Jenni Hiirikoski is the Best Defender in the World
Hiirikoski is playing her way into the Hockey Hall of Fame one season and major international tournament at a time
During NBCSN’s broadcast of the 2018 Olympics, Tessa Bonhomme and Erika Lawler agreed that Team Finland Captain Jenni Hiirikoski was destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame. That’s because Hiirikoski, 31, is the greatest defender of her generation.
Hiirikoski may not be a household name in North America, but she should be. Many of Europe’s most talented players have NCAA experience, but Hiirikoski is an exception. She’s played her entire career in Europe, honing her skills and establishing herself as a peerless talent.
Without the Puck
Hiirikoski’s 5-foot-4 frame is on the smaller side for a defender, but it’s impossible to lose track of her on the ice.
Her awareness, speed, and ability to turn defense into offense makes her a terror in the transition game. Her adaptability is particularly dangerous: when Hiirikoski is playing against international powerhouses like Canada and the United States she seamlessly transforms into a calculating, relentless shutdown defender.
One might think that Hiirikoski’s size would limit her efficacy in the defensive zone, but then one would be wrong. She has outstanding balance and surprising power, likely due to her relentless dedication to conditioning and training. That strength helps her hold her own against even the sport’s most physical forwards. Hiirikoski’s conditioning allows her to log a tremendous amount of minutes, which she has proven time and again in major international tournaments.
With the Puck
Hiirikoski’s offensive prowess and vision set her apart from other elite defenders. Her weapon of choice when she’s on the attack is her precision passing, which is dangerous in all three zones. If one of her teammates is open or about to be open, she has the ability to hit the tape of their stick blade better than any other defender on the planet.
The two-time Olympic bronze medalist has piled up goals and assists playing professional hockey in Finland and Sweden over the last 15 years. Last season, Hiirikoski finished fourth in scoring in the SDHL with 55 points — 22 of which were goals — in 36 games. In 2016-17, her first season in the SDHL, she finished fourth in the league with 45 points in 36 games. Over the course of 2015-2016, her last season in the former Naisten SM-Sarja (now Naisten Liiga) with JYP Jyväsklyä, she amassed a staggering 79 points in 28 games.
What’s the secret to Hiirikoski’s success in all three zones? In addition to her natural gifts, she’s as much of a student of the game in her thirties as she was 20 years ago. She’s as driven as ever, fueled by the constant hunger for improvement.
“I want to be better all the time,” Hiirikoski told The Hockey Writers’ Nathaniel Oliver in a recent interview. “So I like to watch my own shifts from previous games, and also see how other defenders play. I work with my shooting a lot. I like to use my slap shot and one-timers.”
Hiirikoski has been a part of Team Finland’s core since her late teens and has captained the Naisleijonat since 2011. She’s been named Best Defender of the IIHF Women’s World Championships a record six times and was named the Best Defender of both the 2014 and 2018 Olympics. She’s helped Finland secure six bronze medals at the World Championships and two bronze medals at the Winter Olympics.
Michelle Karvinen, who has been her international teammate for over a decade and for the last two years on Luleå HF/MSSK, knows her captain is one of the best in the world.
“She’s very professional about every single detail,” Karvinen explained to The Ice Garden after the inaugural Champions Cup. “She’s an inspiration for everybody she’s surrounded by. She’s an awesome player, but she’s also a very loyal person that you can rely on, which you need in a captain.
“[Hiirikoski] balances her own game and being a captain in an easy way almost, it’s almost effortless, which is not something that anyone can do,” Karvinen continued. “It gives us a lot of confidence having her [on the ice], she’s the backbone. She’s so calm and is obviously a world class player.”
Hiirikoski in History
It may be hard for many North Americans to appreciate just how good Hiirikoski is because of how rarely she plays on this side of the Atlantic. One of the best ways to illustrate how she’s paving her path to the Hockey Hall of Fame is to compare her to the only two female defenders who are there now: Geraldine Heaney and Angela Ruggiero.
