Räty, 30, won the 2014 Russian Championship with SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, and has been named Best Goalie five times at IIHF Worlds. She holds Olympic bronze medals from Vancouver and PyeongChang, a World Championship silver and too many WCHA and NCAA honors to count. She logged time in the second division of the Finnish men’s league, and now serves as both goaltender and ambassador for the WHL’s newest expansion team—the Shenzhen Vanke Rays in China.
Today, little girls grow up idolizing Noora Räty; she is a beacon her generation lacked, illuminating the path for future talent. “When I grew up, I always thought I was the only girl ever to play hockey,” Räty told me from Saint Petersburg, Russia. When you consider that she is worlds apart from much of her competition, you might even understand if that feeling lingered.
When not embodying the change she wishes to see in her beloved sport, Räty has hit the airwaves on Finnish reality TV, and occasionally incorporates feedback from her fiancé—a fellow goalie coach (although not without putting up a fight, of course). We caught up on all of the above as the Vanke Rays prepared for their final four games of the regular season.
Gillian Kemmerer: When I first arrived in China at the start of the WHL season, I was looking all over for you. Everyone kept saying, “Noora’s still on the farm.” I was like, what on earth are they talking about? You have to explain.
Noora Räty (NR): It’s a reality TV show called The Farm—they had one season years ago, and then made a celebrity version with people who are known [in Finland]. They put us on a farm from 200 years ago, so you have no electricity or running water. You have to grow your own food and take care of cows, sheep, chickens, geese. We had to brush the horses too—we had two ponies. You go fishing and and hope you catch a fish to get some protein, because we were mostly living off of vegetables and potatoes!
For me, it was exciting because I love animals and the simple life. I don’t need my phone for a month—I was fine! And the fact that it was a competition, I loved that too. It was a perfect fit.
GK: Can you tell us how you did?
NR: I can’t tell anything because it [airs] March 19th and it’s one episode per week.
GK: You were a contestant on Finnish Survivor too. Did that prepare you at all?
NR: I mean, Survivor is extreme. This was nothing compared to it. You didn’t have the food we got on the farm, you were sleeping in the middle of the jungle and constantly worried that someone was going to stab you in the back. I almost made it to when the tribes combined—but [the contestants] thought I was too big of a threat. They knew that if I got to individual competition, I was probably the most physical female and would win too many challenges!
GK: Now that you’re back, tell me about the competition you are facing this season. If we were to go by WHL standings right now, it would be an Agidel-Vanke Rays final.
NR: To be honest, I don’t want to think about the finals right now! My focus is on the semis. Let’s say we face Tornado—they are a lot better of a team than the standings suggest. I think they’re one of the better teams on paper and there’s another gear on them. I want to focus on the semis and making the finals first, and figuring out our systems in the next four games.
If we face Ufa in the finals, we have to take their top players away. They have one very good line and our first line is scoring most of the points, so they may eliminate each other and we’ll need more players to step up and score. It will come down to who has the second or third line player that will contribute on the scoresheet. They also have a really good goalie, so it’s a fact that goaltending would be huge in that series. Special teams as well.
GK: Similar to the KHL, you are constantly switching ice sizes. Do you have a preference—Olympic versus smaller ice sheet?
NR: If I could choose, I would not play women’s hockey on Olympic-sized ice. The game looks slower, and girls like to spend a lot of time in the corners. It’s good hockey, but when you look at females on the [smaller] ice sheet, it’s so much better. It’s faster, more scoring chances, more physical—and I think we can showcase our skill a lot better on a smaller ice sheet. From a goaltending point of view, I love the smaller ice because everything happens faster. When you create offense on Olympic-sized, everything happens so much slower and I am not patient enough to wait for it! I really favor smaller, even if I have done well on both.
GK: I noticed on Twitter that you call yourself an ambassador for Kunlun Red Star. What exactly does that mean?
