When Riikka Välilä hung up her hockey skates following the 2002-03 season, she had more than left her mark on the game.
In an international career that saw her suit up 118 times for Finland, she had recorded 204 points – and only 24 penalty minutes – won four IIHF World Women’s Championship bronze medals and three European women’s titles. When women’s hockey made its Olympic debut in 1998 in Nagano, Välilä led the tournament in scoring (seven goals, five assists) and her country to the bronze medal.
Lingering knee issues aside, by spring 2003, her priorities had shifted.
“I wanted to build a family,” says Välilä. “That’s why (I stepped away).”
Now a mom to Emil, 10, Elis, 8, and Helmi, 5, Välilä spent the next 10 years juggling kids and her career as a physiotherapist, while husband Mika played professional hockey in Europe. Rigorous on-ice workouts gave way to relaxed skates with her kids.
Thoughts of competing continued to linger, though, but a mix of location and life would always chase them away.
“During those 10 years I was away I thought about it sometimes, but I’m living in southern Sweden and the nearest women’s team is 250 kilometers away,” says Välilä. “Then I had my kids. I thought it was too difficult.”
But taking on the role of Finland’s team leader during the 2012-13 season showed her it was possible.
“I was away from home and my job and everything was fine,” she says. “I thought, maybe it would work if I’m practicing and training in Sweden and playing games in Finland.”
In the spring of 2013 she started exercising and practicing like it was 2003. But during those first forays back onto the ice, the familiar felt very unfamiliar.
“I would lie if I said if everything was simple and easy,” she says, smiling. “It wasn’t. I was talking to myself, saying I have to be patient and give myself time.”
Once she felt good and game-ready, Välilä joined her hometown team, JYP Jyväskylä, for the start of the 2013-14 season. She also let those with the Finnish national team know she was interested in coming back, only this time not as its manager.
“I think everyone was excited but also kind of suspicious,” says Välilä, laughing. “Okay, 10 years, you’re 40, this probably won’t work.” She’d play a few games with the team, see how it went and both sides would take it from there.
Where Välilä would eventually go is Sochi and her third Olympic Winter Games (she’d also played in 2002 in Salt Lake City). Her five points in six games tied her for second in team scoring.
Välilä, now 41, is the oldest player competing at the 2014 4 Nations Cup. Numbers would suggest a generation gap – her youngest teammate is 18 – but any initial trepidation about playing alongside girls young enough to be her daughter quickly vanished.
“I really enjoy my time with the young girls and I’m really happy to be able to play with them and talk with them in the locker room,” says Välilä. “I really enjoy the social life with the team.”
Välilä’s first hockey life led her to being the first European woman inducted in to the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 2010. What makes this second act possibly even more rewarding is that this time her kids get to see it.
“They are proud, I think,” says Välilä, even though they miss Mom. “They say, ‘Mommy, it’s really nice to see you play but you are away from home – that’s not so nice,’” she says. “But they really enjoy seeing me on the ice and they know I love the game and they do too.”
All three kids play hockey, with Välilä serving as coach for daughter Helmi’s team. “She’s only five years old, so it’s working,” she says, before laughing, “I don’t think it’s (going to work) when she’s older.”
With two hockey-playing parents and three equally hockey-loving kids, family shinny quickly became a favourite pastime. The only debate has been on how to split into teams.
“I’m trying to tell my daughter that we are a team – girls against boys,” says Välilä. “But she’s not happy with that. She wants the parents against the kids.”
This week Mika will have to hold off the kids himself – “I have his full support,” says Välilä. “He’s a great husband to take care of the kids when I’m away” – as Välilä competes in Kamloops, B.C.
She may be the oldest player on the ice, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still show the young ones how it’s done.