The graphic above is most impactful when put in the context of Hiirikoski playing with Finland as opposed to Canada or the United States. She regularly has to play against the two North American superpowers in major tournaments. That makes a significant impact on her production, especially with Finland having to face off against Canada or the United States in semifinal matches year after year.
Many believe that Heaney was the first great offensive defender in the women’s game. When looking at her numbers in the graphic above, it’s important to remember that she was already 31 when women’s ice hockey made its first appearance at the Winter Olympics. Thankfully, she was just entering her prime at 23 when the first IIHF Women’s World Championship was played in Ottawa in 1990. She put the hockey world on notice at that first Worlds with two goals and six assists in six games to lead all defenders in scoring.
Heaney, a multi-sport athlete, was dedicated to fitness and conditioning during her playing career, which helped her revolutionize her position. She finished her career with an Olympic gold, an Olympic silver, and seven gold medals at the Women’s World Championships. She was also named the Best Defender of the Worlds twice, in 1992 and in 1994.
Ruggiero represented a different kind of defender than both Heaney and Hiirikoski. She was downright intimidating on the ice and knew how to use her 5-foot-9 frame to her advantage in all three zones. Ruggiero also knew how to strike fear into the heart of opposing goaltenders, thanks in large part to her slapshot.
Her 0.86 points per-game at the IIHF Women’s World Championships spans a 14-year career of playing in major international tournaments. That kind of production over that many Women’s World Championships may never be seen again.
Ruggiero was just 18 when she won gold with USA at the Nagano Olympics. She would go on to win three more Olympic medals and a total of 10 medals (all gold or silver) at the Worlds. She was named the Best Defender of the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and won the Patty Kazmaier Award. Ruggiero also made history as the first non-goaltender to play in a regular season professional game of a men’s league in the United States in 2005. The list of Ruggiero’s achievements goes on and on. She was even one of the first two female players to appear in EA Sports’ NHL video game series.
“It gives us a lot of confidence having her [on the ice], she’s the backbone. She’s so calm and is obviously a world class player.” -Michelle Karvinen on Jenni Hiirikoski
Hiirikoski’s production with Finland has been nothing short of exceptional. A recent example of Hiirikoski’s offensive prowess is the 3.5 shots per game she averaged at the 2018 Olympics; only 12 players put more shots on net per game than she did in Pyeongchang, and they were all forwards. To put that number into even more context: Hiirikoski was the only player at Pyeongchang to average more than 3.2 shots per game while playing for a team that finished the tournament in the red in shot differential.
What might Hiirikoski’s numbers look like if Finland’s national program possessed a larger talent pool and was gifted the same resources as their American and Canadian counterparts? It’s impossible to speculate, but her impact on the Naisleijonat cannot be overstated. She’s already the highest scoring defender in the history of the Finnish national team and her 1.43 points per-game in the Naisten Liiga eclipses Päivi Halonen’s 1.21 points per-game. For those that aren’t aware, the Naisten Liiga award for Best Defender is named after Halonen.
The Road Ahead
Despite her brilliant career — which may last at least another decade thanks to her conditioning — Hiirikoski is not a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame because she plays in Europe and, to put it bluntly, because she’s a woman. There are only six women in the HHOF, and all of them are American or Canadian. It’s also worth noting that there are only two Finnish men currently in the Hall of Fame: Jari Kurri and Teemu Selänne.
The HHOF has a cap of four male inductees and two female player inductees per year. It took the Hall until 2010 to start inducting women; that year was the first and last time they met their cap with the inductions of Cammi Granato and Angela James. Their sexist neglect of women’s achievements isn’t new, nor does it show signs of change any time soon.
Hiirikoski is a shining example of why the myopic North American fan viewpoint needs to broaden. There are precious few players who can boast her skill with the puck and her ability to defend when she doesn’t have it. Hiirikoski has risen the bar for players in her position. She’s already the greatest defender of her generation, and she still has a lot of hockey ahead of her.
Data courtesy EliteProspects.com, official Olympic stat sheets, and HHOF.com.