It was a monumental day in Jenni Hiirikoski’s career.
As she prepared to skate out against Team USA in the preliminary round of the 2021 World Championship, the 34-year-old Finnish captain was set to play in her 70th tournament game, breaking the competition’s all-time games-played record. And yet, Hiirikoski entered the record-breaking day entirely oblivious to the fact she was about to etch her name in the IIHF record book. “I didn’t know anything about that before that day,” she said. “I didn’t have any clue that I was hitting some record game.”
Truth be told, it’s somewhat fitting Hiirikoski reached the milestone with little fanfare. She has long been an exceptional talent whose excellence and accomplishments have been remarkably under-celebrated. She has a resume befitting a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a
trophy case resplendent with jewels from the many competitions she has graced. Beyond a veritable what’s what of league and individual trophies, her most notable hardware includes seven World Championship top defender awards, two Olympic top defender honors and an MVP nod at the 2019 worlds, at which she nearly helped guide Finland to gold.
Despite her accolades, Hiirikoski has never had the profile she deserves. In part, that’s the result of an international landscape in which the podium, and conversation, is so thoroughly dominated by superpowers Canada and the United States. Neither a worlds nor Olympics have passed without one or the other capturing gold, which has given way to the fallacy that every single top talent suits up for one of two nations. But it’s also due in part to Hiirikoski never plying her trade in Canada or the United States. Unlike modern international standouts who’ve made waves in the NCAA or North American pro game – think Noora Raty, Alina Mueller or Lovisa Selander – Hiirikoski has spent her entire career overseas.
That’s not to say there weren’t flirtations with taking her game stateside and testing her mettle in league competition against North America’s best and brightest. “When I made the choice to go to Lulea, to Sweden, at that time I was considering to go play in the NWHL in New Jersey (for the Metropolitan Riveters),” Hiirikoski said. “Then I decided to go to Lulea. We have had a lot of Finnish girls who have played in college, but I knew quite early that that wasn’t my path.”
Don’t go believing Hiirikoski has any regrets, however. While it is true she’s not a superstar on the level of a Marie-Philip Poulin, Hilary Knight or Brianna Decker, Hiirikoski hasn’t lost a wink of sleep over it, nor is she too fussed about her place in the discussion of all-time greats. “I don’t think that’s why I do this,” she said. “I do it to be the best version of myself in hockey and that kind of analysis will come outside of (what I can control).”
Besides, at this point in her career, Hiirikoski is driven by much more than adding to her list of laurels or her spot on a subjective ranking of top talents. With another Olympics on the horizon, her sights are squarely fixed on continuing to find the podium and paving the way for the next generation of Finnish stars. The 2019 silver medal at the worlds in Espoo – a controversial medal given the host Finns believed they had scored the overtime-winner only for the goal to be called back – was proof that Hiirikoski and Co. can hang with Canada and the U.S. The bronze at the 2021 worlds marked the fourth consecutive medal in top-flight international competition for Finland, lending credibility to the belief the divide is closing.
And Hiirikoski plans to stick around to help further close the gap. Though she’s in her mid-30s, her passion for the game, for the national team and for bettering herself is what drives her, just as it did before she had ever stepped foot on World Championship ice.
“There’s always something you can improve and do a little better and learn the game, that has been my motivation always,” she said. “Obviously, also how can we be the best team, how can we work together the best way, those are really interesting points, how we can put the team together and fight for medals internationally. I feel that I still have that passion to be better and better every day. That keeps me going.”