International Ice Hockey Federation

Hiirikoski stays hopeful

Hiirikoski stays hopeful

Finnish captain set to lead the way in Malmo 2015

Published 30.11.2014 11:42 GMT+1 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Hiirikoski stays hopeful
Finnish captain Jenni Hiirikoski was named Best Defenceman at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
If you were explaining Finnish women’s hockey to someone who mostly watches the NHL, you could liken Jenni Hiirikoski to Kimmo Timonen.

The 27-year-old blueliner plays a smart, heads-up game, and while she’s not big, she is a minutes monster for the Lionesses. Whether you’re looking for someone to make a crisp outlet pass, demonstrate good gap control in the neutral zone, or run the power play, Hiirikoski delivers the goods.

While Timonen, sadly, was diagnosed with blood clots in August that could end his career, Hiirikoski should have years of productive play ahead.

Serving as Finland’s captain since the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championship, she’s hungry to get her team back on the podium after a string of recent disappointments. The blue-and-white women haven’t medalled at the Worlds since taking bronze in 2011.

Coming fifth at the Sochi Olympics this year was tough to accept, considering the Finns had previously won two Olympic bronzes (1998, 2010) and finished fourth the other two times (2002, 2006).

“It was a disaster for us in Sochi,” Hiirikoski told at November’s Four Nations Cup exhibition tournament in Kamloops, Canada. “It took a while after that. But it’s always fun to play. It’s nice to be in Canada, playing here.”

Unfortunately, the bronze medal game in Kamloops – where Canada beat the U.S. in the final – didn’t offer any solace for the Finns. As in Sochi, they lost a heartbreaker to archrival Sweden.

Finland was leading 1-0 with under four minutes to play, and the Swedes were on the verge of making (undesirable) history by going scoreless through an entire Four Nations Cup. But Emma Nordin potted the late equalizer and Swedish captain Jenni Asserholt added the overtime winner, leaving Hiirikoski and her troops dejected.

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Looking back at 2014, Hiirikoski can at least take some personal pride in being named Best Defenceman and a tournament all-star at the Olympics.

“I was honoured, of course,” said Hiirikoski, who also got Best Defenceman at the Worlds in 2009, 2012, and 2013. “There are so many good defencemen. It was a really big thing for me.”

Another Sochi highlight was getting to hang out with other Finnish athletes, and Hiirikoski doesn’t hesitate when asked which male hockey player she most enjoyed meeting: “Teemu Selanne. He’s so nice and he is always so friendly. He was watching our games. It was fun.”

With the focus now squarely on the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship (March 28-April 4) in Malmo, Sweden, she likes the direction the course that new national team coach Pasi Mustonen has set for Finland. A former player and high school headmaster, the 54-year-old served as an assistant with the Pelicans Lahti last season. He’s also been a head coach with Swedish clubs like Skelleftea, Tingsryds and Kiruna.

“I think we’re getting there with our new coach,” Hiirikoski said. “He’s really good. He’s teaching us about the small things in our game. I think we will step up and have a really good spring this year.”

Along with shared veteran leadership from the likes of Riikka Valila and Karoliina Rantamaki, one key to Finnish success in Malmo could be the potential return of Noora Raty in goal.

A superstar in U.S. college hockey with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, the 25-year-old Espoo native is regarded by many as the world’s best female goalie. But after Sochi, she said she no longer found women’s hockey challenging enough, and wanted to try to earn a living by playing against men. Raty signed a contract as the backup for Kiekko-Vantaa in Mestis, the second-highest Finnish league.

“She’s playing with a men’s team and she’s amazing there,” said Hiirikoski. “I hope all the best for her, and I hope she will come for the Worlds.”

That said, this talented rearguard doesn’t harbour any ambitions of competing with men herself. “I’m so small, you know? Every hit would come straight to my head!” the 162-cm, 60-kg veteran said with a laugh. “I think I will stay here.”

Who is the best female player in the game today? In Hiirikoski’s opinion, there are two top candidates, a nifty fellow Finnish teammate and an American power forward: “I think Michelle Karvinen and Hilary Knight. She’s really good. She’s tough and big and strong. But I think Michelle can be even better [than currently].”

Even for elite women, the prospects of getting rich from hockey just aren’t there right now, compared to their male counterparts. When Hiirikoski is at home in Jyvaskyla, she earns her living as a house painter. But she takes a refreshingly philosophical, down-to-earth approach toward it.

“It’s good to have a balance between work and sport. It’s good to put your mind to something else. We have to work or study. I love being an athlete, but I have to work. That’s my gig now. Maybe in the future something else will come along. But I don’t mind. It’s my life.”

And if Hiirikoski’s next big life experience is her sixth career IIHF medal in Malmo, don’t be surprised.

NOTE: Europe’s top hockey nations will be involved in international women’s hockey next weekend with three tournaments of the European Women’s Champions Cup’s second round taking place in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia; Lugano, Switzerland; and Linkoping, Sweden. Click here for an overview and schedules.


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