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Reusse: Finland native Tapani’s ringette skills shine for PWHL Minnesota

There are those in the Great White North who retain fond memories of the eight-game Summit Series in 1972 between Canada's NHL stars and the Soviet Union.

Canada would triumph over the Big Red Machine, 4-3-1, in the series, although with the assistance of Bobby Clarke's infamous two-handed slash that broke an ankle belonging to Soviet superstar Valeri Kharlamov in Game 6.

What can't be remembered as fondly for our northern neighbors is the five-game Summit Series in 1998 between women athletes from Canada and Finland to settle the nagging question as to superiority in another game on ice — ringette.

The Finns won the first two games on home ice in Turku, and held on for a 3-2 series victory.

Sixty miles north, in the village of Laitila on the Gulf of Bothnia, Susanna Tapani was a 5-year-old getting ready to discover the joys of a ringette — as in, sliding a rubber ring with a straight stick.

"It's not as fast as hockey, right?" she was asked rhetorically Tuesday.

Tapani gave a quizzical look and said: "I would not say that. You must also skate very fast in ringette, although in shorter bursts.''

Tapani became such a stalwart in ringette — assisting and then leading to five of the six world championships Finland has won continuously since 2010 — that a couple of years ago a documentary on her, "Icebreaker,'' was produced in Finland.

"I can't remember the last time Finland failed to win in ringette," Tapani said.

She said this during a break between the end of practice on Tuesday morning for Minnesota PWHL, St. Paul's new pro hockey team, and before physical training down the lower corridor at Xcel Energy Center.

For now, Tapani's time on ice is as a hockey forward, as she has been for two Finnish Olympic teams (two bronze) and five World Champion teams (one silver, four bronze).

Throw in all those gold medals in ringette and, as a proud dad once told me about a track-star daughter, "If she wore all her medals, she'd be bulletproof.''

Tapani's hockey playing started in Laitila in an act of friendship. "When we were young, there weren't enough boys on the team, so they asked me to join," she said.

Once hooked, she played with many boys teams, and for a variety of women's teams in Finland and Sweden, and then she was recruited to play for the University of North Dakota.

This was for the 2013-14 season, or three years before UND President Mark Kennedy got away with saving a few bucks by killing off what had been a competitive women's program.

"It was a great facility and a good team,'' Tapani said. "We also had a chance to play at Minnesota's women's arena that season, which was excellent.

"I only stayed one school year, because my college situation — what I wanted in my studies — was better in Finland.''

And now, at 30, still juggling hockey and a fondness for ringette, she's back in the States, and playing in this new hockey league that has received a 10-year promise of funding from Mark Walter, owner of the Dodgers, and his wife, Kimbra.

"I was going to play for the New York Riveters in one of the other leagues,'' Tapani said. "And then those leagues were replaced by this one, and I was drafted by Minnesota.

"I knew this was the hockey state, and when that crowd came out to cheer for us Sunday … it was amazing.''

The crowd for Minnesota's first-ever PWHL game was announced at over 13,000 on Sunday. Tapani centered the second line, from where Grace Zumwinkle had a hat trick in the home team's 3-0 win.

There are two more games at the X on the first homestand: Wednesday vs. Toronto and New York on Sunday. A few thousand are expected for the mid-week game and 6,000-7,000 for 3 p.m. Sunday. (Note: there will not be a Vikings playoff game as competition.)

Ken Klee, a 15-year NHL defenseman, has been the Minnesota coach for just over a week and quickly has gained an appreciation for Tapani's sharpness as an athlete.

"There are a lot of things to straighten out," Klee said. "Susanna, though — with her experience, her maturity as an athlete — she goes to the right places, makes the right plays.

"This early in trying to put a cohesive team together, we're very lucky to have her.''

So does this mean Tapani, known to all as "Suski" back home, has left Finland's ringette glory in the past?

"The next ringette World Championships are not for three years,'' she said. "It's all hockey for now.''