of Team Kuortane, and also a former Team Finland, and an Olympic and Worlds bronze medalist.
“Kuortane is a part of our development path for girls, and naturally we’d like to get the promising players together when they’re 15, and are making their high school choices. Looking back to the beginning of the U18 Women’s Worlds in 2008, about half the team has been from Kuortane,” says Puputti.
That’s the case in 2023, as well. Ten of the 23 players come from Team Kuortane.
Centralization is not a new idea. The Canadian and American women’s team spend big parts of Olympic years together, and Sweden also has a system in which teenagers can combine their hockey career and their secondary education, but that one runs through different clubs that the players then represent.
But according to Puputti, the challenge women’s hockey still faces is recruitment of new players.
“Getting the most promising players onto the same team ensures that they get to work with other good players. Which is good. However, we still want to get club teams to have girls’ teams and create a full development program there. That would also create more competition on that level,” she says.
“Now that our women’s league teams do have full-time coaches, and the national team coaches go around and support them, we may move towards their staying with their teams,” Puputti adds.
Another difference between playing on a women’s league team and a Team Kuortane team is that all the players are within a few years from each other on a Kuortane team whereas a 15-year-old may have teammates that are 25 or 35 on a women’s league team. And that’s got implications both on the ice and off it.
“One thing is simply the physical side of the game, and the other the locker room talk. I hear players talk about that quite a bit, when they’re searching for a good environment for their development,” Puputti says.
According tio Puputti, the women’s game is going forward, but she also adds that the international growth is sometimes faster than the development in one individual country.
“For example, when I played, there was no under.-18 Women’s Worlds, nor were there any Selects tournaments. On the other hand, when I look at the Finnish women’s league, the conditions are still similar to what they were when I played, and that’s a long time ago,” Puputti says.
There are the IIHF’s developmental camps, and other international programs.
“Also, the US college system is very important because it’s a good way for an athlete to combine studies and hockey at a high level,” says the 2001 and 2002 NCAA champion.
“But, there is a women’s NHL in a way, and I thin they’ll have a real breakthrough within a couple of years,” she says.
Then there’s the Swedish SDHL which is widely considered the best women’s league in Europe. This season, there are more than 30 Olympians in the league, and that’s excluding the Swedes.
For Puputti, the SDHL provides inspiration and hope.
“The SDHL finals didn’t have sold out arenas and 6,000 people in the stands six years ago, either. Unfortunately, the Finnish attendance records are still from the 1990s. It won’t happen overnight but if the SDHL could get that far in just six years, we can become the best European league, if we start now,” she says.
With a smile.