NR: On our contracts, we were actually hired as “ambassadors” to promote the sport of hockey in China and to be role models for Chinese hockey players. In the first year, we were really ambassadors. We did so much with our Chinese teammates, mentoring [them] practically 24/7. The goalies would work out with me and go on the ice, I would teach them about nutrition, sleeping, mental training and everything. Each year, there was progressively less and less of an ambassador role.
This season, I more mentor and coach Kim [Newell] while our goalie coach takes the Chinese goalies. It has been really cool to mentor Kim because she’s working to play in the Olympics and I’ve done four. I feel like I can really prepare her for that big of a stage—mental training, little tips that help me on the ice, and what I see that she can improve. Our relationship this year has been really good, and I think I have been able to help her a lot.
GK: You are coaching goaltenders outside of the WHL season too. Do you think that teaching has impacted the way you think about the game as a player?
NR: I coach for a private goaltending company called MEGA Goaltending in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’ve done it for seven years now during the off-season. I just love coaching and seeing these young goalies get so much better, even after one summer. I feel like it’s my job to give back to the sport, and I’ve found that coaching is my way to give back. Why wouldn’t I spread the knowledge I have in goaltending? I wouldn’t want to keep that knowledge to myself. I want to help as many kids as I can to reach their dreams.
But at the same time, when I started coaching, I started overthinking my own game! It’s a good thing and a bad thing because before I coached, I would let in a goal and be like, “Ok, next shot.” I wouldn’t even think about it. Now when I let in a goal, I think about what I did wrong—overanalyzing in my head. Sometimes it’s not a good thing when I coach for my own game.
GK: I think it’s under-appreciated that Shenzhen has a subtropical climate. Have there been challenges introducing a winter sport there?
NR: The practice ice sheet is good now, better than the previous three years. Sometimes going into that Olympic ice sheet where we play games, it would be dangerous. There was almost no ice underneath you, and every time you stopped or pushed off, it would be dangerous for your groin or your hip. That’s the humidity and not cooling the rink enough. Over the past three years, I’ve gotten used to the weather—just drinking double the amount of water and needing a lot of electrolytes. The first year, I would be so dehydrated that I literally almost passed out on the ice. I’ve figured out how to prepare my body to play there, but it’s definitely hot!
GK: What is your favorite Chinese food to eat when you are off the clock?
NR: I guess hot-pot would be my Chinese dinner go-to. And bubble tea for dessert.
GK: Any favorite sightseeing adventures?
NR: The first year when we came in, they couldn’t get the ice to freeze in Shenzhen. We had to move to Beijing for a month, and it was really cool to see the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and all of the Beijing landmarks. In Shenzhen, if we’re being honest, I do most sightseeing on the golf courses! The tropical garden is beautiful. My Mom came to visit me last February, so I took her to some of the places around Shenzhen.
GK: You just returned from the Euro Hockey Tour with a gold medal, but I’ve read some of your comments to the media about the conditions you faced.
NR: It was maybe the worst conditions I’ve seen through my fifteen years on the National Team. We had two groups: Sweden’s group had Czech Republic and Russia, and they had a nicer rink. They had bigger locker rooms and access to the gym. They put us 45 minutes away in a city of 9,000 people. The rink we played out of had maybe had fifty seats—it was a practice rink. We are National Team players and Olympic athletes, and there were not even locker rooms in the rink. We were dressing in a swimming hall and had to walk outside through the yard with skate guards, go downstairs and into two little locker rooms. We could not even be a whole team together in a locker room. We will address it as players and try to set new standards because this tournament will go on until 2024. We bring a lot of good promotion and exposure, and that is a chance to build women’s hockey when you have these tournaments. We would hope that the organizing federations would be providing resources so that we can put the best product on the ice—the stuff that guys don’t even think about, but girls don’t get. The explanation we always hear is that it costs a lot of money, but they should see it as an investment in women’s hockey and put it on the marketing budget. Bring girls’ teams, do clinics—I wouldn’t mind going in on a game day and having a skate with little girls. If that grows the sport, then I’ll do that. I hope, starting next year, they will put more effort into promotion.
