Finnish NHL Goalies Forging Greatness

Originally published in Rinkside in 2005

By Lucas Aykroyd

It may seem hard to believe now, but at one time, Finland produced fewer quality goalies than any other major hockey nation.

Want proof? Check out the scoresheets from the inaugural 1976 Canada Cup. In their first best-on-best competition, the Finns lost 11-2 to Canada, 8-0 to Czechoslovakia, 6-3 to the USA, and 11-3 to the USSR. Their lone win, an 8-6 comeback over Sweden, wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for solid play between the pipes. Number one netminder Antti Leppanen finished the tournament with a ghastly 7.64 GAA and .796 save percentage, while backup Markus Mattsson was even worse at 10.50 and .745.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Kari Takko played his share of games for the Minnesota North Stars and Edmonton Oilers, while Jarmo Myllys suited up for the Stars and the San Jose Sharks. But neither struck fear into the hearts of NHL shooters.

Times have changed. Currently, Finland is churning out NHL-caliber keepers in a manner reminiscent of the goaltending glory days of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which saw the likes of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, and Roberto Luongo rise to stardom from the mid-1980’s onward. San Jose’s Vesa Toskala, Edmonton’s Jussi Markkanen, and Buffalo’s Mika Noronen are just some of the talents from this Scandinavian nation of 5 million that are making an impact. When the heat reaches sauna-like proportions, they remain as cool as ice.

Still, Finland’s Exhibit A is Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames. The Turku native was arguably the best goalie in the world in 2004. He established a new modern-era record for the lowest regular season GAA (1.69) and then led the Flames to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals versus Tampa Bay. He was equally impressive in the World Cup, posting two shutouts and a 1.48 GAA as his blue-and-white squad marched to the championship match versus Canada. Even though Kiprusoff didn’t come away with any hardware, he served notice that opponents must be in peak form to beat him.

“Kiprusoff was just steady,” said Tampa Bay sniper Brad Richards, whose Stanley Cup ring and Conn Smythe Trophy nearly ended up in Kiprusoff’s possession. “He was solid back there. He seemed like an even-keeled kind of goalie, and they counted on him every night. He was always there to make some quality saves, and he kept the Flames in it when he had to. I don’t think he’s going to be a one-hit wonder.”

“I know a lot about goalies, and you can see Kiprusoff is pretty sound in the way he plays the game,” Martin Brodeur affirmed. “Of course, everybody has good years, and you’re not going to have years like he had every year. But as far as the way he plays the game, I really like him. He makes saves–he doesn’t just block the puck like certain goalies in this league. That makes a big difference in how I personally perceive a goalie. I really enjoyed watching him through the tough games he played.”

Calgary captain Jarome Iginla got even more pleasure out of Darryl Sutter’s mid-August signing of Kiprusoff to a three-year contract worth $10 million. “It was a good feeling when I heard that news,” said Iginla. “I was always optimistic it was going to get done, but you never know if it’s going to be one year or two years or whatever. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Kipper. We love playing in front of him. We’re looking forward to the opportunity of winning together. He’s an elite goalie in this league.”

No one could have anticipated how good Kiprusoff would become when Calgary acquired him from the San Jose Sharks on November 16, 2003 for a second-round pick.
But despite limited playing time with the Sharks, he’d already laid a solid foundation during his years in Europe. He helped TPS Turku capture the Finnish Elite League title in 1999 and won silver medals with Finland at the 1999 and 2001 World Championships. When you watch the 29-year-old today, it’s clear why he has such a low panic threshold: his poised approach to the game rarely leaves him out of position.

Ian Clark, the goaltending consultant for the Vancouver Canucks and president of the Goaltender Development Institute, says Kiprusoff is the best example of an overall trend among Finnish goalies: “What’s happened in Finland to a large extent is that they’ve made a commitment to their goaltender development at the youth level. And a lot of the Finnish teams have goalie coaches that give these young players strong direction. So you end up with goalies that have three essential core strengths. Number one, they have good structure in their game. Number two, they have great instincts. Number three, they’re great athletes.”

