Asked who she’s most looking forward to playing against this season, Venla Hovi rattles off a few names. Marie-Philip Poulin is up there, as are a few of her Les Canadiennes teammates, which is fitting given Hovi and the Calgary Inferno will play the ‘Fabs’ in a back-to-back series this weekend in Montreal. But as the conversation moves on, Hovi pauses for a moment to backtrack and make an addendum to her list: Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays goaltender Noora Raty.
Hovi and Raty will be the only Finnish players in the CWHL this season, and teammates at the past Olympics and friends away from the rink, they’ll skate as opponents six times this season, including a three-game set in China in February. And while that gives Hovi six games to fire pucks on the goaltender she’s normally protecting, six games to try to slip one past her compatriot, Hovi’s more interested in scoring on Raty for what it could mean for the Inferno — a victory — than she is for the bragging rights.
“You know what, you don’t really want to start any kind of argument with Noora,” Hovi laughed. “I might remind her once or twice, but I think that’s going to be it. She’s a great goalie and I’ll really have to have my best shot to score on her. But I’ll definitely mention it if it happens.”
We’d safely put the odds on Hovi getting at least one, though, because while the Finnish winger may be a CWHL rookie, she’s no stranger to the professional ranks and certainly no stranger to stuffing the scoresheet.
During her days in the Finnish League, where she played from the 2008-09 campaign through to the 2013-14 season, Hovi was a top-tier talent, accumulating 142 goals and 280 points in 205 games. At University of Manitoba, where she spent the past three seasons, she scored 21 goals and 49 points in 51 games and another three points in three games in championship competition. And at the Olympic and World Championship level, where Hovi has competed in a combined 10 top tournaments, she’s scored eight goals and 17 points in 54 games, winning two Olympic and three World Championship bronze in the process.
But with her time at University of Manitoba up, Hovi saw an opportunity to take her game to the next stage. So, she declared for the CWHL’s August draft, where she was selected by the Inferno in the sixth round, 32nd overall, by the Infero. There had been interest from the Toronto Furies, as well, but Hovi saw Calgary as the right fit. And despite some overtures from teams in the Swedish League, she decided the best fit for her was to continue in North America.
“I like the speed of the game, and it really suits me better than playing in Europe,” Hovi said. “Being able to play with players from the U.S. and Canadian national teams, and battling against them in practices, it’s only going to do good for me and for my game.”
Hovi’s talking about more than just at the professional level, too. She wants the improvements she makes this season to translate to the international stage. Playing in the CHWL, Hovi said, will allow her to become more acclimated to the North American-style game. Not just the speed, either, but the think-on-your-feet nature of play. The decision making has to happen faster against top Canadian and American players, and instead of having a few games, at best, during international competition to adjust, skating on a weekly basis against Olympic-calibre athletes in the CWHL will minimize the adjustment needed when it comes time for Finland’s next bouts against USA and Canada.
Already, Finland has made great strides in recent years and the country is more talented players than ever before, which Hovi said she can see in the increased confidence her international teammates have when playing against the North American powerhouses. She does, however, think it would be beneficial for more Finnish players to make the same jump overseas.
“I think every player benefits from playing in a different country,” Hovi said. “Even if the game is different, you’re always going to learn something and add it into your toolbox as a player. Every country and every league is different, from that perspective I would say yes. Also, thinking about the international games, I don’t think there’s a better league to play in right now than the CWHL in terms of the level of competition and the speed of the game.”
Until the day comes where there’s an influx of Finnish talent in the CWHL, though, Hovi can help drive her country’s program forward by bringing back what she’s learned and coaching up her teammates. After all, she’ll have a certain behind-the-bench experience after this season. In addition to suiting up with the Inferno, Hovi is assuming an assistant coaching role with the defending U Sports champions, University of Manitoba, with a focus on helping the power play, in particular.
“This is the first year I’ve actually been part of coaching a team,” Hovi said. “Before that it was just skills sessions and small groups, one-on-one sessions with the girls, and I really enjoyed it…Maybe it will be something that I’d like to do, but I don’t know exactly what it would look like yet. Hopefully, I can continue coaching and I can continue to be part of something I love doing.”