In sports, comebacks are often greeted with both cynicism and skepticism. Is it a money grab? An attempt to cling onto yesterday’s glory? Passion for the game is treated as a cliché and an afterthought.
Finnish center Riikka Välilä’s story is none of these.
After ten years away, she made the unusual decision to return to hockey in 2013. Even more unusually, she not only succeeded, she thrived. At 44 years old she’s still a potent scorer who sees time on both the power play and the penalty kill, all while averaging 1.31 points per game in club play this season.
The Ice Garden spoke with Välilä at Stora Mossen in Stockholm before her SDHL team HV71’s game against Djurgården on March 3.
What did it mean to you to win bronze 20 years after getting your first one in the first women’s hockey tournament?
Yeah, it meant a lot for sure. I think it meant even more, if we think [about] the background, that we didn’t succeed in Sochi, and it was a big disappointment. These four years we have been preparing, really really thinking that we want to get the medal in PyeongChang. When we played well, and we could take the medals, and it was great.
I saw the ONE MORE YEAR signs all over the place. Do you think you’ll go another year?
I have to think [about it] after this season. The  Worlds are in Finland, so I would like to play once more in Finland, in the World Championships. Finland [has] had the Worlds three times and I have only been there once.
And what year was that?
1992, so it’s been many years! So...but, I really have to feel that both in my body and mind that I can do it, and I want to improve myself still, and I, I have to get that feeling. I don’t want to play, like, just to play... for fun, for sure, but not like, something like beer league. I’m not that kind of person.
What is your fitness routine like to stay in such amazing shape?
I think it’s like, eat, sleep, train. It’s quite simple, and it’s easy for me to keep on those routines and take care of myself. And then I think the mindset I have...I’m not satisfied. I want to improve myself, and it’s really fun to feel it. Even though I’m 44, that I can still be better and better.
Do you see yourself as a mentor for these younger players, both with HV71 and with Team Finland?
Yeah, kind of, but I’m not not taking any role, like specific like that, that I have to be some kind of mom or mentor for them. They are really, really good girls. But, if they are asking something, or if I can show them, like, my experience and as a role model, then I do it gladly, but I don’t think that I have to do something differently. I can be like I am, and if they can catch something from my good stuff, then I’m only glad.
Just lead by example.
What went into your decision to retire the first time?
I was 29 years old, and I had been only studying and playing, so I was thinking, now I have to start to live like a normal person, like normal people do. [laughs] Start to work, and if I want to have a family, it was time to do it. It was quite a natural decision.
Now do your kids play hockey, any of them?
I can be like I am, and if they can catch something from my good stuff, then I’m only glad.
That’s fun. Now, what went into your decision to return to the ice?
I was a team manager [in the] Finnish national team, so I was so close to the team and I felt the spirit. It was fun to work as a team leader, but it’s not so fun as it is as a player.
Just watching it and seeing it, getting that drive back.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I started to think that maybe it’s...I don’t know, I didn’t know if it’s possible for me to be in that good shape and start to play again, but then everything just started to go on [the] right direction.
How did Team Finland prepare for the Olympics, and how was it different than what you’ve experienced in the past?
If I think [of] those times before, it was similar. It’s always the, the Olympic season, it’s more. More training camps and tournaments we are having, but then...maybe this time we had the same coach all those four years, and he had [a] very clear mind, what he wanted to improve as individuals and as a team. We really worked towards those things he wanted us to do, so everybody as individuals has their own goals, if it’s strength or speed or if it’s like technical things or whatever. And then, as a team, so. He is a demanding coach, but we bought his ideas.
He’s an interesting guy.
Yeah, yeah, for sure!
One of the similarities in every player I’ve talked to, they all mention that he’s intense, but at the same time he’s very direct and that’s been really appreciated because then you know what’s expected of you.
Yeah! This season he has been working as only a coach, he has had more time and he has been spending it with those phone calls and direct communication with the players.
HV71 continue their quarterfinal series against Djurgården on March 17 in Stockholm.