(Photo credit: AP Matt Slocum)
A quick search on YouTube does not reveal much about Finnish sensation Noora Räty. The videos are mainly interviews, both in English and in her native tongue and only one video of a spectacular save. Pick just about any NHL goalie and you will easily find highlights, even Chad Johnson who serves as a backup in Boston, has more highlights than Räty.
So who exactly is Noora Räty (pronounced like “Nor-uh Rah-too”) and why should you care? Well let’s start with who she is: she’s a 24-year-old Finnish netminder who played for the University of Minnesota and during her senior year in 2012-2013, she started all 38 games and did not lose a single one (including overtime and shootouts), backstopped her Golden Gophers to their second national championship in a row and set a record as the best NCAA goalie in the entire country by posting a 1.00 winning record, a .956 save percentage and had a ridiculous goals against average of .96. She made 776 saves, posted 17 shutouts (an NCAA single season record), and broke an NCAA record for career wins with 114 and career shutouts with 43. The most amazing part of this is that she had accomplished all this by the time she was 23 years old.
Add to that, she is a three-time Olympian, has participated in four World Championships, has been a member of the Finnish national team since she was 15, and helped Finland earn their second-straight bronze medal at the 2009 IIHF World Championships when she stopped 78 shots. And this isn’t even close to the full list of her professional and collegiate accomplishments.
A product of Finland’s goaltending program, it’s clear she is a special talent who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the best in the world; I dare say she could probably even give her countryman Tuukka Rask a run for his money.
So now that you’ve “met” her so to speak, why should you care? You should care because she’s an extraordinarily successful, incredibly gifted young athlete who is retiring from professional hockey. At 24 years old. As fellow The Pink Puck writer Mollyhall noted, it’s not that her career is over or that she’s through with hockey, it’s just that she has nowhere else to go. If she’d been born a male, she’d be lauded and praised for her amazing achievements and be on a one-way ticket to the NHL. As it stands, she is female and has seen her career peak simply because there’s nothing better out there for her.
Following Saturday’s upset loss to Sweden, Räty revealed her impending retirement to the Finnish media and later clarified her position on Twitter. Below is the full announcement she made, expressing her desire to play with men to better challenge herself as an athlete and a goaltender.
I am not now, never have been, nor will I ever be a professional athlete but I can sort of sympathize where she’s coming from. Being female in a male dominated world isn’t easy, period. Being the best among your peers and not being able to grow because of your gender has to be extremely difficult.
One thing that sticks out to me is her desire to see Canada and the US establish a professional women’s league. Because of their prowess in ice hockey, the IIHF changed the formatting for women’s Olympics, putting what they considered to be the four best teams into one group to make it a little bit more “fair” for other teams to at least get a shot at winning.
Finding the disparity between North America and the world in women’s hockey is easy: We have the NCAA.
— Travis Hughes (@TravisSBN) February 17, 2014
Hughes makes a good point that the NCAA has helped to spur these two countries’ complete dominance in women’s hockey. With the amount of resources and training facilities available, it’s no wonder that North American athletes are so much better and stronger than their competition.
Räty, a former NCAA athlete herself, said she doesn’t “feel that women’s hockey can grow or get any better in the future if the USA or Canada don’t get a professional league started soon.” Perhaps unbeknownst to her, a women’s professional league already exists: the CWHL – Canadian Women’s Hockey League. There are only five teams and the league is not heavily promoted, so it does not get a lot of exposure.
Creating a new professional league or even expanding the CWHL could really help to grow the sport. Back when the NHL was first established, there were only six teams and it was dominated by all Canadian men. Now, 90 years later, the NHL features men from all over the world and sees young boys leave their home countries to come to North America (OK fine, Canada) for a chance to compete in the NHL. Programs like USA Hockey’s National Team Development program, started in 1996, would not exist without the patience and desire to grow ice hockey internationally.
