Team Finland comes into this year’s Four Nations Cup happy from their recent Finnkampen victories against Sweden, but their heartbreaking 0-1 bronze medal loss at last April’s IIHF Women’s World Championships in British Columbia hasn’t been forgotten. They’re not looking back, though; this is a team with high expectations for this tournament and beyond.
North American fans new to Finnish hockey who are amazed by Hayley Wickenheiser's achievements and longevity with Hockey Canada will be delighted to meet forward and Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Riikka Välilä. The squad's oldest member at 43 years old, she won a bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, retired from the game in 2003, and made a return in 2013. As if attempting a comeback after so long wasn't impressive enough, Välilä picked up right where she left off and earned herself a spot in Sochi and at the IIHF Women’s World Championships in 2015 and 2016. She currently plays in Sweden for HV71 of the SDHL, where she has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 13 games so far this season.
Roligt med Riikka Välilä i HV71 Dam! 43 and going strong! Kanske vinter-OS om två år i Pyongchang? https://t.co/5BsJOKD5D9— Pekka Ranta (@pekka_ranta) September 8, 2016
Two NCAA forwards were named to the team: Saana Valkama of the University of Vermont and Vilma Tanskanen of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks. Valkama has five points in six games in her sophomore season, was a member of the 2016 Worlds team and previously played for Ilves Tampere in the Finnish women's Naisten SM-Sarja league. Tanskanen, 21, skated in 33 games in her rookie season last year, earning four goals and two assists.
After being absent from international competition during the 2015-16 season, 26-year-old forward Linda Välimäki returns to the NaisLeijonat for a second time this autumn. She earned three assists at Finnkampen and currently leads the Naisten SM-Sarja with 27 points.
Seven defensemen were named to the team, including captain Jenni Hiirikoski. She has captained Team Finland since 2012 and has been named Best Defender at the Women's World Championships five times, in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.
Other notable names on the blue line include Anna Kilponen of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, and Ohio State University alumna Minttu Tuominen. Kilponen had nine points (zero goals, nine assists) in 35 games with UND last year and an even plus/minus at Worlds. She skated for Finland in the 2014 Olympics and earned an assist at last year’s Four Nations Cup on the way to bronze.
A two-time Olympian and 2010 bronze medalist, Tuominen currently captains Linköping HC of the SDHL, where she has 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 13 games. During her time at OSU, Tuominen described herself as a grinder; her grit, skill and stubbornness will be welcome assets to this Finnish team.
All eyes will be on Noora Räty this tournament. The three-time Olympian’s stellar career boasts multiple NCAA records from her time as a Minnesota Golden Gopher, including most all-time wins, most all-time shutouts, most shutouts in a single season and best all-time save percentage. She is, without a doubt, one of the finest goaltenders Finland has ever produced, and she’s not done yet.
The past two years since the 2014 Olympics have been full of highs and lows for Räty; she made international news with her post-Sochi retirement and her return to hockey as the first female goaltender in the Finnish men’s Mestis and SM-Sarja leagues, and had a public falling out with NaisLeijonat head coach Pasi Mustonen.
Räty will be supported in net by 19-year-old Anni Keisala, who will make her Four Nations debut. Keisala, of the Oulun Kärpät in the women’s SM-Sarja league, earned World Junior Championships U18 Top Player of the Team honors two years running, in 2014 and 2015. In 2016 she played one period at the Women's World Championships in Kamloops, BC, stopping eight out of nine shots against Canada in 20 minutes of ice time.
Although Keisala is no stranger to the international stage, her youth coupled with Räty's formidability may lead to limited playing time during the tournament.
Perhaps the most notable absence is goaltender Meeri Räisänen. Like Räty she plays in the SM-Sarja men's league, for Kiekkokopla Joensuu, and has been a force in Finland's net for years. She has four World Championship appearances and an Olympic nod under her belt. Her last international tour of duty with the NaisLeijonat came at the 2016 World Championships; she earned a 2.43 goals-against average over 346:07 minutes of ice time and was named to the All-Star Team.
Defenseman Mira Jalosuo is also missing from the roster. She last played for Finland in international competition at the 2016 World Championships and is currently a member of the Minnesota Whitecaps. She did post on Instagram about beginning an internship at the beginning of September, and so her absence may be related to those obligations, but her size (Jalosuo stands at an even six feet tall) and skill as a puck mover will be missed on Finland's blue line.
Silver. Finland hasn’t taken higher than fourth on home ice at Four Nations since 2001; they’ll have to get through the deadly offensive weapons of the United States and Canada, but they’ll be looking to build on last year’s third-place finish — and a home ice advantage might just give them the push they need.