Venla Hovi has always been a bit of a trailblazer, never one to simply accept and follow what society might try to dictate is the traditional path to follow.
That became crystal clear at the tender age of two while growing up in Finland. Hovi found a pair of figure skates under the Christmas tree, courtesy of her well-meaning parents, who took her to the local rink to try them out.
Any excitement she felt quickly disappeared as she watched her five-year-old brother darting around the ice on his own set of blades, which looked a lot different than hers.
"Apparently I took them off and threw them and started stating that I wanted the same skates as him," Hovi said Friday at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Fortunately, her parents granted her wish — it was more of a demand, really — and a young hockey star was born.
Now 31, Hovi’s playing days are over, following an illustrious international career which includes two Olympic bronze medals on Team Finland (2010 in Vancouver and 2018 in Pyeongchang), a USports national women’s championship with the University of Manitoba Bisons in 2018 and a 2019 silver medal with Finland at the World Championships.
Despite announcing her retirement earlier this year, Hovi’s not ready to walk away from the sport she loves as she transitions into the next phase of her career in her adopted hometown of Winnipeg.
And the same Hovi who made a bold statement when she chucked her figure skates across the room is now using her voice to make another one.
Hovi has been hired by True North as its first-ever female coach in the Jets Hockey Development program. She’ll work with head on-ice instructor Dave Cameron and a handful of other male leaders in the program, which teaches hundreds of local players of all ages and skill levels 12 months a year.
The NBA and NFL have been the first two major sports leagues to have women employed in coaching positions, albeit still on an extremely limited level. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example, just became the first football team with two women — assistant strength and conditioning coach and assistant defensive line coach — working full time on their staff.
But the NHL, and hockey in general, has been slow to follow. Dawn Braid was hired in 2016 as the Arizona Coyotes full-time skating coach, while former figure skater Barb Underhill has been a skating consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs for several years. But that's about it, at least for now.
"It’s been different but also a really fun change for myself. I don’t think I should be limited to just coaching females." – Venla Hovi
Hovi's hiring represents another small step in the right direction — especially at a time when the women's pro hockey game appears to be at a crossroads following the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League and subsequent boycott of about 200 pro players as they fight for improved pay, insurance and other benefits and lobby for the creation of an economically viable professional league in North America.
"Even for myself now starting here, these past days have been the first I’ve ever coached certain age groups in guys. It’s been different but also a really fun change for myself. I don’t think I should be limited to just coaching females. Same thing, Dave (Cameron) shouldn’t just be coaching guys," said Hovi, who played the 2018-19 season with the Calgary Inferno of the now-defunct CWHL.
While men often coach women’s teams, the reverse is a rarity at any level. Hovi is hoping that changes, and she might just end up playing a part.
"Why not? I can’t see the reason why not if you find a female coach that has the knowledge that maybe a male coach doesn’t have. I don’t think that should play a part, if they’re female or male," she said. "There’s more and more female coaches. I think confidence plays a huge role in that where you believe in yourself and get out there. You can teach the same stuff to them."
"I think as long as the coaches are qualified and can help the players get better, at the end of the day that's what the players want. I don't think the gender of the coach is a big deal." – Dave Cameron, Head on-ice instructor of the Jets Hockey Development program
Cameron — a highly-respected hockey leader who played in the Western Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and with the University of Manitoba Bisons before turning to coaching 14 years ago — believes the proverbial glass ceiling in the sport will one day get smashed.
"I think as long as the coaches are qualified and can help the players get better, at the end of the day that's what the players want. I don't think the gender of the coach is a big deal," he said Friday.
Hovi certainly has a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer, given her on-ice accomplishments, which is why she was brought on board by True North.
"It's a huge addition for us. Just with her background of playing and the skills, her growing up and learning the game in a different environment than the Canadian kids do. Her wealth of experience in international and high-level competition was something that our players, through the Jets Hockey Development Program, can really tap into and learn from," said Cameron.
Hovi will also be an assistant coach this coming season with the Bisons women’s hockey team she once led, and she’s headed back home to Finland next week to lead an U18 girl’s team at a late-July tournament in Sweden.
She has, indeed, been bitten by the coaching bug, and she's embracing the responsibility and challenge it presents.
"Deep down, it’s hard to describe how much I love the game. Playing for so long it became sort of a lifestyle. Just ending my career, it’s hard to just step away from it fully. It’s just a natural transition for myself. Obviously there’s experience there that I think will be valuable for a lot of players," said Hovi.
She hopes to bring some of her best qualities to the players she leads, including stressing the importance of skating, skill-development and carving out a role and playing as a team, which is something Finnish hockey players are renowned for.
"I think Finns are very good at understanding playing for the team and defending. There’s value in every role you have in hockey, not just the goal scorers. That’s part of Finland’s game, that every role is valued and taught," she said.
Sounds like something the Jets themselves could have used last season, as they seemingly stopped playing for each other and came apart at the seams down the stretch.
Speaking of the local NHL club, there’s no question Finland is playing a huge role in the present and future. Patrik Laine (who shares the same hometown of Tampere with Hovi), Kristian Vesalainen, Sami Niku and Joona Luoto will all play in the city this coming season, while prospects Santeri Virtanen, Ville Heinola and Henri Nikkanen are all in the prospect pipeline.
And now Hovi is the latest member of the "Finn-ipeg Jets" organization. Could she eventually work her way up to a role with the big club? Never say never.
"I’m never living too much ahead in my life. I’m more of an in-this-moment person. I’m just looking forward to learning as much as I can from the guys I’m working with. I’m really excited for that. We’ll see where this takes me," she said.
Perhaps, as she begins her new journey, she can be seen as a role model to other female hockey players.
"I hope so. I hope it’s encouraging for girls, not just for the ones playing, but maybe at the end of their career if they’re interested in coaching," she said. "I always love new opportunities. I’m only beginning my (coaching) career. There’s lots of learning to do. It’s going to be a long road."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.