Thursday, 8 November 2018

Finland’s Hovi will always cherish Winnipeg and Bisons

Finland star Venla Hovi will always have a hockey home in Winnipeg.
    Venla Hovi isn’t quite sure why hockey players from Finland and the city of Winnipeg make a great mix, but she appreciates that intangible is there.
    The star left-winger from Finland’s senior national women’s hockey team admitted she was at a point in her life a year after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where she thought her playing days were done. She expected to move on to whatever the next stage of her life would be.
    Hovi talked to a couple of teams and chatted with some different coaches and schools where she wanted to pursue post-secondary studies.
    At that moment, the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team came calling. All of a sudden, Hovi was recharged to be back playing the sport once again.
Venla Hovi starred for three seasons with the Manitoba Bisons.
    “It is such a nice team,” said Hovi, who stands 5-foot-7. “I’ve never honestly played on team like that before, where everybody just gets along so well and supports each other.
    “It was really a blessing for me to experience that too.”
    The 31-year-old is in Saskatoon this week playing with Finland at the 4 Nations Cup women’s hockey tournament currently running at the SaskTel Centre. 
    Finland takes part in Friday’s feature game at 7:30 p.m. against Canada, which will be shown live on TSN. The winner qualifies for Saturday’s gold medal game against the United States. 
    Besides playing for Finland’s senior national women’s team, Hovi is currently an assistant coach with the Bisons and a forward with the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
    When she arrived in the Manitoba capital back in 2015, Hovi said she grew fond of the city quickly.
Venla Hovi helped Finland win two bronze medals at the Winter Olympics.
    “I actually lived in Kitchener (Ontario) when I was 16 for 10 months, so I kind of knew Canada,” said Hovi, who has a goal in two games at the 4 Nations Cup. “I’m an outgoing personality, so it is easy to come here.
    “People are friendly, and it is really not bad. I like different types of people, and it wasn’t that big of a change for me.”
    Little did Hovi know, the first good vibes she felt foreshadowed some special experiences that were to come.
    Hovi starred with the Bisons for three seasons appearing 51 regular season games collecting 21 goals and 29 assists.
    During her rookie season, Hovi had a memorable moment at the ancient Rutherford Rink at the University of Saskatchewan back in February of 2016, when the Bisons faced the host Huskies in a best-of-three first round Canada West playoff series. 
Venla Hovi celebrates a playoff series OT winning goal in 2016.
    In a series deciding Game 3, Hovi scored the winner at the 9:02 mark of a fifth overtime period to deliver the Bisons to a 2-1 victory.
    That contest, which started on Feb. 21, 2016 at 7 p.m. and ended at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 22, 2016, is still the longest game ever played in Canada West women’s hockey lasting 139 minutes and two seconds.
    The Bisons advanced to the Canada West championship series falling to the University of British Columbia 2-1 in series deciding Game 3.
    After posting career highs with 10 goals and 15 assists playing 22 regular season games with the Bisons in 2016-17, Hovi had a campaign that came out of a dream last season.
Venla Hovi focuses for overtime action last season.
    She helped Finland win a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics held last February in PyeongChang, South Korea.
    Following the Winter Olympics, Hovi rejoined the Bisons in time for their playoff run that ended with a U Sports national championship win last March.
    On the way to winning the national crown, Hovi and the Bisons swept the University of Saskatchewan Huskies 2-0 in the best-of-three Canada West championship series.
    In the elite-eight style U Sports national championship tournament held in London, Ont., the Bisons blanked the host University of Western Ontario Mustangs 2-0 in the tournament’s final game.
    “Any kind of thoughts whenever I look back, it was just amazing,” said Hovi. “Especially the last year how I ended it there, it was just a dream come true with the Olympics and the Bisons. I was really happy to experience that.”
    During the playoff run, the Wayne Fleming Arena on the University of Manitoba campus was packed with big crowds. Often, Hovi would take to the ice for a shift, and the crowd would chant her name.
Venla Hovi, right, drives a shot on goal in the Canada West final in March.
    When the Bisons won the national title, they were honoured before a Winnipeg Jets NHL game, visited City Hall and were given Outstanding Achievement Award Medals from the City of Winnipeg and were on the cover of various local publications.
    “It was really fun to see the support,” said Hovi, who helped Finland win bronze at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. “Obviously, hockey is really big there and people are crazy about it.
    “The support for the Jets and the (AHL’s Manitoba) Moose and now they join the women’s team too, so it was obviously fun to have that. Going to the NHL game and getting to be on the ice, just having that recognition was huge for us for sure.”
Venla Hovi (#9) enjoys the spoils of a Canada West title win by the Bisons.
    In the process, Hovi became another hockey player from Finland that became entrenched into the fabric of the community in Winnipeg like Teemu Selanne of the original Jets in the 1990s and Patrik Laine of the current Jets.
    Hovi appreciates the special bond that seems to be created between hockey players from Finland and Winnipeg. She said she still can’t totally put her finger on why that magic is there.
    “I don’t know what it is,” said Hovi. “I feel like there is something Finnish there.
    “People are humble, ready to work hard and it is easy to play there. Everybody loves hockey, so it is kind of like the atmosphere is positive and very supportive. Going there and having that support, it is really easy to get better too.”
Venla Hovi had 50 points in 51 regular season games with the Bisons.
    Following the Bisons playoff run, Hovi was again looking to ride into the sunset as far as her playing career was concerned.
    When the opportunity to play for the Inferno unfolded, Hovi jumped at it.
    Playing in a women’s professional league that is filled with top players from around the world, Hovi has two goals and four assists in her first six games with the Inferno. 
    She has enjoyed the chance to play alongside United States senior national team members in Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy and Alex Rigsby along with Canadian senior national team members in Blayre Turnbull, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston, Katelyn Gosling and Halli Krzyzaniak.
    “I actually think the chance of me not playing might have been even greater than playing,” said Hovi. “I started thinking about it that I’ve never played in a league where you play that hard and play with other U.S. and Team Canada players.
Venla Hovi, left, and Kacey Bellamy are Calgary Inferno teammates.
    “I thought I still have a chance to get better. I feel like that motivated me to still try it out and see how I was going to do there and maybe get a little bit better and help this team out when we play at the worlds in Finland.
    “It is exactly the type of hockey that I love playing. It is very similar to here, where the pace is fast and just going forth and back 100 miles an hour.”
    The next women’s world hockey championship tournament is slated to run April 4 to 14, 2019 in Espoo, Finland. 
    When that event concludes, Hovi isn’t sure what her future will be playing the game at that point.
    She could potentially play for Finland again at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, but she admits she has definitely not looked that far ahead.
    “I’m going day by day,” said Hovi. “This season I basically just thought about enjoying every single day and not worrying about what is going to happen.
Venla Hovi plans on enjoying everything about her current hockey season.
    “I’m definitely at the end of my career, which everybody can, you know, tell. All I am going to do is just enjoy and have fun playing and challenge myself.”

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