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Not ‘Finnished’ yet
After her former program was cut, transfer Anna Kilponen found a new home at Quinnipiac
Kilponen was scrolling through Twitter and found out that the University of North Dakota (UND) was disbanding its women’s ice hockey in addition to men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs on March 29 to comply with new budget restrictions.
“At first, I didn’t really want to believe it,” Kilponen said. “I was like, ‘That must be a misunderstanding or something,’ but then it was true.”
Kilponen’s North Dakota (UND) teammates were on the ice practicing while the world got news that the university was cutting their team. It wasn’t until later that day when the players had a chance to meet with the school’s president and athletic director, according to North Dakota leading scorer Amy Menke’s account from The Players’ Tribune. At the meeting, the university attempted to justify its decision, but Kilponen says a lot of the athletes wanted more of an explanation.
“[My teammates] weren’t really happy with [the meeting],” Kilponen said. “They had so many questions, but nobody answered them about anything. That’s what I heard and understood.”
North Dakota has proven itself as a hockey school, leading the NCAA in game attendance with upwards of 11,000 fans on average for each men’s team game. While Kilponen acknowledges that the men’s team is more popular at the school, the women’s team consistently cracked the top five nationally in average attendance. Eliminating the women’s team became a blow to the entire sport.
“It was a sad moment for women’s hockey,” Quinnipiac head coach Cass Turner said. “North Dakota is really synonymous with hockey. It was just a tough situation to see something that we saw as pretty concrete and strong make the decision to cancel that program.”
Kilponen and Team Finland went on to finish third at the Women’s Worlds, demolishing Germany in the bronze-medal game. Following the triumph, though, she quickly had to consider where she would play collegiately with two years of eligibility still remaining.
She began exchanging emails with some of the top programs in women’s hockey, including Ohio, St. Cloud State and Mercyhurst. Quinnipiac popped up on her list and was a completely new name to her.
“Gotta say that I didn’t really know about Quinnipiac at all because when I got recruited to UND, I didn’t look at east coast schools,” Kilponen said. “So I had no idea where it is, who plays here and stuff like that.”
Turner and Quinnipiac had Kilponen come down for a visit this May and the junior defenseman was struck by the New England scenery.
“I loved it,” Kilponen said. “It’s so pretty out here. I love the nature with little hills, trees. We didn’t have that much at UND. It’s like more close to what we have in Finland. Facilities are awesome here, too.”
“Well I had a map, so I kind of felt like a tourist,” Kilponen said.
The women’s ice hockey team emerged as her tour guides, and then closest friends on campus.
“[My teammates] have been super helpful and supporting,” she said. “There’s a lot of new stuff. I said before I felt like a freshman my first weeks here because I didn’t know where to go or anything really.”
Before long, Kilponen became an integral part of the closely-knit squad.
“We just welcomed her onto the team,” Quinnipiac sophomore goaltender Abbie Ives said. “We’re all really close, so it hasn’t been hard for us to just become really good friends with her.”
Between playing hockey and studying psychology, the school was the fit for Kilponen, and the acquisition became a fit for Quinnipiac’s women’s ice hockey team.
“It was a huge get for us to get her,” Ives said. “Especially with a young d-core, I think to have an experienced, really reliable defenseman come in and be part of our young d-core is so important for us.”
Kilponen did not come to Quinnipiac with just two years of play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) and a trip to the Women’s Worlds. Back in 2014, Kilponen made it onto Team Finland and played at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia at just 18 years old.
“It was awesome,” Kilponen said of playing for Finland on the Olympic stage. “It was something that I have dreamed about since I was a little kid and my dream came true.”
Kilponen notched two assists in six Olympic contests, but even though she has performed at the pinnacle of women’s hockey, she says she hardly discusses it with her Quinnipiac teammates.
“I don’t think I have brought it up that much,” Kilponen said. “I am not the loudest person, even if I would speak Finnish…I try to things as well as I can and hope people will follow me.”
The former Fighting Hawk has meshed with the Bobcats in the early part of the season. Through seven games, Kilponen has one goal, two assists and praise from her head coach.
“She competes at an elite level,” Turner said. “It’s kind of those little things that really stand out with her and have made a difference in terms of our culture and having younger players be able to see and watch how she does things.”
One area where she has emerged is special teams. Quinnipiac is 8 for 37 on the power play this year, good for 14th in the nation, and Turner cites Kilponen’s ability to shoot off the pass as a reason for why the team is that high.
As the team begins facing ECAC foes, Turner is confident that Kilponen can continue evolving.
“She has everything,” Turner said. “She has all the tools, and for her to play at that elite level every single moment of every single shift, I think that’s the next step for her.”
The Bobcats will be without Kilponen for some upcoming conference play.
The Finnish defenseman is set to head down to Florida with her national team to compete in the Four Nations Cup, a pre-Olympic tune-up tournament between Finland, Sweden, Canada and the USA. Kilponen will not say that she has a spot on the squad for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea this February, but she is looking to avenge an underwhelming showing in Sochi.
“Last Olympics, it was a big disappointment with our placement in the tournament for the whole team, so that’s obviously something,” Kilponen said. “All of us in Team Finland want to be much better than that.”