Stellar goaltending: Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa

Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa backstopped Team Finland to three bronze medals at the IIHF Women’s World Championships throughout her career.

The first time that I ever saw Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa tending goal was during the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics… and she was simply superb! At just 22-years of age at the time, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and then 16-year old Noora Räty were Team Finland’s exciting young tandem in the nets who backstopped the Finns to a solid fourth-place finish at the Torino Games. I marveled at how well Hassinen-Sullanmaa defended Finland’s net at such a young age, and how she fearlessly faced, even at times stonewalled, powerhouse hockey clubs like Team Canada and Team USA. Facing hall of fame caliber shooters in the likes of Danielle Goyette, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Angela Ruggiero, Hassinen-Sullanmaa held her own in a seemingly insurmountable situation for the Finns. Former US Olympic gold and silver medalist, AJ Mleczko, stated at the time, “Maija Hassinen is a fantastic goalie. She’s young. She’s got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of youth”. It was that youthful enthusiasm imbued by Maija that caused me to immediately recognize that she was a stellar goaltender.

I first got in contact with Maija in 2008, and have remained in touch with her since that time. Knowing that she recently retired from active play over the summer 2015, I wanted to chat with Maija a bit and reflect upon her remarkable career, both internationally and in her native Finland, and to find out what she is doing these days.

As is the case with most top level hockey players, Hassinen-Sullanmaa began playing organized hockey at a very young age. “I was 6 or 7 when I started playing on a team”, Maija recalls. “I played first with boys as a defender, and after only a few years I started playing as a goalie on a girls team. But always when we were playing just for fun with my friends, I was the goalie. And that’s really where it all started”. To be precise, “where it started” was Maija’s hometown of Hämeenlinna, Finland, which is located in the southern part of her homeland; a town of about 68,000 inhabitants. “Hockey has always been a part of my life”, Maija said.  “I used to go watch the local men’s team play in the Finnish national league since I was a little kid. There were quite a lot of opportunities to play on teams always, and we played a lot outside with friends as well”.

I enjoy hearing Maija recall her memories of playing hockey outside as a kid. For isn’t that where hockey always seems to be rooted? No matter if I am considering my own childhood playing on the streets of Buffalo, New York USA, or talking to a Québecois winger hailing from Montreal, or an Ontario-born netminder out of the suburbs of Toronto, or even a stalwart defender from the heart of Russia, or a Finnish born goalie like Hassinen-Sullanmaa, that is the one common thread – hockey as a kid outdoors is magical. And growing up in Finland for Maija it was no different. I like knowing that this common ground exists among those who love the game of hockey, regardless of the countries we are born in.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would find it a great honor to represent her country at both the Olympics and the World Championships.

Maija had her heroes as well. As a young female goalie who was born in the 1980s, it is likely no surprise that one of those heroes was the first woman to play in the NHL (albeit a preseason game), Canadian goaltender Manon Rhéaume, who also represented her country on the international stage, and had a taste of the NHL with preseason appearances in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Rheaume won gold medals for the IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1992 and 1994, as well as an Olympic silver medal in 1998 at the Nagano Games. Maija also idolized another former Canadian goaltender, Andrew Verner, who backstopped her hometown Hämeenlinna HPK in the mid-1990s. Verner being a former draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, and a standout in the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes. Like Verner, Maija would also end up playing for the Hämeenlinna HPK women’s team as she grew up and progressed as a goaltender.

Recalling her stellar performance at the 2006 Torino Olympics, I came to ask Maija how the opportunity to play for the Finnish national team came about. “During the 2004-05 season (at the time she was playing for Finnish team Ilves Tampere), I was called for the first time to attend the camp for national team. And then the next season I was included on the team for the first time in Torino”. But while my recollections of Hassinen-Sullanmaa from the Torino Games are certainly memorable for me, they completely pale in comparison to what it would mean for her to play for her country, and especially what it would mean for her future in her personal life. “Well, it was amazing of course. It’s such an honor to play in the Olympics and represent your country. It was great to be able to play a lot, but a big disappointment to finish fourth. But a big thing for me from the Torino Olympics is that I met my husband there at the games”.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 7-years for her hometown hockey club, Hämeenlinna HPK.

