Minnesota senior goaltender Noora Räty is on the verge of making NCAA women’s hockey history, but she’s not worried about that this weekend when the No. 1 Gophers visit No. 8 Wisconsin in a rivalry series dubbed the “Border Battle.” She just wants to win.
Fortunately, winning and making NCAA history will go hand in hand for Räty, who is just two wins shy of tying the NCAA career victories record of 100. She has compiled a 98-17-8 career record during her four-year career, and is within reach of eclipsing the current record-holder — Mercyhurst’s Hillary Pattenden (2009-12) — in the very near future. Räty also needs just four shutouts to tie the NCAA career mark of 39 held by former Wisconsin goalie Jessie Vetter.
The records and achievements will be nice memories one day, but right now Räty, a 23-year-old native of Espoo, Finland, is doing exactly what she’s wanted to do since she was just a preschooler — play goalie. Räty would sit and watch her father, Jarmo, coach her older brother in youth hockey and, of course, she wanted to get in on the fun. But she didn’t want to just play any position. Räty asked her mother to make her a blocker and a goalie glove because she loved all the equipment. The rest, as they say, is history … in the making.
Räty began playing on her own team, but then would go to practice with her dad and brother, and skate again.
“It was good because I got double-ice time,” Räty said.
Räty grew up not only practicing with her brother’s team, but always playing against boys because the competition was better.
“I think it’s a big reason why I can play so well,” Räty said. “There were not that many girls playing hockey in Finland, so if you wanted to get really good and be a top player, you needed to play with the boys. I got more ice time and I got used to a faster pace. I think it prepared me better. Most of the time, the other teams didn’t believe I was a girl because I played so well.”
Räty was invited to try out for Finland’s national team at age 14, which is when she realized she was a talented player.
“When I saw other girls playing and played against other girls, I thought I might have a good chance to achieve a lot of things,” Räty said.
After that realization, the achievements start coming fast and furiously for Räty. She earned a spot on the 2006 Finnish Olympic Team at age 15, and was the team’s starting goaltender at the event in Turin, Italy.
“Some of the older players — they could have been my mother,” Räty said. “Some were about 35 years old, but they took me under their wing. They started calling me ‘Baby.’ We were all good teammates and friends, but sometimes I felt a little bit lonely because of the age difference. The second-youngest player on the team was 21 years old, so that is still a six-year gap.”
Räty became a regular on the national team, playing in four IIHF World Championships, and contributing to a pair of bronze-medal finishes.
|2009-10 — FRESHMAN SEASON|
|• First-Team All-American|
|• Third-best goals-against average (1.33)|
|• Fourth-best save percentage (.948)|
|• Fourth-best winning percentage (.769)|
|2010-11 — SOPHOMORE SEASON|
|• Second-Team All-American|
|• Set school record for wins (25)|
|• Set school record for shutouts (9), first in nation|
|• Set school record for saves (964), breaking her own mark|
|2011-12 — JUNIOR SEASON|
|– Ended year with school records for wins in a season, career shutouts and career saves.|
|• Led nation in goals-against average (1.35)|
|• Led nation in shutouts (10)|
|• Went three games in postseason without allowing a goal|
|• Earned Frozen Four MVP honors|
Meanwhile, Räty became interested in playing collegiate hockey in the United States. She and fellow Finnish national team member Mira Jalosuo spoke to former Minnesota player Bobbi Ross, who they met at a camp in their travels. With a good recommendation about the Gophers’ program, both Räty and Jalosuo contacted Minnesota head coach Brad Frost about a hockey scholarship.
While Frost was not even recruiting a goaltender for Räty’s class, his assistant coach at the time said she was one of the best goalies in the whole world and they needed to pursue her.
“The philosophy that we took was that if Wayne Gretzy called us up and said, ‘I want to come,’ we wouldn’t turn him away because we had too many centers,” Frost said. “When someone like Noora calls, we weren’t about to turn her away. We were ecstatic she chose us.”
Räty was attracted to Minnesota became it felt like home, and at the time the Gophers were the only women’s hockey program with their own rink. Räty and Jalosuo arrived in Minneapolis for the 2009-10 season and have been a key part of the Gophers’ defense since they were freshmen.
“[Räty] was excellent right away,” Frost said. “It was a little easier transition for her because Mira had come with her, and they roomed together and had the common bond of the language and being in a new place together.”
In addition to adjusting to college life in a different country, Räty and Jalosuo also took a short hiatus during their freshman season to play for the Finnish national team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The pair returned to Minnesota with a bronze medal in February, and then sparked the team to a Frozen Four appearance, eventually losing to Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals.
“We had a really good chance to win everything that year, but when I got back from the Olympics I was so tired,” Räty said. “I think I went through a post-Olympic depression and I don’t think I played my best after that. It was an emotional thing to go through. Sometimes, I think what if I didn’t go to the Olympics?”
The Gophers missed out on the Frozen Four in 2011 but, as a junior, Räty finally got that NCAA title she had been shooting for as Minnesota downed Wisconsin 4-2 for the program’s first national championship since 2005.
Räty played an integral part to the Gophers reaching the pinnacle of college hockey, and is continuing to build on her and the team’s success this season. Minnesota enters the weekend series at Wisconsin with a 24-0-0 record. Individually, Räty has compiled a 22-0-0 record, with a .956 save percentage, a 0.94 goals-against average and nine shutouts.
“I think she’s matured a lot,” Frost said. “She used to get a little frustrated at practice when she got scored on. She used to be a little overly aggressive in her play in the net, and not necessarily know when to challenge or when to stay back in the net. She’s worked with our goalie coach, Andy Kent, for three years, and he has done a great job with her. I think she’s playing as well now as she ever has in her life.”
“She’s so calm in the net, and she knows when she needs to be aggressive or back up a little bit more,” Jalosuo said.
Minnesota ranks second in the nation with a 0.79 scoring defense, and is the only team in the nation without a loss this season.
“I think it is awesome how well our defense has been playing,” Jalosuo said. “Noora just calms us down. Even when we make mistakes, she makes them not look as bad as they are.”
In addition to going to an individual record this weekend, the Gophers also will be looking to stretch their NCAA-record 32-game unbeaten streak. Currently, Minnesota shares the mark with Wisconsin, which the Badgers have achieved twice (2006-07 and 2010-11). Minnesota snapped Wisconsin’s last streak, so the Badgers are certainly looking to return the favor.
Räty is 6-5-2 all-time against Wisconsin but has gone 5-1-1 against the Badgers during the past two seasons. In her 13 appearances versus Wisconsin, she has allowed an average of 2.69 goals per game. In this season’s earlier series between the two squads, she allowed just one goal and garnered a shutout.
“We’re really excited about the weekend and it has nothing to do with a streak or an NCAA record,” Frost said. “We’re playing probably our biggest rival, and the team — up until last year — that was at the top of the mountain. We have a lot of respect for Wisconsin. They bring out the best in us, and we bring out the best in them. We’re looking forward to being challenged.”
Räty is hoping to conclude her career at Minnesota on a high note as the Gophers look to repeat as NCAA champions this season before she returns to training for the next Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
“We’ve won 24 games this season, but I really don’t care if we go 39-0 and then lose the last game,” Räty said.
Minnesota and Wisconsin will tangle on Friday and Sunday at the Badgers’ LaBahn Arena. Both games will begin at 3 p.m. ET.