SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - A Hall of Famer, an all-world netminder and Sebastian Vettel’s trainer have the Finnish women’s ice hockey team believing anything is possible at the Sochi Olympics.
While it would take an upset of David and Goliath proportions for any team other than the Canada and the United States to skate away with gold on February 20, the Finns have arrived in Sochi targeting a medal and have not ruled out their own Miracle on Ice.
“It (gold) is possible yes,” Finland coach Mika Pieniniemi told reporters on Wednesday.
“But we have to take this tournament game-by-game, not eat the whole cake in one time, just pieces. Play good, concentrate good and anything is possible.”
If they are to win any medal, the Finns will lean heavily on Noora Raty, their world championship most valuable player netminder and the experience of 40-year-old Riikka Valila, one of a handful of women enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, who returned to the ice this season after a decade away from the game to raise a family.
The leading scorer at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where Finland won bronze, Valila showed time has done little to dull her touch around the net, scoring the winning goal against Sweden on her return to international competition last year.
“There is always a chance, it’s not big, we know the realities, Canada and the USA are strong but you always have a chance that is why we are playing,” Valila said.
“I think we are playing really well this season. We have Noora the world’s best goalie, we can trust in her otherwise we are a strong team with three lines capable of scoring goals.”
A hot netminder can carry a team all the way to the top of podium in a compacted Olympic tournament and Raty is comfortable taking on that type of burden.
She was MVP at the 2008 world championship and best goaltender in 2011 and 2013. Raty also led the Minnesota Gophers to NCAA titles in 2012 and 2013 and closed out her college career with an NCAA record 43 shutouts.
Unable to find a women’s hockey team to match her level, the 24-year-old netminder prepared for her third Olympics training and playing with men’s teams in Finland and Russia.
The U.S., who open the Olympic tournament on February 8 against the Finns, will certainly be aware of Raty.
Despite outshooting Finland 59-16 in an Olympic tune-up event in November on home ice in Lake Placid, the Americans could put just one puck past Raty, losing 3-1.
“She’s a great goaltender, she definitely competes hard,” said U.S. netminder Jesse Vetter.
“I think she does a great job of keeping them in the game and we’ll have work hard, move the puck around and create distractions but she does a really good job.”
The biggest improvement the Finns have made since their bronze medal in Vancouver has been in their fitness.
Part of that credit goes to strength trainer and fitness guru Tommi Parmakoski, who counts German Formula One champion Vettel among his clients.
“Our team is way better, we are more physically fit, that was one of our problem four years ago, we weren’t physically fit to play 60 minutes against the U.S. or Canada but now we can skate with them the whole game,” said Raty.
“Tommi is an awesome guy and the reason we are in such good shape now. We’ve made some strides.”
Editing by Ed Osmond