Despite facing powerhouse shooters from both Canada and the United States at Torino, Hassinen-Sullanmaa still put together very respectable numbers for the tournament. In four games, Maija would put up a .875 save-percentage to go along with a 3.38 goals against average and a total of 77-saves at Torino. When looking at these numbers, one needs to consider the attacking strength of both USA and Canada, and the disparity in scoring for teams like Finland when compared to either of those two dominant teams. The fact that Maija’s numbers were as sound as they were after having faced both of those teams is very remarkable. But though her individual performance was very solid, Hassinen-Sullanmaa and Team Finland would fall to the United States 4-0 in the bronze medal game of the tournament, and settle for the fourth place finish.

Though Torino would not turn out as she would have hoped, Maija would eventually find success in playing for her country, including a bronze medal she attained in front of her own hometown. For the games of the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships, Maija would backstop Finland to bronze medal victories in 2008 in China, 2009 in Finland and 2011 in Switzerland. “It’s been great to be a part of Team Finland for any event, and of course, especially for the ones where we won a bronze medal. The 2009 championships were a special occasion for me as they were held in Hämeenlinna, my hometown”.

Between the Torino Olympics and four World Championship tournaments, Maija would appear in 9-games for her country, compiling a 0.828 save-percentage within those four tournaments, as well as a 3.12 goals-against average. “I am proud of every time that I’ve had the chance to represent Finland, especially in the Olympics”.

Separate from the international stage, Hassinen-Sullanmaa would play 12-years in the top women’s hockey league in Finland, SM-sarja, of which the final 7-years saw her playing for her hometown club, Hämeenlinna HPK. Perhaps her most memorable season would come during 2010-2011 when Maija backstopped HPK to the national title. Maija was absolutely phenomenal that season, appearing in 15-regular season games and putting up astounding numbers with her 1.44 goals against average and .948 save-percentage that season. Maija’s incredible play continued through the playoffs on HPK‘s championship run, as she would appear in 6 more games with a slightly better 1.42 goals against and a .929 save-percentage.

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Hassinen-Sullanmaa celebrating a Hämeenlinna HPK victory.

For those 12-years that she competed in the Finnish national league, Hassinen-Sullanmaa’s career numbers will make you do a double-take. Only once during her career did she put up a regular season save-percentage below a .915-percent, and that came during her very first season. On four different occasions her season ending tallies for save-percentage were above .940. Likewise, in the playoffs only twice did she ever fall below a .900 save-percentage for a season, and again, one of those was during her very first national league season. Those numbers speak volumes as to Maija’s success and longevity playing a high level of hockey for over a decade.

During the summer of 2015, Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa would officially retire from playing hockey and move into coaching with Hämeenlinna HPK. When I ask her why she opted to retire when she is still relatively young and was still putting up great numbers, Maija tells me that “I felt that it was time for me to stop and let the younger players have a shot… I’ve been working as an assistant coach for the HPK women’s team, and I am mainly responsible for physical training for the players and helping goalies”. It is nice to see how Maija has moved into a different role where she is still very much involved in the game, and able to impart knowledge and experience into a younger generation of players. “For the younger players, I try to tell them that you’ll have to work hard, but to keep enjoying the game and keep playing”.

Lastly, I ask Maija to tell me how she thinks her teammates from throughout her lengthy career would recall her as a player and as a teammate.”I think they remember me as someone who was really focused, hard-working and competitive”. I would have to agree with Maija’s assessment completely, for I see those same qualities when I look at her playing career as well. And while I know that there is always a time to move on and say goodbye, it makes you a little melancholy in knowing that you will not see a player you admired grace the ice with her presence forever. And as the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championships get ready to get underway in Kamloops in only a few days, it makes me nostalgic. Team Finland will be playing among the top four teams that comprise Group-A; Canada, the United States and Russia. I pause and wonder how Finland would fare, and how would Hassinen-Sullanmaa fare, if she were to suit up for one more championship tournament with the best women in hockey today.