Clark believes well-rounded technique is an essential ingredient in the Finnish goaltending recipe: “When you look at goaltending styles, you basically have blockers and reactors. Blockers are very strong positional goaltenders that always stay centered on the puck and use their bodies a lot to make saves. Reactors have very quick hands and feet, and they tend to stretch more to make saves, because their positional game perhaps isn’t quite as sound. The Finnish goalies have found a nice balance between the two extremes. Of course, they’re not all the same. But typically, they’re effective positional goaltenders, and that allows them to make the simple saves with ease. Yet they also have the athletic and instinctive ability to react when necessary.”

Nobody knows more about the basis of Finnish goalie development than Arto Koivisto. Currently employed by Ilves Tampere, the 46-year-old former netminder was the first full-time goalie coach ever in the Finnish League, starting back in the early 1990’s with Tappara Tampere. As an accredited teacher of physical education, Koivisto has worked extensively with other Finnish League clubs and the junior national team, as well as Swiss teams like Langenau and Rapperswil-Jona. His most recent achievement was serving as goalie coach for the 2004 World Cup team.

“If you compare us with the other European countries, over the last ten years we’ve had goalie coaches for every Finnish League team, whereas in Sweden, for instance, they don’t have that,” said Koivisto. “I think that’s the main reason for our recent success. We have a hockey culture that appreciates goalie coaches, and we take the time to work on the ice with the goalies.”

Koivisto says the popularity of goaltending in Finland is infectious. “The culture just now in Finland is that young kids want to play goal. That’s the most important thing if you want them to stick with it. Another reason for the good goalies, I think, is that Finnish people are quite calm, and it’s good for the goalie to be calm, like Kiprusoff.”

But enough about Kiprusoff. He’ll have to stay on top of his game to ward off his challengers for the title of Finland’s number one goalie. One of the best is Vesa Toskala, who has come a long way since winning his first NHL game versus Edmonton on October 17, 2002. The 28-year-old served as Kiprusoff’s backup at the World Cup, a role he’s become accustomed to filling behind San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov. Still, his .930 save percentage and 2.08 GAA point to bigger things in the future for this Tampere native.

“Vesa is a guy who likes to play,” said Koivisto. “Sometimes there are goalies who are better in games than in practice, and Vesa’s one of them. He’s a goalie who can really read the play. He’s a very good skater. He has to be, since he’s not very tall [at 5-10]. He has excellent lateral movement. He has all the basics you need to succeed. He’s going to have a good season this year too.”

When Jussi Markkanen backed up Tommy Salo in Edmonton in the past, he didn’t get to play much. But last year, he appeared in 54 games for Lada Togliatti in the talent-laden Russian Superleague, and his 1.20 GAA was tops among netminders. If Markkanen, 30, can heal up successfully from a broken collarbone he suffered while training in Finland in late August, he should compete with Ty Conklin for the starting job with the Oilers.

Mika Noronen has faced a similar battle for playing time with the Buffalo Sabres. At 26, he’s entering his prime, and he has 63 NHL games under his belt. The nimble Tappara graduate has dominated at other levels, whether leading Finland to gold at the 1998 World Junior Championship or capturing the 2000 AHL Rookie of the Year award. But this season, it remains to be seen whether Martin Biron, Ryan Miller or Noronen will rule the Sabres’ crease at HSBC Arena.

“I knew Mika when he was a junior, 12 or 13 years old,” said Koivisto. “I thought he had great potential. At that time, he was a little bit lazy and he didn’t work so hard. But eventually he understood that he had to go harder, and now he has a good work ethic. He’s a good goalie and a nice person.”

Atlanta has welcomed more Finnish goalies than any other NHL city. Unfortunately, various ailments have derailed the careers of two of them recently.

Jani Hurme was Finland’s starter at the 2002 Olympics when he played for Ottawa. But his stock slipped the following season after he was traded to Florida, and when the Thrashers acquired the Turku-born veteran, he proved unable to suit up due to a non-hockey-related illness. Hurme, 31, hasn’t played in over two years and must try to prove himself all over again in 2005-06.

Pasi Nurminen played a much larger role in Thrashers history. In fact, his 52 starts in 2002-03 made him the first-ever Finnish goalie to land the top job with an NHL team. But a freak knee injury while training with the national team this summer abruptly forced him into retirement, a tragic end for the feisty former AHL all-star who appeared in 125 games in Atlanta colors.

