International Ice Hockey Federation

Nieminen’s quiet rise

Nieminen’s quiet rise

Teen poised to become next Finnish sniper

Published 17.02.2018 17:47 GMT+10 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Nieminen’s quiet rise
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 15: Finland's Petra Nieminen #19 celebrates after scoring a third period goal on Team Olympic Athletes from Russia during preliminary round action at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
It’s funny how much difference one letter can make. For instance, the Finnish word for “baby” is “vauva,” and the word for “strong” is “vahva.”

Right now, Petra Nieminen embodies both words. Every day, the 18-year-old forward is growing closer to being a consistent difference-maker for her national team.

“I think she’s our next star, Nieminen,” said captain Jenni Hiirikoski. “Riikka Valila was the first one. Now it’s a new generation coming.”

The Lionesses’ youngest player set up Finland’s first goal of these PyeongChang Olympics with a sweet feed to linemate Venla Hovi in the 3-1 opening loss to the United States. She added a nifty unassisted goal and a helper when they beat the Olympic Athletes from Russia 5-1. Heating up right before the playoffs is always welcome.

It’s not hard to see why Nieminen cites 2016 Art Ross Trophy winner Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and talented fellow Finn Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers as her favorite NHL players.

Pasi Mustonen favors the most aggressive approach of any Finnish women’s national team coach in recent memory. However, the 57-year-old, now in his fourth season with the team, doesn’t want to rush this 169-cm, 64-kg prodigy.

“We’re talking about a very young player,” said Mustonen. “She needs about four or five years of tough physical training. She’s been practicing hard some years, but definitely with her talent, provided that she really works hard, she could be one of the best players in the world in five years.”

The soft-spoken Nieminen prefers to do her talking on the ice, and her rise has been rapid. The 2016 winner of the Noora Raty Award (yes, the same Noora Raty!) as the Finnish SM-sarja’s rookie of the year scored three goals en route to bronze last year at her second Women’s Worlds. In her third season with Team Kuortane, she’s racked up 12 goals and 15 assists in 19 games.

The high school student, who originally came out of the Tappara system, enjoys playing with Team Kuortane. It’s a youth development team set up in 2010 by the Finnish federation at the lakeside Kuortane Sport Resort, a two-hour drive north of Nieminen’s native Tampere.

“It’s a very good place for me to be,” said Nieminen, who is eyeing U.S. college hockey. “I can study and play at the same time.”

She has a great role model on the Olympic team. Asked to name her favorite female player, Nieminen said: “Riikka Valila.”

Valila, a trained physiotherapist, is renowned for her conditioning. The 1998 Olympic points leader has two goals and an assist here in Korea, which makes her the oldest woman ever – at age 44 – to score at the Winter Games.

Of Nieminen, Valila said: “She’s a very talented player, the most talented young player we have in Finland. This is her third season and she is really improving all the time. As an older player, I try to help her. She’s a good player, but if I can, I really try to help her to improve even more. She’s got the mindset. She wants to be better.”

The consistent go-to scorers on this national team – Valila, Hiirikoski, and 2014 Olympic points co-leader Michelle Karvinen – wear letters on their jerseys. They’re not necessarily big talkers in the dressing room. But if Nieminen applies herself the way they do, someday she may get a letter too. That's the difference between "vauva" and "vahva."

Valila doesn’t mince words when discussing how crucial it is for Nieminen to develop into the next Finnish sniper.

“It is very important,” said Valila. “We have had some problems this season with scoring. We have had lots of chances but we haven’t been scoring that many goals. We have been talking about it a lot. I think we are going in a good way. It’s not that easy against USA and Canada when you don’t have that many chances.”

So Finland’s five-goal outburst versus the OAR team is at least a positive sign for Saturday’s do-or-die quarter-final with Sweden. And if Nieminen, the baby of the team, can go out there and have a strong game, it gives the Finnish women a much better shot at their third Olympic medal after winning bronze in 1998 and 2010.

 

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