From time to time, the CIS is blessed with the presence of international stars in women’s hockey. In 2011, Canadian heroine Hayley Wickenheiser kicked off her CIS career with Calgary, while Russia’s Iya Gavrilova also joined the Dinos three years ago. This season, Venla Hovi joined the University of Manitoba Bisons from Finland.
As she would go on to prove in her debut campaign as a CIS athlete, her arrival was integral to the Bisons’ season. The departure of captain Maggie Litchfield-Medd at the end of last season left a gap in the team’s frontline – a role which Hovi was enthusiastic to fill.
Becoming a Bison
First impressions of the University of Manitoba left Hovi with an eagerness to eventually don the Bisons’ colors.
“I used my Canadian contacts to ask about the program,” said Hovi. “I had a good feeling about the team and school based on my Skype calls with coach Jon Rempel.”
That was all it took for Hovi, who inked a deal with the Bisons in the summer of 2015.
The decision to pursue a degree in extended education was costly for the 28-year old, as the native of Tampere, Finland was a star in the SM-sarja – the top tier of Finnish women’s hockey – before taking the student athlete route in North America.
A product of Finland
Hovi was a dynamic point-producer in Finnish women’s league hockey, amassing 208 points in 205 regular season games. Her post-season totals were just as distinctive, with 34 goals and 26 assists in 66 games.
Her most successful season saw her average over two points per game with 53 points in 26 appearances, and she even made a trip to North America in 2006 to perform for one season with the North Dakota Fighting Sioux of the NCAA.
The playing level in the CIS was a change for the nine-season veteran of the SM-sarja.
“I’d say that CIS hockey is more straightforward than playing in the Finnish league,” said Hovi. “The teams are very even and competitive.”
Playing in the top-tier of Finland had always been an aspiration of Hovi’s. In her hometown of Tampere, the SM-sarja became a stomping ground for the five-foot-seven forward to achieve her hockey goals.
“I’ve always wanted to play hockey at the top level and the Finnish league was a great league to improve and reach my goals,” said Hovi.
Ascending in leadership
With the captaincy vacant in the Bisons’ lineup, there is a real possibility of a promotion in team leadership for Hovi next season. Coming off just one season in the CIS, her experience and leadership already speak volumes for a group of developing players, most of whom are just coming off their second year of eligibility.
It wasn’t long ago that Hovi herself was a developing star in Finland. She was surrounded by veterans who she learned from, despite an enormous age gap.
“I learned so much from playing with older players,” said Hovi. “The age of the players vary from 14 to 40 in most teams.”
Before long, Hovi had developed into a leader herself. By 2012, she had earned the alternate captain’s “A” on her sweater when she laced up for KalPa in Puolio. The next season she was promoted to full-time captain.
The 2010 Olympics saw Team Finland clinch a bronze medal in women’s hockey, where Hovi contributed with two goals in the first two games. Hovi’s second goal ended up as the game-winner in a 2-1 matchup against China.
Finland ranked second in the group and medaled in the top three after their 3-2 overtime win against Sweden. It was the national women’s team’s second bronze medal in four Olympic tournaments.
The festivities hosted in Canada were especially memorable for the members of Finland’s women’s hockey team. For Hovi, the city of Vancouver will forever play an extravagant part in her hockey career.
“I remember the great crowd, my first two Olympic goals and our bronze medal,” said Hovi. “The city itself was a great experience and I remember getting my Olympic tattoo in Vancouver.”
A veteran turned sophomore
Having already experienced one season in the NCAA, Hovi opened her career with the Manitoba Bisons with a rough idea of the style of play in the CIS.
Following a three-game pointless streak to kick off her CIS career, Hovi netted four goals on Oct. 31, 2015 against the Calgary Dinos. The Bisons won the game 5-0.
Despite being in just her second year of North American experience, Hovi displayed a consistent point production for the remainder of the 2015-16 regular season. She finished with seven goals, six assists, and 13 points in 17 games.
The Bisons’ #9 displayed even greater tenacity in the postseason, registering another 13 points. This time, it took her only nine games to do so. In addition to contributing greatly to the Bisons’ near-Cinderella run in the Canada West conference, it was one of her six postseason goals that ranks above and beyond any other she has ever scored to date.
The historic goal
Manitoba were on the road against Saskatchewan in the first round of the Canada West playoffs this season. After dropping the first game in the best-of-three series, the Bisons responded with a 5-1 win in game two. Manitoba then took the Huskies to a decisive game three.
The score was tied 1-1 heading into overtime with goals from Manitoba’s Lauryn Keen and Saskatchewan’s Lauren Zary. Four overtime periods had passed as the Huskies outshot the Bisons 67-41. Game three entered an everlasting fifth overall period – the second longest game in CIS history.
Hovi stepped up and snatched the headlines for the visiting Bisons. From the moment overtime hit, she had the belief she could make herself a hero.
“I kept telling myself that I need one good chance and I can do it,” said Hovi.
Alanna Sharman played provider and Hovi beat Huskies goalie Cassidy Hendricks at 9:02 of the fifth OT, sending Manitoba into the next playoff round and cementing her place in CIS history.
“The goal was a result of a great team effort,” said Hovi. “I saw that everyone was very tired and I was feeling pretty good, and had a good feeling about our line. It was a great pass from Alanna Sharman and I managed to get a good shot.”
There might not be many goals that top that moment for Hovi during the remainder of her CIS career. However, with three years left in her eligibility, there will be plenty of time for herself and the Manitoba Bisons to find out.