Sallinen’s storied Olympic career led to the Hockey Hall of Fame
Riikka Sallinen was the team manager of the Finnish women’s national team in 2013, when the players started joking with her about the comeback.
Sallinen had retired from playing for 10 years, during which time she had three children.
“I took that joke a little too seriously,” Sallinen said with a laugh during an interview last month. “To be honest, I wasn’t really sure if I could do it or not. But I was going to try and my body responded in a really good way.”
In fact, Sallinen was still a strong and reliable forward during her second run in international competition in 2013-19. Now, Sallinen will become the first European player to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame when she is inducted in Toronto on Monday.
“It’s just the legendary career he’s had, how long he played and the level he played for that long. [that] it makes her a Hall of Famer,” U.S. forward Kendall Coyne Schofield said, “and also a good person, a good competitor, a respected competitor. The way he played the game, he played it the right way. When you think of Team Finland, there are a few that immediately come to mind, and she is one of them. So it’s great to see her go into the Hall of Fame.”
Sallinen was elected to the Chamber on the first ballot.
“I played for a long time and I felt like I had good longevity, but to see what he did, to step away, have a few kids and come back, that’s an even harder road to do,” said the former Canada forward Jayna Hefford. who played internationally between 1997 and 2014 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018. “To come back so much later and still be at this level is pretty impressive.”
Sallinen helped Finland win a bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first to feature women’s hockey. When Finland won bronze again at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the then 44-year-old became the oldest player to win an Olympic medal in ice hockey; his compatriot, Teemu Selanne, won bronze at the 2014 Sochi Olympics at the age of 43. He scored 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 23 games in four Olympics.
Sallinen also played in eight IIHF Women’s World Championships, winning seven medals — six bronze (1990, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2015 and 2017) and one silver (2019) — and scoring 60 points (25 goals, 35 assists). 45 games
He also had a long professional career, playing 11 seasons in Naisten SM-sarja, Finland’s elite league, where he had 395 points (201 goals, 194 points) in 135 regular season games, 86 points (36 goals, 50 assists) in 41 playoff games, and was a five-time champion: with Etela-Vantaan Urheilijat in 1989, with Keravan in 1994 and with JYP Jyvaskyla Naiset in 1997, ’98 and 2016.
He also played three seasons from 1989-95 in the second-tier league in Finland, one season (1992-93) in Switzerland and three seasons (2016-19) in Sweden.
Former U.S. forward AJ Mleczko said Sallinen exuded happiness and positivity whenever Mleczko spoke to her, at least away from the court. On the ice, it was a different story.
“She’s a fierce competitor,” Mleczko said. “I played two Olympics against her. Obviously we had a great rivalry with Canada, but Finland was always on our heels, pushing. Riikka, she was fast, she was a fighter. I played forward in Nagano and then I played defense in Salt Lake [City] (for the 2002 Olympics), so I matched up a bit more against her in Salt Lake. He was a person you always had to watch out for. He always showed up in places I didn’t want him to be, so he kept us on our toes.”
Sallinen returned to the game a few times. As a child, she played hockey with the boys, but after becoming frustrated that there were no girls’ teams, she stopped playing at age 12. It resumed a few years later after the creation of a girls’ team.
After leading all female players at the Nagano Olympics with 12 points (seven goals, five assists), the 25-year-old underwent her third and final knee surgery, which involved a cartilage transplant. Doctors told him he would have a good knee for walking, but not hockey.
“My knee was so bad that I was actually quite satisfied if I could have a knee to live a normal active life,” Sallinen said. “Then after a year [of] rehab, it was so good that the doctor said, “Okay, you can try ice hockey, strength training, conditioning on the ice.” Everything went surprisingly well.”
After taking a season off, he returned to play four more seasons, including five games at the 2002 Olympics and 16 more games at international level. He retired, or so he thought, to raise a family.
Ten years later, at the age of 40, he returned.
Former Finland goalkeeper Tuula Puputti said she never doubted Sallinen could adjust after her break.
“The first part of his career, he was always an offensive threat,” said Puputti, now the national team’s general manager. “In the second half of his career, the role changed a little bit, but it always helps when you have someone on your team who can put the puck up. In general, as hard as he worked both ways on the ice, he also be something. He was ahead of his time playing.”
Still, Sallinen wasn’t happy with the Sochi Olympics, her first since coming out of retirement. He had five points (one goal, four assists) in four games, but Finland lost to Sweden 4-2 in the quarterfinals.
“The Sochi Olympics came a little too quickly for me. I wasn’t that good there,” he said. “But it was pretty easy to make the decision to continue because it felt so good. Even though I was 40, I felt like I can do better, I can be better, I can improve.”
He did, and at the 2018 Olympics he had five points (four goals, one assist) in six games to help Finland win bronze.
“She was always very difficult to play against, a 200-foot player, very good in the faceoff circle, also good in puck battles and someone who played a lot of key minutes for them for a long time,” said the Canadian forward. Brianne Jenner said. “If you can play for that long at such a high level, you’re doing something right. Congratulations to her. She probably inspired a whole generation of Finnish players.”
Sallinen accomplished a lot with his two-part career. He’s seen the women’s game evolve, he’s seen it grow and he’s played a big part in it all.
“I have watched women’s hockey since the beginning of international competitions [in 1990], international games,” she said. “I’ve been privileged to be on that path, to see the improvement and what’s happened with women’s hockey. These last six years, when I played, it was great to see because these 10 years that I was away from hockey, so many great things happened.
“It’s definitely on the way up. Everyone in women’s hockey wants things to get better, but so many great things have happened, and it’s the players who have the biggest impact on that. Too often it’s the men who have the power in the ‘ice hockey. We need help from them, and I’m so thankful that we have these types of guys who also want to make women’s hockey better. It’s been great to be a part of this journey with women’s hockey and all the people that I’ve met, all the friends I’ve made around the world. It makes life worth living.”
NHL.com freelance correspondent Sean Farrell contributed to this report
Photo credit: Jiri Halttunen
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