GK: The KHL has approached the management of the WHL as an investment in the growth of the game. What has been your experience playing in the league versus the CWHL [where the Vanke Rays played prior to this season]?
NR: Really good. I am a Russian league champion from 2014, I played for SKIF Nizhny Novgorod for eight games that spring. Comparing this year with that one, I think the league’s gone a long way in terms of facilities we play out of and the resources available. We get into our locker room when we arrive to the city, and are not practicing out of community rinks. There are simple differences too [from the CWHL], like not having to travel with pucks. So many people have these assumptions about Russia, but the hotels are really nice and the food is really good. Most of the [WHL] teams play out of major cities, so it is a nice way to travel and experience Russia.
There’s a big age range in this league—the youngest ones are 14-15 and the oldest are 30 plus. There is quality, but the differences in skill-levels can be big. The CWHL was mostly players out of college playing for the U.S. and Canadian National Teams, but this league is a mix of young-and-upcoming players, and older, more experienced ones.
GK: You played professionally in a men’s league in Finland. How did you enjoy that experience?
NR: Obviously it was a big challenge for me, playing as a female with the guys. I had to be at my best everyday to prove myself. On the women’s side, I’ve already proven myself. It was nice to enter a new league on the men’s side and have no name there. I had to prove that I could keep up with them. On the girls’ side, I had the title of playing in four Olympics and some people calling me the best in the world. You have that expectation. In the men’s league, there was no room for mistakes—I had to be really good every night, and if I wasn’t, I’d go on Twitter and read about how I didn’t belong to play with the guys.
I loved it and I miss it sometimes, I’m not afraid to say! I miss being around guys and not having any girl drama. You put twenty girls together, and there can be stupid drama—the little things. It’s getting better though, and the girls are more open now. They’re not afraid to say things to your face. I liked the guys’ mentality and intensity.
GK: How do you compare the difficulty? I would imagine some of the men had blistering shots.
NR: Sometimes those shots are a lot easier! It’s a quick shot off the blue line, but with the girls, there are big differences. You might be facing someone like [Alex] Carpenter, and she’s sniping you left and right. Her shot is hard, and that’s what I’m used to. Some of the Chinese players on our team flip the puck at you, and you have no idea where it’s going. There’s more of a mix, whereas guys’ shots are more consistent. Same speed, same style—snapping on the front foot. On the girls’ side, you see all different styles of shots and speeds. It’s almost harder to adjust in the women’s game!
GK: We should put one of Kunlun’s goaltenders in net with the Vanke Rays, and see how he does.
NR: If you put the men’s team goalie on our team, they would probably struggle for the first week! That would be funny. And I’d go there to practice anytime—it would be fun to meet [Kunlun Red Star goalie coach] Dusty Imoo.
GK: Dusty and I chatted in Shenzhen about his work with your mentee, Kim Newell.
NR: I listened to a podcast he was on, and he sounded like a really good guy.
GK: You have a unique warmup ritual—can you talk us through it?
NR: Some people might think it’s superstitious, but for me, it’s just a routine. I’ve done it for years. I don’t want to tire myself out during the warmup, so my workout is more eye-focused, visualization and mental. At the end of the day, goaltending is all mental. You do your stretching, agility and a couple quick feet, but for me it’s about getting my eyes ready and my brain ready. I’ve done this for so long that I just need to make sure that my muscles are loose.
I open up my hips, a little foam roll and stretch. Then I take my racketballs and start throwing them around. I start warming up my eyes. If I were to put my heart rate monitor on, I don’t think my heart rate goes over 100 during the warmup.
I used to do a really hard warmup, then on-ice warmup which was twenty minutes, and then you get to the game, and as a goalie, you don’t get to skate back to the bench. If you’re having a hard game and facing a lot of shots, now you’re working for another two hours. That’s like a three-hour workout. If I can save energy on my warmup, then that energy is saved for the actual game.