Maija Hassinen-Sullanmaa, now an assistant coach with Hämeenlinna HPK.

But alas, it is not meant to be and she has moved onto other things. I am glad that Maija found great success in hockey, as well as having found her husband. I am glad that she helps train and sculpt young female players today, and I am glad that she is doing so in her hometown where she played for so many years. It is nice knowing that even though she no longer dons the pads, a catching glove, a blocker and a mask, she is still donning a sense of “focus”, “hard-work”, and “competitive” nature. Great job, Maija! And thank you for the all that you have done for the game and for your country.



NWHL, 6’4″ Brianna Williams is on her way!

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Brianna Williams, a 6-foot 4-inch 16-year old goalie from Fenton, Missouri dreams of playing in the National Women’s Hockey League someday soon.


NWHL, I would ask that you remember the name Brianna Williams – just give her a few years, and she is going to be right there with you. While the Buffalo Beauts and the Boston Pride are currently engaged in the inaugural Isobel Cup Finals, of what is the first season in National Women’s Hockey League history, I have the pleasure of chatting with an aspiring 16-year old netminder who has every intent of playing there someday too. It will not surprise me in the least when she makes it happen, either. Did I mention the fact that Brianna is also 6-feet, 4-inches tall?

Brianna Williams is a charming young lady from Fenton, Missouri. She has been playing organized ice hockey for just over 4-years now, since she was 12-years old, and she is already garnering the attention that is oftentimes reserved for the finest of young athletes. Brianna presently tends goal for three different teams, and while this certainly keeps she and her family on their toes, she gets to do something that she truly loves and has become enthralled with. Even as I write this article, Brianna is on her way to practice, while her younger brother Jacob has two games today of his own, and her twin brother Blake, and Jacob, have both been asked to play in a pickup game. So yes, you could say that hockey runs deep in the Williams’ household. “It gets really chaotic”, Brianna says. “I play for three teams, my younger brother plays for two teams, and my twin brother plays on a roller hockey team”. Brianna actually got to play against younger brother Jacob a couple of times, as both their respective teams would play against each other in friendly matches.

Even Brianna’s father, Craig, is a former goalie himself and has helped his daughter each step of the way. “I never had the idea of playing goalie”, Brianna tells me. “But when I tried skating for the first few times, it didn’t go so well. My dad gave me a pair of his old goalie skates to try out, and it went a lot better, so I ended up playing goal. My dad tells me a lot about what he did as a goalie, and things that worked for him. Positioning, covering the puck”. One of the reasons why I can tell Brianna Williams is going to accomplish her goals is because she has this strong, loving support network amongst her family, and that hockey is an integral part of their daily lives.

For this past year, Brianna has showcased her goaltending capabilities with two high school teams and a U-16 all girls hockey team. “My high school is Fox Senior High School but they don’t have a hockey team, so I actually play for another high school, Lutheran South High School”. For Lutheran South, Brianna plays for both their Varsity Team and their Junior Varsity B squad. Brianna is the only girl on both teams, and I ask her if this is tough for her or not. “It doesn’t really matter. I’m just a part of the team, and I get to play goal and show what I can do regardless”.

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Brianna making a save for Lutheran South High School.


The U-16 girls team that Brianna plays for is the St. Louis Lady Cyclones hockey club, and within the past year she has helped backstop them to great success. Just last month (February 2016), Brianna and the Lady Cyclones competed in the Irish South Bend Cup Tournament, which was hosted at none other than the University of Notre Dame. Brianna did her part between the pipes, as St. Louis pitched three consecutive shutouts in the tournament series, and then went on to win the tournament championship by a score of 3-1.

