Saara Lahti's passion is ringette, and to say she is driven is an understatement.
In August, the defenceman helped Finland to a bronze medal in the under-19 world championships, a feat she had no idea would open the door for her to achieve her other passion, to play ringette in Canada.
"I have always wanted to play in Canada," said the 19-year-old, who is from a city in Finland that bears her surname, Lahti. "One time there was a team from Winnipeg playing in a tournament in Finland, so I just went to talk to them. I told them that I really wanted to play in Canada, but I didn't have any contacts. I asked if they could give me any. So that way, I ended up in Winnipeg."
Lahti, who is suiting up this year with the Manitoba Jets of the National Ringette League, eventually contacted Andrea Ferguson, who plays on Winnipeg's other NRL team, the Prairie Fire.
"It was a pretty big question for them (NRL). Would I be qualified or good enough to play here?
"Then I made it into the under-19 world championships for Team Finland in August, so that's why they gave me a chance."
Jets coach Rowena Nash was delighted to accept Lahti. "I was shocked. I got an email from the NRL saying a Finnish player wanted to come here, that it was her dream to come to play in Canada. Well, how could I squash a dream? If she was willing to come we were willing to take her, so into the draft she went, and we were lucky enough to get her."
Lahti says she wanted to learn the Canadian style of play, believing she could only improve. "It is different from Finland, and I think I lack some of the qualities that Canadians have," she said. "The speed of the game is one thing, and to be more like a go-for-it player (aggressive). Finnish players usually are pretty tactical and like to plan a lot, but Canadians just go for it."
Here on a work visa that is good until next September, Lahti says she gets help from Pro Connection Hockey, a skate shop which helps her with some of her equipment and costs.
"Also, my parents in Finland are always there for me if I need them."
She hasn't yet played a game in the NRL, but Nash believes Lahti will have little trouble when they invade British Columbia for four games against Fraser Valley on Oct. 24 and 25.
"She is assertive, aggressive, a go-getter," said the coach. "She is very quick in transition and checking."
She also brings a bonus to the table for the team, said Nash. "She is very quick to offer different strategies for us, so we are going to learn from her as well as she is going to learn from us."
The Jets and Lahti play their first NRL games in Winnipeg on Nov. 1 against the Prairie Fire at River East Arena at 9:30 p.m. They play them again on their home ice, Sam Southern Arena, on Nov. 14, at 8:45 p.m.
In the meantime, Lahti is enjoying Winnipeg. "In some ways it is different from Finland. The biggest difference is the language, because that is what you use every day," she said.
"I am not sure that Canada is that different. They have similarities, but everything feels bigger here. I was pretty surprised how green Winnipeg is. I didn't know about the parks you have here. I like it very much."