Recognized as the Manitoba Bisons Player of the Game in the Finals of the USports Women’s National Championships, while Shailyn Waite earned the same recognition for Western, it was a fitting tribute for a sensational season that embodied Venla Hovi’s character and work ethic. Having also sandwiched in an appearance for her native Finland at the 2018 Winter Games, culminating with a bronze medal, the opportunity to help the Bisons capture a Canada West crown plus the first Golden Path Trophy in program history were testament to her dedication towards giving her team a continuous chance to succeed.
Entering the 2017-18 season with strong momentum, as Hovi was named to the 2017 Canada West Second Team All-Stars, it did not take long to make an impact. Honored as Canada West’s Female Third Star of the Week for the week ending October 15, 2017, gaining acclaim for amassing five points in a two-game series versus the defending national champion Alberta Pandas, Hovi helped to set the offensive tone.
In a matchup of nationally ranked teams (Alberta sitting atop in first, while the Bisons were a respectable eighth), Hovi was involved in all three of the Bisons’ goals in a 4-3 loss in a Friday the 13th affair. The following day, Hovi’s solid playmaking abilities resulted in another two assists, as better luck prevailed in a 4-2 triumph. In addition, freshman goaltender Lauren Taraschuk obtained her first victory in Canada West play. Also ranking among the top five scorers in Canada West at the Holiday break, the first half of Hovi’s season actually proved to be prologue.
Joining Finland for the women’s ice hockey competition at Pyeongchang, South Korea, home of the 2018 Winter Games, it actually marked the third in Hovi’s distinguished career that she represented her homeland on the world’s biggest stage. Having first donned Finland’s jersey in 2006-07, prior appearances for the native of Tampere included Vancouver 2010, resulting in a bronze, along with Sochi 2014.
With Finland participating in the opening match of the Winter Games women’s ice hockey tournament, Hovi certainly made her mark. The February 11 affair versus the United States at Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung resulted in over 4,000 fans seeing Hovi score the tournament’s first goal. Burying the puck past US goaltender Maddie Rooney with just six seconds remaining, Linda Valimaki and Petra Nieminen earned the assists. Although the opposing team would bounce back, winning in a 3-1 final, it was one of the rare times in the tournament that the eventual gold medal winning Americans were behind in a game.
Qualifying for the bronze medal game versus the Olympic Athletes from Russia, Hovi made things happen once again. With Finland grasping to a 2-1 lead, Hovi assisted on a goal by Valimaki at the 12:18 mark of the second. Said goal not only proved to be the game winning tally, it brought Hovi’s experience in Pyeongchang full circle, as she was involved in the first and last goals scored by Finland at the tournament.
Considering that Hovi missed the closing ceremonies at the Winter Games in order to return to the Bisons, it was a display of devotion and character embodying her leadership. Enduring an arduous travel that spanned nearly 20 hours, consisting of four hours from Olympic village to Seoul, nine-hour flight, compounded by six-hour delay attributed to snowstorm, returning from the Pacific to Prairie Canada, it was certainly a source of inspiration for a Bisons team looking for a strong finish to the second half, definitely serving as a turning point.
Prior to the 2018 playoffs, Hovi’s postseason productivity with the Bisons involved a superlative 17 points in 13 playoff games, establishing her as a fan favorite at Wayne Fleming Arena. Undoubtedly, she was poised to be an impact player once again.
With a semi-final series in the Canada West playoffs that saw the Bisons challenge the Alberta Pandas, it was a coming of age for the program, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the defending Golden Path champions. Such an epic on-ice confrontation shaped the club’s destiny in the unfolding playoffs, simultaneously serving as a defining moment in program history. Showing her mettle as an impact player, Hovi emerged as a key contributor in this rich narrative.
As Manitoba faced a 1-0 series deficit versus Alberta, Hovi, despite suffering from jet lag, was a real-life superhero. Along with Lauryn Keen, they assisted on a first period goal by Sheridan Oswald with just 20 seconds left in the first period. Alexandra Anderson would add her name to the list of Bisons heroes on this momentous day, scoring in overtime for the 2-1 triumph, a crucial must-win situation that saw the Bisons deliver on all accounts while staving off elimination.