The biggest issues surrounding the current CWHL are 1) lack of promotion; without that, it’s going to be hard to get exposure and 2) lack of elite players who have played at a higher level beyond the NCAA. However, without being attached to a larger name like the NHL, it’ll be hard for CWHL to gain a lot of momentum in terms of marketing and promotion.
As James Neveau, a reporter from NBC Chicago, pointed out, “If any women’s league is going to work, then they would likely need the backing of the biggest hockey league on the planet to do it. After all, multiple women’s soccer leagues were started following the wild success of Team USA at the 1999 Women’s World Cup […], but since they weren’t partnered up with a major media outlet or sports league, the efforts to gain traction have been largely futile.”
It would likely be an unpopular decision with the masses, but if NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman were to agree to back a CWHL type league, it would be the biggest thing to ever happen in the world of hockey; even more so than naming a franchise after a children’s movie or putting a hockey team in Sunrise, Florida. It would likely be the most controversial decision ever made and would be picked apart endlessly by critics. But it could also be one of the best decisions ever made. That is, IF Commissioner Bettman agrees. IF.
Keeping on this “If” train, should the CWHL expand, the best place to start would be in the Midwest – where the Chicago Blackhawks look to be perennial contenders for hockey’s holy grail and household names like Zach Parise (who happens to be captaining the US men’s team at the Olympics this year) and Ryan Suter (also an alternate captain with the men’s team) act as stabilizing bookends for a hard working Minnesota Wild team.
“With the popularity of teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild in their respective markets, piggy-backing on their success by starting new women’s hockey franchises in those cities would be a great place for the CWHL to start. Minnesota especially is a hockey-mad state, with several top tier collegiate programs on both the men’s and women’s sides of things serving as testament to their voracious appetite for hockey,” writes Neveau.
The self-proclaimed hockey state was the first state in the nation to sanction girls’ ice hockey as a high school varsity sport. Being one of the first to add a women’s pro team in the US would further add to their reputation of being puck lovers.
One of the biggest complaints and criticisms of women’s ice hockey is that it’s boring because the women aren’t as good as the men in the NHL. For those who think that, I’m not sure they’ve ever watched a game. At 5’5, Noora Räty would be considered “too small” to play goal in the NHL. In spite of her petite stature, she is still one of the best, most dominant goaltenders in the world.
Amanda Kessel has an incredible release that is comparable in quality to her brother Phil’s, as evidenced by this video below.
Kessel easily dodges her defender and puts it top shelf just under the crossbar. It’s a move that’s on par with some of the best NHLers, who are arguably the best hockey players in the world.
Kendall Coyne can be compared to Patrick Kane with her blinding speed, excellent offensive awareness and an ability to put the puck in the net; she’s fast and has great escapability qualities in her game that makes her one of the best female hockey players in the world.
These women are fast and strong; they are intense, tough and gritty and they have insanely high hockey IQs. Many of them would be able to hold their own against their male counterparts in the NHL and they are every bit as competitive as the men to whom they are compared. Having a professional women’s league that’s competitive and well promoted would create tons of growth within the sport. As an added bonus, it would also make more games that much more enjoyable to watch, especially for the casual viewer.
Noora Räty is not just another frustrated athlete upset that her team lost and will not medal. She is a highly accomplished goaltender who finds herself at a crossroads between a career and pursuing her life’s passion. For now, she must accept adulthood responsibilities and give up professional hockey unless she is fortunate enough that a men’s team will allow her to play with them. It’s not that it’s based on talent or skill level; she’s already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s more than capable of being the best in the world. It’s that she has no future career path that will challenge her to grow as an individual and as an athlete. Until such time that there is a professional women’s league that can be competitive like the NHL, this is the reality that she and other women are faced with.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Noora Räty that the US and Canada should have a professional women’s league? Do you think we’re ready for an expanded women’s league? Do you think the NHL should support an expansion league? Sound off in the polls below.