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IIHF: Venla Hovi | Finland

Having masterfully assembled an incredibly consummate career, one which firmly entrenched Venla Hovi as one of Finland’s premier hockey stars of the decade, a sense of realization and celebrated closure commemorated an unforgettable 2019. Simultaneously becoming an icon on both sides of the Atlantic, comprising a special chapter that transformed her into an integral component of the game’s mythology in Western Canada, the most recent edition of the IIHF Women’s World Championships provided a fitting denouement in her athletic narrative.

Contested in Espoo, Finland, the feeling of home ice advantage provided plenty of emotion for Hovi, a native of Tampere, serving as a stirring backdrop for her final chapter. With the Finns having captured the bronze medal at the 2017 edition of the IIHF Women’s Worlds, contested in Plymouth, Michigan, United States, a roster that Hovi was part of, the combination of high expectations to return to the podium, along with national pride, raised the stakes in 2019.

Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Europe

During Hovi’s proud career with Finland’s national team, the privilege of competing in her homeland against the world’s finest represented a rare occurrence. Of note, the last time that the IIHF Women’s Worlds were contested in the Nordic Country was 2009, as Hämeenlinna, known as the oldest inland city of Finland, served as host. Hovi, who was skating that season for Ilves in the SM-sarja (W), enjoyed her third appearance at the Worlds, as the host Finns defeated archrival Sweden by a 4-1 mark to claim the bronze medal.

Heading into this year’s World Championships, Hovi enjoyed a significant haul of hockey hardware over the last season, burnishing a superlative career. Following a bronze medal with Finland’s entry at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, assisting on the medal-clinching goal in a 3-2 triumph versus the Olympic Athletes from Russia, Hovi returned to her adopted home at Winnipeg’s University of Manitoba.

Leading the Bisons to its first-ever Golden Path trophy, including a superlative effort in a quadruple overtime game, credited with the assist on a goal by Jordyn Zacharias, eliminating the defending national champion Alberta Pandas in the Canada West tournament. Defeating the University of Western Ontario Mustangs by a 2-0 tally on their own ice in the U SPORTS Finals, Hovi scored one of the goals. Recognized as the Player of the Game, such honors were followed by acclaim as the recipient of the Bisons Female Athlete of the Year Award, cementing her growing legend.

Hovi celebrating the University of Manitoba Bisons Golden Path Trophy triumph (Image obtained from: https://gobisons.ca/roster.aspx?rp_id=2614)

Undoubtedly, such achievements enriched a compelling legacy of Finnish superstars that made their mark in the city, known as Canada’s Gateway to the West. During the era of the World Hockey Association (WHA), Veli-Pekka Ketola and Hexi Riihiranta were the first Finns to play for the Winnipeg Jets, part of a talent-laden roster that included the “Hot Line” of Bobby Hull, and Swedish rivals Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. The 1992-93 NHL season, one of the greatest in Jets history, saw Teppo Numminen, who hails from Tampere, the same hometown as Hovi, joined by Teemu Selanne, a teammate from the Finnish national team. Selanne would make his mark with the most spectacular rookie season in NHL history, scoring an astounding 76 goals.

In the 2010s, the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, saw Olli Jokinen suit up for the new-look Jets, extending an amazing legacy of world-class Finnish players to suit up for the franchise. In 2016, the Jets would draft Patrik Laine, another native of Tampere, with the second pick overall. Fittingly, Hovi bookended the decade with her heroics in the Bisons paraphernalia, although more glories would follow in the Canadian Prairies.

Photo credit: Dave Holland

Selected by the Calgary Inferno with the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 CWHL Draft, it resulted in a unique instance of six degrees of hockey separation for Hovi. During the 1976-77 WHA season, Ketola and Riihiranta were traded from the Jets to the Calgary Cowboys.

In addition, Erica Kromm, who served as the Inferno’s team captain during the 2017-18 season holds her own unique connection to the Jets. Of note, her grandfather, Bobby Kromm, served as head coach of the Jets when they captured their first AVCO Cup in 1976. Awarded to the WHA champions, the championship roster included the likes of Ketola and Riihiranta. Serendipitously, Hovi and Erica Kromm captured a Clarkson Cup as teammates in 2019, as dynasty and destiny collided, bridging generations.

Just as intriguing was the beginning of Hovi’s experience in Calgary, one that proved to be just as compelling as the storybook finish. From the outset, long-time international rivals were transformed into newly minted teammates on the Inferno. From Canada’s Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston and Blayre Turnbull, to the American trio of Kacey Bellamy, Brianna Decker and Alex Rigsby, it represented a radical departure for Hovi.

Marking an extreme contrast was the fact that Hovi was now garbed in red. Long identified in blue, the defining color of Finland’s national team, Hovi would not be the only celebrated member of the national team to don red with her new club team. Noora Raty, a native of Espoo, and the greatest European-born goaltender of her generation spent this past CWHL season with the Shenzhen KRS Rays.

Hovi and a Clarkson Cup selfie (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/VenlaHovi/media)

One year earlier, Raty, whose achievement as the first European to win the CWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award ran parallel to the milestone of becoming the first European goaltender to start the Clarkson Cup finals. Forcing the upstart Markham Thunder to overtime, Raty would suffer heartbreak. Despite a valiant effort of 37 saves, third generation skater Laura Stacey scored the Cup-clinching goal in overtime as the Thunder captured their first-ever Cup championship.

