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Q & A with Saara Niemi of HIFK

After taking her coaching talent to China, Saara Niemi returns home to Finland to head a unique initiative.

HIFK head coach Saara Niemi
Photo courtesy of Saara Niemi.

After spending a year as an assistant coach in the CWHL with Kunlun Red Star, Saara Niemi is ready to continue growing the game, this time on more familiar ground in her native Finland. This summer she was named head coach and general manager of HIFK, a new Helsinki-based women’s team under the umbrella of the men’s HIFK Liiga organization. The team will start in the second-tier Mestis league in their first season with their eye on promotion to the top level of women’s hockey in Finland.

Niemi gave The Ice Garden an in-depth look at her plans for the season and what the team means going forward for female players in the Helsinki metropolitan area.

How did you get involved with this program?

Helsinki IFK has been running a girl’s hockey school for three years now called “Gimmat Skulaa.” That was the first initiative with the club in terms of girl’s hockey. I was helping them for the first couple of years with the program. Approximately a year ago HIFK showed more interest towards growing the game and was willing to be more involved in women’s hockey as they felt that in Helsinki, which is the capital of Finland and has the most population, there aren’t enough possibilities for women and girls to play hockey.

This year the time was right and when the CEO of the men’s club, Jukka Valtanen, contacted me after I returned home from a season with Kunlun and asked if I want to run the program I didn’t have to think twice as I just started maternity leave in April and will stay here in Helsinki with my family.

In the Naisten Liiga we see several teams who share names with their Liiga counterparts, like Ilves, Kärpät, etc. Aside from playing in Mestis, how is this arrangement different from those?

The way we train on and off the ice won’t be anything less compared to the Liiga teams. Off season program is well planned and before and during the season we will play exhibition games against women’s top teams as well as local boy’s teams. The only difference is that because it is a new program we can’t just start in the women’s Liiga but have to start from the lower division. Basically we need to be in the top two of Mestis and then qualify against Liiga’s last teams in order to move to the top league next season, which is our number one goal.

The women’s team, as well as the girls teams, are under HIFK juniors organization starting in May 2018. However the funding for the women’s team is coming from the HIFK Liiga men’s organization. They have already found many partners for us who are eager to support women’s sport, partners like Sinebrychoff, Wärtsilä, Stockmann, Tallink, CCM and Lehtimäki. The players don’t need to pay anything for the season which is pretty unique even among the women’s top league teams.

You spent last season as an assistant coach with Kunlun Red Star. What will you take from that experience and bring to HIFK?

Being a coach is a never-ending learning process. When you have a new team, new coaching staff, and a new culture you have to start from scratch. It was a great year and a important experience considering coming years with HIFK as they are both fresh programs. With Red Star we played in the CWHL, which is the best women’s league after NCAA college hockey. Following closely the best women’s teams and players, showed me what it takes to compete in the top level. This will help me to push the players to the right direction here in Helsinki.

Niemi, far right, behind the bench last season with Kunlun Red Star
Al Saniuk

In addition, what I will take with me from the experience with Kunlun Red Star is not only how to develop the players and the team, but also how important it is to grow the game of women’s hockey.

What are you most excited about for next season?

We have a young team (average age not much over 20), but they are very coachable and have so much unused potential. I have coached most of the girls when they were younger and I have seen how they have grown as people and players in recent years. They are very excited to take their game to another level, as well as their athleticism.

Also having a traditional and successful organization like HIFK supporting us is very unique. This isn’t only a one-year show, but a beginning for something greater. Something that women’s hockey hasn’t experienced in Finland before. We also have a great coaching staff and management group in addition to the HIFK organization.

Is there anything else you’d like us to be aware of about this project?

HIFK’s goal is not only to make a successful women’s team in the next few years, but also to get more girls to play hockey, build more girl’s teams, and develop them by age-appropriate training. Also their objective is to get more publicity and opportunities for women hockey players. For me those are very important values and that’s why I want to be involved in helping them to fulfill the targets.

HIFK players training before Juhannus, from HIFK on Twitter.

The Finnish Ice Hockey Association is very happy about the HIFK initiative and will give its support for the program as well. FIHA hopes that more men’s hockey top level organizations would support the women’s teams and programs the same way as HIFK is starting now. It has been seen in Sweden (SDHL) how the cooperation between men and women improves the women’s league, teams and players.

In August we will name few more players. We are looking for experienced players who are not only willing to develop themselves, but also help a young team to succeed. In my opinion, this would also be a great possibility for foreign players to come play in the team and explore a new culture and be a part of something new and exciting.