It can be an arduous experience to play a full season of hockey for a team at the bottom of the league standings. It is perhaps even more of a challenge if you are a 17-year-old player on that team and are playing your first season in the top league. Despite any difficulties that she may have encountered, Lukko’s Tuuli Ollikainen navigated her primary season in Finland’s Naisten Liiga quite well.
“The first year was really heavy,” Ollikainen smiled when she told THW, “but at the same time very rewarding.”
Lukko finished very near the bottom of the Naisten Liiga standings. Through the first 18 games marking the initial stage of the season the team went 3-14-1. In the back half of the season, they would improve by going 5-6-1, but would ultimately have to compete in the relegation round in order to avoid demotion to Mestis – the league level just below the Naisten Liiga.
No matter any struggle faced, Ollikainen learned a great deal in her first season and is excited for the future – both for Lukko and for herself. She spoke with THW in an exclusive one-on-one interview to discuss this past 2018-19 campaign and where she envisions her progression to go from here.
Receiving Guidance From Veteran Players
The 5-foot-6, 140-pound forward played in all 30 regular season games for Lukko. During that time, Ollikainen compiled four goals and eight assists for 12 total points. That placed her seventh in scoring among all Lukko players, with her eight helpers tying her for fourth most assists on the team too.
Playing the three seasons prior in the lower Finnish women’s leagues, Ollikainen enjoyed the adjustment that came from playing at the top level in 2018-19.
“I enjoyed playing more physically and playing faster,” she shared. “Every time you have to challenge yourself (out on the ice).”
Born Nov. 30, 2001, Ollikainen will not even turn 18 years old until the 2019-20 season is already underway. As one of the younger players for Lukko, part of her enjoyable adjustment to Liiga’s level of play was that she had a supporting cast of veteran players to help guide her along.
In particular, center Maija Koski (26 years old) and goaltender Johanna Niemi (32) gave Ollikainen and all of Lukko’s younger players some added positive attention for their first seasons.
“Maija and Johanna took me (under their wings) and took good care of me,” Ollikainen explained. “They encouraged me every day.”
A Hard Worker at the Core
Lukko believed in Ollikainen enough that they inserted her into four of their six relegation-round games. By happenstance, the club went 4-2 in the qualification matchups to stave off relegation. Ollikainen and the entire team found themselves playing in front of a goaltender who ultimately rose to the occasion. That certainly helped matters too.
Despite having a rather poor 4.70 goals-against average and a .866 save percentage during the regular season, 18-year-old netminder Katriina Saarenmaa played all six qualification games. She was superb in net, and blossomed her numbers to a 1.90 GAA and a .921 SV% at the end of the six games.
While Ollikainen went pointless throughout the qualification games, she played in both Lukko’s 3-1 victory over KJT Haukat on Feb. 23, 2019 and their relegation-avoiding 3-2 victory over HIFK on Mar. 10. Pulling out the victories was indeed hard work, but not something Ollikainen shied away from.
“I am hard working when it comes to my training,” she said. “And I always try to give everything in both the game and in training.”
Looking Forward to Season Two
As are all Naisten Liiga players presumably, Ollikainen is already looking forward to the 2019-20 season getting underway. The Autumn rinks are calling, and cannot seem to come soon enough. While she is very content to be where she is now in her hockey career – keep in mind that Ollikainen is only 17 – she would welcome other opportunities to learn the game elsewhere and to become more worldly.
“I want to develop better every year,” Ollikainen said firmly, “and if possible, I would like to play sometimes even abroad.”
Numerous NCAA schools may indeed take a keen interest in adding Ollikainen to their roster for her to play collegiately. North America’s NWHL saw its first Finnish player join the league during the 2018-19 season when goaltender and Olympian Meeri Räisänen suited up for the Connecticut Whale. There are also a number of other wonderful opportunities in other European leagues like Sweden’s SDHL and Russia’s ЖХЛ that could be suitable for Ollikainen as well.
Whether or not foreign playing possibilities take shape, Lukko is very much enthused to have Ollikainen as a member of their squad. The feeling is indeed mutual from her perspective as well, and she feels very comfortable with her teammates.
“I’ve been a whole year with the team,” Ollikainen said “and we have made a lot of progress. That makes it easier to start a new season,” she added with a smile.
Keep your eyes peeled for this Finn in 2019-20 to see just how much her game has grown.