GK: Is there any particular philosophy you subscribe to when it comes to the mental aspects of goaltending?
NR: Not just one. I read a lot of mental training books—Mind Gym was a good one. I take a little bit from everything I read or listen to, and then I try it. I see if it works for me.
On game day, positive thoughts lead to positive actions. Everything needs to be positive in my head—I don’t want any negativity in my thoughts or in my environment. There are mantras and power words that I use during the game.
GK: Such as?
NR: Make save, be confident, go get it, live in the moment. Little things like that. A lot of times when a skater is coming at me, I’ll say to myself, “Make a save - make a save - make a save.” [Laughs] I don’t talk in English in my head though, I talk in Finnish when I play. But that’s what I’m telling myself. Or if I’m really pumped up, I’ll tell myself to be calm.
GK: How do you limit environmental factors that might hurt your game?
NR: In the morning, I’ll take a stretch or go for a walk to wake up my body. I try to stay off of my phone, iPad or TV. Now I have blue light glasses which help a little bit, but that bright light makes your eyes tired. When your eyes are tired, your brain is slow…and when your brain and eyes are not working, your body is slow. The more I can avoid bright lights and disturbing my eyes pre-game, the better I do. If my eyes are tired at the start of the game, my tracking is off.
I usually talk to my fiancé and that’s it. If someone texts me, I might text back. But I don’t make an effort to talk to someone on game days.
GK: Speaking of your fiancé, he is a goalie coach! Be honest: how much feedback is he allowed to give you?
NR: He’s actually a really good coach, but he says it’s awkward to try and coach me! Then I’m like, “But Karel—I don’t get coached. Everyone expects me to coach them! For once, when you skate with me, can you just coach me please?” But then he says something—and obviously I know he’s right—but I’m like, “No. I don’t like that.” [Laughs] In my head, I know that I need to do it. I might not do it when I’m on the ice with him, but then when I come back to China, I’ll start working on it. He is a really good coach—he has a couple of NHL prospects right now.
GK: When did you first decide to become a goalie?
NR: I was really young—I think I was four when I got into a skating school. My mom made me this blocker and then I had a Finnish baseball glove in my hand. I always went to stand in front of those mini-nets even when the coaches were like, “No goalies allowed.” [Laughs] I would just go and stand there and play goalie! Right off the bat, I always wanted to be one.
GK: They say it takes a special breed…
NR: Yeah, but people think goalies are weird. I think we’re normal and everyone else is weird! I would say I am one of the normal ones. You have to accept the pressure and accept the fact that if your team is not doing well, everyone is going to blame you. You have to have a short memory and not care about what people say or think about you.
GK: Who were your idols growing up?
NR: Curtis Joseph was a big one. I have his jersey from the Maple Leafs. And then there’s this Finnish guy, his name is Jarmo Myllys. He played for my hometown team and we would go to watch the games. I really liked him.
GK: You’ve only named male goaltenders.
NR: No female role models. When I was growing up, there was no female hockey in the media.
GK: Today, little girls grow up wanting to be Noora Räty. You gave the next generation something that you didn’t have.
NR: It’s huge, and I wish I had a female role model to look up to. I think I was ten when I found out for the first time that there was a Women’s National Team in Finland, or that other females were playing hockey. When I grew up, I always thought I was the only girl ever to play hockey. I just didn’t know! I thought I would have to play in the NHL, or men’s pro. It was not until later on that I found out that hockey was not only for the boys.
GK: Last question, as I ask to everyone. What are you listening to, watching and reading on your WHL road trips?
NR: I listen to the InGoal Magazine podcast—it’s a goalie podcast and really cool. I have a bunch of audiobooks and am listening to Michelle Obama’s book right now. On Netflix, I watch a lot of documentaries. I am not really a drama or tv show person…I want to learn something instead of just being a dummy and watching those soap operas! [Laughs] But also, I am the master of sleeping. When I enter the plane and sit in my seat, I probably fall asleep and wake up sometime before landing.