Fortunately for Thrashers GM Don Waddell, the team has Kari Lehtonen, the #2 overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. The 21-year-old tore up the AHL with the Chicago Wolves last season, and Atlanta scout Peter Mahovlich proclaimed: “I’ve always said Patrick Roy was the best goalie I’ve ever seen. This kid is going to be better.” Lofty expectations, but Lehtonen has all the tools for success. This expert butterflyer is expected to carry the load for Atlanta in goal this year.

“Kari’s an excellent player,” said Ian Clark. “He’s tall, he’s lean, and he’s very structured in his game from a skill perspective. He’s got long arms and long legs, which gives him an opportunity to be very effective in scrambles.”

“I think Lehtonen is going to be one of the top goalies in a year or two as long as he stays healthy,” added Arto Koivisto. “He’s very talented. When you play at the NHL level, you have to read the play very well, and Kari will have a bright future there.”

Lehtonen was one of three Finnish goalies who shone in the AHL conference finals last season. The brightest light there proved to be Antero Niittymaki, who ultimately won a title with the Philadelphia Phantoms and was named MVP of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Following three outstanding AHL campaigns, the 25-year-old Turku product should fill a full-time role with the Flyers in 2005-06. Hannu Toivonen, who combines a fun-loving attitude with an extremely mature approach toward hockey, is similarly poised to make the jump to Boston after earning a 2.05 GAA in 54 games with the Providence Bruins.

There are simply too many Finnish paragons between the pipes to document here. You can’t overlook Ari Ahonen, who’s vying to crack the New Jersey Devils behind Martin Brodeur. “I think it’s been a tough go for him,” said Brodeur. “He was drafted as a high prospect, and he has good skill and size. You need a chance to be successful. He just hasn’t had his chance.” And Toronto fans should be excited about Tuukka Rask, chosen 21st overall in the 2005 draft. With a couple more seasons of tutoring from Arto Koivisto, plus increased strength and stick-wielding savvy, this 18-year-old from Savonlinna should be set to unleash his ultra-mobile style on NHL shooters.

Not all Finnish goaltending heroes have gone on to an NHL career. But that doesn’t mean their contributions should be discounted. In particular, three now-retired players who starred in the Finnish League and international competition should be mentioned: Urpo Ylonen, Jorma Valtonen, and Jukka Tammi.

The Finnish League equivalent of the Vezina Trophy is named after Ylonen. He played 188 games for Finland at the Worlds and Olympics, starting in 1963. After being the self-dubbed “worst goalie” at the 1969 Worlds, Ylonen took some extra training over the summer and was named the best goalie at the 1970 tournament. Known for his acrobatic style when he backstopped TPS Turku, the 62-year-old today serves as the club’s goalie coach. He has worked with Kiprusoff, Niittymaki, and Hurme, among others.

Between 1970 and 1984, Valtonen played 232 games with the national team, more than any other Finnish goalie. Professionally, the Turku native brought his stand-up style to six Finnish teams, plus two in Italy and one in Germany. “At a time when most Finnish players stuck with their original club teams, he was an exception,” said Finnish hockey commentator Lauri Tarkkonen. “Hockey was his profession. He went for the highest bidder, as long as the team was competitive. He was very competitive and hated to lose.”

Tammi’s career highlights include an Olympic silver medal (1988) and two bronzes (1994, 1998), plus seven World Championship showings and the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cup tournaments. “Everybody in Finland still remembers Tammi’s air guitar solos in 1995 after the team won Finland’s first (and so far only) World Championship,” stated Risto Pakarinen, editor of Finnish Hockey magazine. “He didn’t play a game in that tournament, but he was an important leader on the team.” Tammi ranks second to Valtonen in international appearances with 213. He retired in 1999 at age 38 after three seasons with Germany’s Frankfurt Lions, but spent most of his career with Ilves Tampere.

Focusing on the future, the possibilities appear unlimited for Finland with its stable of NHL netminders. Will the Finns claim gold at the Turin Olympics in February? Will they triumph at the World Championship in Latvia in May? Or come June, will Miikka Kiprusoff seize his chance to hoist the Stanley Cup and cause an eruption of cheering from Calgary to Turku? Stay tuned. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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