With quadruple overtime needed in Game 3 to decide who would move on to the Canada West Finals, one of the longest games in Canada West history saw Hovi bring about a jubilant finish. Along with Megan Naduzak, they would gain the assist on Jordyn Zacharias’ goal, slipping the puck past Kirsten Chamberlain in a pulse pounding 1-0 win.
In discussing her motivation to return to Manitoba, there was never a tinge of doubt. Combining a competitive spirit, a love of the game and a genuine appreciation of her teammates, an assertive Hovi was determined to empower her teammates, helping usher an exciting and victorious chapter.
“That is an easy question. The Bisons mean so much to me, the girls are my second family and they have supported me along the way. I mean, if playing for National Championship does not interest you, then I do not think you are playing for the right reasons.”
Hovi’s heroics were just as crucial in the Canada West Finals. Challenging the Saskatchewan Huskies for the right to represent the conference at the U Sports National Championships, it was another postseason bout requiring overtime to determine a winner. With just 8.6 seconds left in overtime, Hovi gained the assist on the game-winning goal scored by Bisons captain Caitlin Fyten, defeating the Huskies in another 1-0 final score. As a side note, Hovi hit the post earlier in the overtime frame.
Appearing in six playoff games, the run to the Golden Path Trophy saw Hovi shine even brighter. With London, Ontario serving as host city for the U Sports National Championship Tournament, she was brilliant on such a stage, recording four points in three games, all victories.
With the Bisons reaching their first-ever Finals in the Nationals, they would face off against the host Western Mustangs. After a scoreless first period, Lauryn Keen would take advantage of a power play opportunity in the latter minutes of the second. Going top shelf past Western Mustangs goaltender Carmen Lasis, as Fyten fed her the puck, Keen would emerge as Most Valuable Player by tournament’s end. Early in the third period, a bouncing shot from Hovi that sailed through the five hole proved to place the game out of reach in a 2-0 final.
Multiple times in the postseason, Hovi provided timely points, resulting in legendary victories that only added luster to the eventual National Championship. Considering Hovi’s value to the team, it was only fitting that she would score the last goal of the Bisons’ season, emulating the impact she had for Finland in the Winter Games.
“To be honest, I did not really think about it or notice it right away. I was just so happy to win along with the rest of the team, and was so happy for all my teammates and staff. We really deserved it this season.”
Building on the momentum of such venerated achievements, Hovi’s season finished with a crowning touch. Recognized as the Bison Sports Female Athlete of the Year for 2017-18, it assured her a place among the university’s sporting legends. Becoming only the fifth women’s ice hockey player to capture the honor, perhaps one of the most impressive facets of Hovi’s season was the fact that she still placed fourth in team scoring, in spite of time lost due to her commitments with the Finnish national team.
Adding to the feeling of celebration in the aftermath of the glorious Golden Path win was the fact that she was not the only member of the program to gain such lauded honors. Jon Rempel gained recognition as the Bison Sports Coach of the Year, while goaltending phenomenon Lauren Taraschuk emerged as the Bison Sports Female Rookie of the Year.
Few people can enjoy a podium finish and a club championship in the same season. Hovi’s teammate on Team Finland, goaltender Noora Raty, who was the winning goaltender in the bronze medal game, balanced her obligations with a solid season for the Kunlun Red Star of the CWHL. Finishing the season as the league’s Goaltender of the Year, Raty appeared in the Clarkson Cup Finals, hosted in Toronto.
As both Hovi and Raty established themselves as hockey heroes in multiple nations, including playing for championships in Canada, it was testament to the growing impact that European hockey heroes are making in multiple facets of the game. For Hovi, the chance to have accomplished such vaunted heights represents a proud career milestone that shall be treasured on both sides of the Atlantic, simultaneously ascending her to the revered stature of superstar,
“It is hard to really put it into words how much it means to me. It is like, all the years of hard work just paid off, all at the same time. It feels amazing and I am very grateful to have been part of team Finland and the Bisons.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Ruth Bonneville, Jeff Miller, Harry How Getty Images, Chris Zuk
Other image obtained from: http://news.umanitoba.ca/bison-headed-to-olympic-games/