The fact that Brianna is 6-feet 4-inches tall is very unique for a female goaltender, especially one who is so young. In some ways, it almost seems fated for her to be a goaltender and to possess a true passion for the game. Brianna’s build accentuates her skill and control in the crease – it is a perfect recipe for her success, and one feels gladdened to know that she has been blessed with such gifts. “When I go down, I cover the entire crease. I feel that I am pretty strong too. When I first started, I was more of a standup style, but now I am more of a combination of standup and butterfly”. Though I initially liken Brianna’s size, strength and skill in the net to that of current Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender, Robin Lehner, perhaps I am remiss in my comparison, as Brianna’s favorite goaltenders are actually Montreal’s Carey Price and hometown St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliott.

And on second thought, I agree with her – Brianna is a lot more like “Les Habitants’” Price, the 2015 Hart Memorial Trophy Winner as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. It is no coincidence that both Brianna and Price wear the number-31. And like Brianna’s own estimations of herself, Price is widely recognized for covering the bottom of his crease so superbly when he goes into his butterfly. Price’s extremely quick reflexes are cat-like, and considered one of his best attributes. It is no wonder that he is Brianna’s favorite, and it is remarkable to see how she emulates these same qualities.

Brianna’s statistics speak for themselves. Within the past year, she has stopped 422 out of 452-shots for a whopping 93.4 save-percentage. In 25-games played, Brianna has a record of 19-wins and a mere 5-losses to go with 1-tie. Her goals against is also outstanding at a 1.42, which is not surprising when Brianna’s has blanked her opponents as often as she has; 7-shutouts already.

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Brianna tending goal for the St. Louis Lady Cyclones.

Also within this past year, Brianna was able to work one-on-one with former NHL goaltender and St. Louis Blue, Bruce Racine, at his goalie clinic in St. Louis. A star goaltender at Northeastern University in the late-1980s, Bruce Racine tended net for 11-games with the Blues in the mid-1990s, most oftentimes as backup to legendary Hall of Famer, Grant Fuhr. “Bruce Racine really taught me a lot”, says Brianna. “He worked with me on going down in my crease, how to best cover the puck, and how to properly play angles”. Though most would not think of St. Louis as a hockey hotbed, it is great to know that there are opportunities for a young goaltender like Brianna to work so closely with former NHL players. “I’ve also got to meet Cam Janssen and Pat Maroon”, two NHL-level players who were also born and raised in the St. Louis area too.

Brianna Williams has sincere aspirations to play professionally in the NWHL someday. “I think it would be awesome!”. It is exciting to see such a talented young lady with goals like this in mind and working so hard to attain them. But perhaps it is even more exciting to see how much more she is going to accomplish along the way.

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Soft-spoken and courteous, Brianna is a good kid with a very bright future as a goaltender.

When she thinks of “Brianna from a few years ago”, I ask her to tell me what advice she would give to a young girl wanting to play hockey for the first time, especially a goaltender. “Never give up. Keep trying. It does get easier”. This is a good youngster we are talking about here, folks. Brianna is courteous, and she imbues a sense of commitment to her craft that seems to be more of a rarity these days.

So look out Nana Fujimoto! Look out Jenny Scrivens! Look out Brianne McLaughlin! Brianna Williams is only a few years away from making her own NWHL debut, and vying for one of the starting jobs as a professional women’s goaltender. I cannot wait to see what this young lady has in store for hockey fans for the years to come.

If you would like to know more about Brianna Williams, please check out her website at



Disparity in Women’s Hockey

I have long been a fan of women’s ice hockey, going back to the 1998 USA Women’s Gold Medal winning team at the Nagano Olympics. The first female hockey player that I ever became a fan of was USA netminder Sarah Tueting, the young lady who backstopped the USA women to the first ever Olympic gold in women’s hockey. Since that time I have followed the women’s game with much enthusiasm, and have had the opportunity to attend some of the women’s tournaments on the international scene.

