International Ice Hockey Federation

Valila as old as the Worlds

Valila as old as the Worlds

43-year-old just can’t retire

Published 25.10.2017 01:02 GMT+11 | Author Andrew Podnieks
Valila as old as the Worlds
PLYMOUTH, MICHIGAN - MARCH 31: Finland’s Riikka Valila #13 chips the puck up the ice while Russia’s Iya Gavrilova #8 looks on during preliminary round action at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Every time she steps on the ice to play a World Women’s Championship game Riikka Valila betters her own record for oldest participant in the event.

Now 43, she played in her first event in Ottawa in 1990, the first time the IIHF brought the tournament into its program. 

In other words, Valila has been playing as long as the tournament has been in existence!

And back in 1990, there was no way the 16-year-old could have envisioned the day she would be in the lineup when Suomi beat Canada.

“It’s a long history,” she recounted. “We’ve had good coaches, but now we have Pasi [Mustonen], and he’s special. He’s demanding. He tells us we have to be physically stronger and in better condition. Then we can play how we need to play to win because we’re more athletic. We can play with better tactics and play stronger on defence. And now we have four lines that can play. Before we had only one or two lines, and those players got tired quickly.”

Valila played at the first four Women’s Worlds—in 1990, 1992, 1994, and 1997—helping Finland win bronze each time. She also played at the 1998 Olympics, leading all players in scoring and helping Finland win bronze again. She didn’t play again until 2002. In those days she was known as Riikka Nieminen, but after marrying she became Valila. 

After the Salt Lake Olympics, Valila settled down. She had three children, started working as a physiotherapist, and her career seemed over. As if to put an exclamation mark on her retirement, she was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2010. Great career. Thank you very much.

Not so fast!

Three years later, things changed. “I was a team manager for a year,” Valila explained, “so I was with the team every day and was so close to the players. I saw all the little things every day that I missed. I started to think maybe I could come back, but I think I was the only one who believed I could do it!”

The more she thought about it, however, the more she believed in herself. “I started to practise, and I felt good,” she continued. “But I still feel today that I can be better, so I’m always motivated to keep practising. I enjoy it now. I’m glad I’m still able to play.”

And so it was that Valila practised with the team, then played some exhibition games, then made the team for the 2014 Olympics, some 12 years after her last event! She has been back with the team ever since, including the 2015 and 2016 Worlds, as well as this year, of course.

For Valila, it’s as if her age is an advantage, not a disadvantage. “I’m 43 years old now, and I’m playing with and against players 20 years younger, so I have to be 100 per cent focused on diet and training and daily life, eating, sleeping, everything.”

Most important, of course, Valila continues to contribute. “I still feel I have my place with the team,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t like to be here otherwise.”

Finland has played Canada 20 times at the Women’s Worlds since 1990, losing every one of those games. But last night, things changed. They believed in themselves. They thought they could win, and they played an aggressive style with that in mind. It worked. The 4-3 victory was historic.

“We played a tight game with Canada last year,” Valila explained, “so we remember those good games and have more confidence now. And for sure we have the world’s best goalie, so we know we can always trust her. We know if she plays her best, we can score on the power play and we have a chance.”

The Finns always believed they had a better chance to beat Canada than the United States in a big game. Goalie Noora Raty rationalized it this way: “The U.S. has more individual skill, I think, whereas Canada is more system-oriented. It fits our style better. They skate and skate, but it's straightforward. It's a better match for us.”

“The U.S. plays faster,” Valila added. “They skate and pass the puck at top speed, which makes it difficult to defend. But we’ve had close games with them as well.”

With the PyeongChang Olympics around the corner, Valila has a clear goal in mind, but as she jokes, there is always such a goal, which is why she just can’t let go. 

“It’s not so easy to quit,” she laughs, “because there’s always a reason to play. After Sochi, the Worlds were in Sweden, which is where I live. Then, it was Worlds in Canada, which is the best place to play hockey, then Worlds in the U.S., the second-best place, then the Olympics, which you can’t miss, then the Worlds will be back in Finland in 2018! It’s not easy to quit, but I’m 43, so I have to go one year at a time.”

At this rate, we’ll be calling her Mrs. Jagr, and we’ll be watching her play in Beijing in 2022!

 

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