“It was also the players they had signed here, too. You step on the ice, and suddenly you’re skating with and playing games alongside six or seven Olympians.”
That was what Metropolitan Riveters forward Leah Marino told us back in October when we asked why she chose to sign with the Rivs after a year with the Toronto Six.
This season, three of the multiple Olympians that Marino has been suiting up alongside every weekend hail from Finland, and all three have made not only an immediate impact on the team and their fortunes on the ice, but they are also here for the right reasons. While it’s nice to earn a decent paycheck, which they are, they are also having an impact on building the PHF and the Riveters with their stellar play and experiences.
“Definitely (Head Coach) Venla (Hovi) was a big part (of my decision), I knew she wanted to make it more professional and I know her from the Finnish National Team for many years. She was a great team player and I knew that she would be a great people and hockey coach,” said defender Minttu Tuominen. “I was surprised but really happy that she wanted me on her team. The opportunity to build something new and grow the game in the US. I’m from Helsinki, but it’s nothing like New York City,” she added with a laugh. “I talked with Evelina and Anna before signing here, so we kind of made that decision as a group.”
Goaltender Eveliina Mäkinen, echoed Tuominen’s comments when we asked her the same question - why did she decide to join the PHF now, and expanded upon them as well. All three players are talented enough that they were well sought after by multiple teams across multiple leagues.
“I had already played a couple of years professionally in Sweden already. Everything set up there, everything was good, and I liked my life in Sweden,” Mäkinen explained. “Then Coach Venla called and, to me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be here and build women’s hockey, and to help grow it. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
I mean, it makes sense to me! That’s a large part of the reason why I have committed so much time and energy to writing about these players and this league.
“I want to be part of that,” the goaltender continued. “Especially like, with my background on the National Team, from my perspective professionalism is so much more than money. That’s what I want to bring from my side of things, show how to do things professionally. That’s a huge plus that we are getting there with the money as well.”
This season Tuominen and fellow defender Anna Kilponen have played in all ten games for the Riveters and are among the league leaders in some categories, while Mäkinen has come away with wins in two of her four starts after not playing in any of the team’s first four games.
“Of course when you know people who you trust that helps to make the decision easier to come overseas,” Kilponen told us earlier this season. “I know Venla, how she thinks about the game and what she expects. I think the same way, we need to be professionals and work hard. It’s a good fit.”
One of the things that the Riveters are doing differently than the other six teams in the PHF this season is they have their practices in the morning, like a truly professional team, instead of late at night, or after a long day of waiting or working. That was a big lure for the Finns for sure.
“We are so fortunate, we have our work in the morning and we are done by noon or one, and then you have the rest of the day to have a life, in a way,” Tuominen told us. “So, in Finland, in Sweden, most of the teams practice at night so it’s a lot of waiting around all day to practice. Here it feels so professional and I love the setup here.”
The trio all live together in northern New Jersey, a short drive from their new home rink at the American Dream mall. The Rivs practice on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings.
“Tuesday is a good night when we can go out for dinner, we don’t have to wake up early. So we can do that or go to Devils game,” added Tuominen.
“To be honest I had no idea what to expect and right now, it’s pretty great,” Mäkinen said. “Everything, especially with us having practices in the morning, that’s something I’ve never done before and one of the most professional things that we could think of. I’ve played hockey professionally fully, without working elsewhere, and we always practiced in the evenings.”
“During the day, you can’t really do anything because you’re waiting to go to practice. Now after practice, we have time - we can do stuff. We don’t have to be ready for the evening. Wednesdays - they are rest days, but Tuesdays after practice you know you can go somewhere because you can sleep in the next morning; that’s pretty awesome, and something I haven’t had before.”
This season Tuominen, who played forward until about 2014, is tied for the league lead in power-play goals (3), is fourth on the Riveters in shots on goal (24), and had the winning goal in the shootout at Toronto. Her D-partner Kilponen leads the team in assists (6) and is tied for second in the PHF in that category. Mäkinen’s last start before the holiday break was her finest, stopping 40 of 42 shots against a stacked Connecticut squad.
After three (really four) seasons of mediocrity and drama and all sorts of distractions, this trio of fantastic Finns has really helped to stabilize the Riveters franchise. And they’ve also helped them win some games, which is, why they play the game ultimately.
Tuominen was named one of the Rivs’ alternate captains this season, obviously her first in this league and with the team, so I asked what that meant to her. “It was definitely an honor. I don’t know, we have so many leaders on this team and I think most of us were captains on our previous teams, or in college, we had a C or an A. It’s a big honor, maybe it’s because I am one of the older,” she said starting to laugh, “I am the oldest player on the team,” pausing to laugh (even louder) again. “I think I have to get the letter!”
All joking aside, she definitely deserves it. When she is on the ice, you know it. She has a commanding presence on the blue line, especially when Kilponen is holding down the other side. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to ice times yet, but we feel pretty certain that the dynamic defensive duo is among the leaders of time on ice - not only on the Riveters but in the entire PHF.
“Anna is someone who leads by example, a little introverted and quiet, but when you watch her on a daily basis she is doing all of the little things right all the time,” Coach Hovi said of Kilponen. “Having her here, she is a great example for the whole team.”
This is a caliber of top-pairing of defenders that Riveters fans haven’t seen since the top pair of Ryan & Burke four seasons ago. The same can be said in goal. Honestly, the Rivs haven’t had a legit goalie that could go toe-to-toe with the other team’s netminders in the same time span. Now, with Mäkinen, Rachel McQuigge (injured), and Katie Burt… they have three!
“The older I get, the more I understand how mental the game is,” Mäkinen explained. “I could play a really shitty season, but now I know that I’m not a shitty goalie. There are so many things that affect the result of a game. When I was younger, I’d be like, oh I’m a bad goalie if I had a bad season, or played one bad game. No. I’m still the same goalie, just didn’t have it here today.”
That perspective is fresh and new to a franchise that has had multiple goalies trying to replicate what Katie Fitzgerald did in 2018 - leading the Riveters to an Isobel Cup championship.
“I think they did a really good job of building this team,” the goaltender told us. “Everyone in our locker room, their personalities, everyone is so nice, respects one another. (Captain Madison) Packer is a leader in there obviously, but everyone brings something to the team. I don’t know if that answers the question, but I think they did a really good job of picking this team.”
Before the calendar flips to 2023, the Riveters find themselves fourth in the standings (4-6-0, 11 points) with 14 games remaining. The good news for them is that they have only played two home games to this point, and with ten more to go on home ice they could really solidify a nice spot in the standings without having to get on a plane for the rest of the season. Their only remaining road games are at Buffalo (2), Boston (1), and Connecticut (1).
In years past, the Rivs have given up too many goals, and not scored nearly enough goals. But now with their trio of fantastic Finns (among other nationalities on the squad), they are finding their way back to respectability and giving their fans a team worth rooting for.