Much of last week I spent my time in St. Catharines, Ontario for the 2016 Women’s U-18 World Hockey Championships. And I loved every moment of it! I even brought my mom along with me to the Czech Republic vs. Canada game in front of a raucous, pumped-out Canadian crowd.

Flags of the eight nations participating in the 2016 Women’s U-18 Championship in St Catharines.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing that I noticed throughout the tournament is the disparity that still exists between the top two nations, USA and Canada, and the other countries who compete in the sport. To be blunt, after USA and Canada, no other team even comes close. At the start of every international tournament and every Winter Olympics, it is known that either Canada or USA will be taking home the gold medal while the remaining teams fight it out amongst themselves for bronze.

I am troubled by this for two main reasons. Firstly, though I am an American, I was rooting for Team Czech Republic for the entire tournament, as I know one of the young players on the Czech team personally. I attended each of the Czech Republic’s games, including their heart-wrenching losses of 6-0 to USA and 11-0 to Canada; my heart broke for my friend and her teammates at the hands of that 11-0 loss. So I will admit that I am biased, and wanted the Czechs to perform well and at least medal.

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Team Czech Republic receiving instructions at a timeout during their January 12, 2016 Quarterfinal loss to Sweden.

Secondly though and perhaps most importantly, for the sake of women’s hockey, we need to see another nation rise to the forefront and give Canada and USA a run for their money. And on an ongoing basis. It worries me that interest may lost in the women’s game if it is always the same two nations winning and nobody else even comes close. Kind of what happened with Laili Ali in women’s boxing. Nobody cares about women’s boxing anymore because no one could be Laili Ali, and the interest in the sport fizzled out.

Now obviously there is more to it than that. These young women are playing for their countries, and no matter what the outcome, competing for their own nation is the greatest accomplishment in sport, and it is not something that can ever be taken away from an athlete. These young ladies also love the game of hockey, and if you love a sport as much as these athletes do, you play and compete for it regardless of whether you win or lose. This is why the game will go on and why even if USA and Canada win every time there is something to say for the hearts of all of the young athletes who participate in this game. For me, being a true enthusiast of the women’s hockey, my interest will never falter either as I simply love the sport.

But for the casual fan, will he or she tire of always seeing the same two nations win? This is what concerns me for women’s hockey in general.

Team Finland lined up after their 11-1 win over France on January 8, 2016.

So why the disparity after all this time? One would think that between Nagano in 1998 and today’s game in 2016 that the playing field would have evened out to some extent. It has not, and I cannot figure it out.

France’s goaltender Anais Aurard receiving Player of the Game for Team France after facing 54-shots in an 11-1 loss to Finland.

I surmise that it might have something to do with the size of the athletes. Looking at the majority of the young ladies who suited up for USA and for Canada in the tournament, they look more like grown women, while the athletes of the other nations appear more their age, if not younger. More muscle, more strength for the Canadians and Americans can transfer over to controlling the game and maintaining better puck possession for the entire three periods; something that the other nations were not able to do. I definitely noticed a drop-off in the third periods of each game when Canada and USA were not missing a step, while the other teams looked tired and were merely holding on. More muscle also allowed them stronger, faster skating which enabled USA and Canada to reach loose pucks more quickly and with greater ease. Not to much that they could skate from point-A to point-B faster as well.

But this was the only real difference that I could discern. All of the teams, especially Czech Republic, practiced hard, fought hard in the corners and in front of their own nets, worked hard from the first second of play until the last, and played their hearts out for their teammates and their countries. I love cheering for underdogs, so it is my sincere hope that all of these efforts by teams who are NOT Canada and USA will eventually payoff and the tide will turn. If you follow MMA at all, perhaps I am hoping for something similar to Holly Holm (finally) serving a defeat to Ronda Rousey and changing the sport forever. Like Rousey, right now USA and Canada seem unstoppable. But it cannot last forever.

Will there come a time that another nation dethrones USA and Canada? For the sake of women’s hockey, I hope so. For my sake, I hope it is Czech Republic!