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9 to 7, Finland to Minnesota: Nelli Laitinen speaks on changes in hockey career

Originally from a small town outside of Helsinki, Finland, Laitinen came to Minnesota with hopes of playing hockey at an elite level.
A freshman this year, Leitinen has scored 13 points for the Gophers so far this season. Photo Courtesy of University Athletics.

“I just followed him to the rink,” Nelli Laitinen said about her older brother, Vili, introducing her to the sport of hockey.

Laitinen was born in the small town of Lohja, Finland. Growing up, she liked to take after her brother; first playing hockey, then taking his number, nine.

The number nine lasted her through the 2022 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championships. When she came to Minnesota, the number was occupied by Taylor Heise. Promptly, Laitinen changed her number to seven, since her brother also used to wear it.

So far in her first year in Minnesota, the blue-liner has 13 points through 21 games this season.

Missing home
However, there was a more severe adjustment in store for Laitinen: her nearly 4,500-mile move to the United States.

Laitinen said the hardest part of the transition was that “family and friends are gonna stay at home, and you are just not able to see them every day.”

However, Laitinen makes a routine of calling her family back in Finland. She followed up: “you can just get used to it.”

She and her roommate, Swede and fellow northern European Josefin Bouveng, often talk about the cultural differences they have experienced in Minnesota. Laitinen said what she misses most from home is the food.

“You are able to find those things that work for you best,” Laitinen said about finding ways around the difficulties in her transition.

Choosing Minnesota
Similar to how she found what worked best for her in the transition, Laitinen had to find a college team that would suit her.

“I was super, super grateful and excited that I have this experience,” Laitinen said about her time so far in Minnesota.

Before she made her decision, Minnesota Duluth and Ohio State had been top contenders for Laitinen.

“Noora Raty — she was a goalie here a couple years ago — recommended this place [Minnesota] to me,” she said.

Raty is a former Gophers goaltender who, like Laitinen, is from Finland.

Gophers helping Gophers is a common theme. Laitinen said everyone on the Gophers’ roster supported her transition to life in Minnesota. However, two players stood out as her closest friends here.

“I would say Grace and Emily Zumwinkle. They helped me a lot,” Laitinen said. “They have been maybe the closest ones that I have had at this time here.”

The differences in culture at universities in the U.S. compared to Finland are vast, Laitinen said.

“One thing that has a huge difference is the sports side,” she said. “There are no universities in Europe where you can do a sport at this high level.”

An impressive resume
Laitinen is accustomed to playing at a high level.

When speaking on her early hockey career, Laitinen said, “I was playing with boys before I changed to girl’s hockey.”

Along with the change to women’s hockey, Laitinen switched to defense after playing as a forward in the 2017-18 season. She has been playing defense ever since.

She said her time playing boys hockey “was huge for me, especially because women’s hockey, girl’s hockey in Finland is not that big [of a] thing.”

Laitinen’s last year in boy’s hockey was also her last with checking.

“It helped me a lot. Like, coming to big games in [the] national team,” she added.

At just 19, Laitinen represented Finland in the 2022 Winter Olympics. She said it is her greatest accomplishment. With Finland, Laitinen captured a bronze medal and scored seven points in seven games.

Before the Olympics, Laitinen also played in the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Finland. The United States triumphed over Finland in the championship game 2-1 in a shootout.

The game ended in controversy. In the sudden death overtime, Finland’s Petra Nieminen scored what was thought to be the golden goal. Unfortunately for Finland, the referees determined a Finnish player interfered with the American goaltender, making the goal invalid.

The United States would go on to win the game in the shootout and receive the gold medal.

Laitinen said she wishes she could “just play that game again.”

Support systems
When dealing with her challenges and disappointments, Laitinen said she relies on others for support.

“I usually like to talk with my mom, that’s how it always has been,” she said.

Laitinen said she also has an abundance of sources of motivation.

“I see that my teammates are doing hard work. It makes me feel like I need to do the same,” Laitinen said. “I want to do the same because it’s a team sport.”

She has been welcomed into team rituals as well like getting Starbucks before games. Initially, Laitinen said she was iffy about joining her teammates for coffee because Finland does not have Starbucks, so she was not accustomed to the coffee.

“Well, they have like, got me into it now. Which is kind of bad.” She said, laughing. “I spend too much money for that, but it’s okay.”

She can make up her spending with the business and marketing degree she is pursuing.

However, that is more of a long-term goal. For now, Laitinen prefers to focus on the more relevant issues, like the playoffs.

“If we want to get on top of the rankings and start the playoffs from a good spot, we just have to be prepared for them – and be ready,” Laitinen said.

Laitinen and Minnesota look to continue their momentum into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, which start Feb. 24.

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