Considering that Hovi’s Inferno qualified for the 2019 edition of the Clarkson Cup, it marked the return of another world-class Finnish player to the CWHL’s biggest stage. With the Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal clashing for the third time in four years, perhaps the most compelling rivalry in Clarkson Cup lore, Rebecca Johnston scored what proved to be the last goal of the season, clinching the Cup in a 5-2 victory.

With the win, Hovi became the first player from Finland to hoist the coveted Cup, simultaneously joining Katka Mrazova (2013) and Janine Weber (2015) as the only Europeans to have attained the CWHL’s prized pinnacle. Coincidentally, Mrazova and Weber both captured the Cup as members of the Boston Blades. There was also a unique tinge of coincidence as fellow blueliner Aina Mizukami became the third Japanese player to win the Clarkson. Emphasizing the theme of coincidence, Kanae Aoki and Aina Takeuchi both won the Cup in 2016, which was the Inferno’s first-ever Clarkson Cup win.

“It felt so good. I had such fun last season and got to meet so many amazing people and athletes. High level hockey and competitive games, which I enjoyed.”

Hovi and Aina Mizukami following an emotional victory in the 2019 Clarkson Cup finals (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/VenlaHovi/media)

In the immediate aftermath of the Clarkson Cup, Hovi was back in her familiar blue jersey for Finland, as her homeland became the centre of the women’s ice hockey universe, hosting the world’s finest. Despite suffering two losses in the Group A preliminary round, there were many encouraging signs for Finland, including an energizing 6-0 shutout of Russia, which saw over 5,000 fans jam the Espoo Metro Areena.

Besting the Czech Republic by a 3-1 mark in the Quarterfinals, the succeeding round would result in Finland scoring one of the biggest wins in the history of the IIHF Women’s Worlds. Shocking Canada in a 4-2 upset on April 13, Finland became the first European nation to qualify for the gold medal game. With Finland holding a 3-2 advantage after two periods of play, with goals by Jenni Hiirikoski and Susanna Tapani during the second, Finland managed to shut down Canada’s offense in a very tense third. With Ronja Savolainen scoring an empty net goal with 48 seconds left, leading all scorers with three points, 4,311 fans at Metro Areena witnessed one of the greatest victories in the history of women’s ice hockey. The magnitude of such an epic achievement was one that stood as the defining moment of the event, validating the years of sweat and sacrifice,

“I have played for Team Finland for so long and knowing the amount of work and determination that was behind that win is hard to describe. So proud of every single player and how everyone believed we could do it. It was a team win and a definition of Finnish sisu.”

Hovi being interviewed at the 2019 IIHF Women’s Worlds (Video still obtained from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZvKRfoXLpE)

With the final game in Hovi’s career taking place on home soil, proudly wearing the Finnish jersey in a thrilling denouement, challenging the United States in a historic gold medal game, it marked a storybook finish worthy of Hovi’s legacy. Considering this was one of the most important games in both Finnish and IIHF hockey history, the high energy emanating from a very enthusiastic sold-out crowd of contented supporters supplied ample motivation, providing a fortunate Hovi with a career highlight that added lustre to the magnitude of a monumental event,

“It was emotional and amazing and I was so lucky to get to experience it as my very last game.”

Although the ending of the contest brought with it controversy and devastation, as Petra Nieminen believed that she scored the gold-medal clinching goal, resulting in jubilant cheers of approval by fans and teammates alike, the resolve and character of Finland’s team was never in dispute. While Nieminen’s amazing efforts were nullified, ruled as not a goal, with a subsequent shootout needed to determine the winner, further augmenting the debate as to whether Finland was robbed of a gold medal, Hovi and her teammates captured the hearts and minds of sports fans the world over.

Despite the fact that a gold medal was within reach, which truly would have been Finland’s “Mircale on Ice”, a place in hockey history is assured for this resilient squad. Becoming the first country to capture a silver medal in the IIHF Women’s Worlds, it provided a historic bookend in a dazzling decade for Hovi.

Having begun the 2010s with a highly emotional victory over Sweden to capture the bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, a game which solidified Noora Raty’s standing as a world-class goaltender, simultaneously heralding the arrival of a new generation of Finnish star players, such as Hovi, an unfolding decade signified a continued standard of elite play.

Sustaining the nation among the global elites of the game, constantly in the conversation among the world’s finest players, Hovi crafted a remarkable body of work, contributing towards Finland reaching unprecedented heights in the female game, whether it be home or aboard. Although the decision to retire was highly difficult, one that will likely require time in order to fully absorb, one reality is that it is a retirement with strong relevance. Part of the legacy of the 2019 IIHF Women’s Worlds, one defined by encouragement, igniting the belief in the rest of the world that the “Big Two” of Canada and United States are fallible, the game’s anticipated growth is one that shall be sparked by the heroics that took place during a magical April in Espoo, Finland,

“It was and is very hard. I only know the athlete Venla and my love for the game goes well beyond. But I am very proud who I’ve become and how the game has shaped me as a person. So many achievements especially in my last couple of years, but this latest tournament is definitely up there.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Featured image by Ronald Martinez Getty Images


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