Riikka Sallinen retires at 46
by Risto Pakarinen|15 JUN 2019
Finnish forward Riikka Sallinen answers questions at the recent 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship on home ice in Espoo.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Mario Lemieux did it, Michel Jordan did it, and Muhammad Ali did it. But none of them did it the way Riikka Sallinen did it. They all made successful, glorious comebacks, but Sallinen’s return to hockey is unheard of. 

Not only had she retired ten years earlier, and had been inducted into the Finnish Hall of Fame in 2008 and the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2010, she got back in the game as if she had never been away, captaining Finland in the 2014 Olympics (and finishing tied for second in team scoring). 

She finished her career at the top at in April, when Finland historically advanced to the final at the Women’s Worlds. They lost the game against the United States only in a shootout, after a controversial video review of a Finnish goal during overtime.

All in all, Sallinen (née Nieminen and previously also known under the name Valila) won one Women’s World Championship silver, two Olympic bronze medals, and six Women’s World Championship bronze medals. She played for the women’s national team during 16 seasons starting with the 1989 Women's European Championship.
Riikka Sallinnen 17 years ago during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the last big event before she retired the first time.
photo: IIHF Archive
After the 2019 Women’s Worlds, Sallinen took a few weeks to think about things, but realized she didn’t have the same fire anymore and her retirement was announced just two days after her 46th birthday.     

“I started playing hockey when I was seven or eight, and played with boys until I was 12. Jyvaskyla, my hometown, didn’t have a women’s team then, so I switched to bandy,” Riikka Sallinen, then Nieminen, said at the IIHF Hall of Fame induction nine years ago. 

“In the winters, I’d sometimes have games with my bandy, rinkbandy, and hockey team at the same time, so I would have to choose which of the teams had the most important game,” she said, smiling.

She is also a three-time Player of the Year in Finland’s national sport, pesapallo, a baseball-like game. 

During her hiatus, Sallinen coached local girls’ teams in Sweden where she lived, but even when thoughts of a return to the rinks crossed her mind, the fact that there wasn’t a local women’s team made the idea seem too complicated. 

Then she was lured back to Finnish hockey as team manager for the women’s national team, and the call of the ice became too strong for her to resist. 

“I made my decision during the Worlds but first I had to test my body and make sure I could work out the way I needed to. After all, I was 40 years old,” she told the Finnish federations magazine in 2013. 

She did her secret tests, and when her body gave the response she had hoped, she contacted her alma mater, JYP Jyvaskyla, and her old teammate Katja Lehto, now the team’s manager. Lehto welcomed her with open arms. 

“I started from square one, really. Just the fact that I had to get new equipment, new skates and composite sticks was a big thing. I was also a little worried about the fact that everybody else was so much younger than me, that maybe they don’t dare speak with me. That wasn’t the case. 

“Sometimes I felt that I got more comments and chirps than the others, starting from what I wear,” she said with a laugh.
Riikka Sallinnen celebrates with the bronze medal trophy at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
When she began her career as a kid in Jyvaskyla, she was the star of her team. Former Finnish men’s national team player and Finnish Hall of Famer Hannu Kapanen tells stories of how the game of his son’s teams –former national team player and a Finnish Hall of Famer Sami Kapanen – against Riikka’s JYP came down to whether Sami or Riikka had the better day.

Former Finnish hockey association CEO Matti Nurminen was Riikka Sallinen’s teammate back then. 

“It was exceptional back then to have a girl in a boys’ hockey team. She was very popular on our team, though, and on all road trips there were always three people on the two seats where Riikka sat: one boy on both sides of her,” Nurminen said. 

Her fantastic career comes to an end in a way that’s fitting to her. Without fanfares, just taking a step back, leaving the stage to others.

Her skates aren’t easy to fill.