Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and is currently at the Olympics for AP.
Kipper’s Teammates OK with groundbreaking Finnish goalie’s “start me or else” ultimatum – he’s earned it.
Much was made in the media about Miikka Kiprusoff’s “start me or else” ultimatum to the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation in late November. So now, on the eve of his country’s Olympic opener, as he walks into Finland’s dressing room to face his teammates, does Kiprusoff himself think the whole thing was overblown at all?
“It’s been pretty clear for me so I really didn’t care,” Kiprusoff responded on Tuesday night after the Finns practiced for Wednesday’s game against Belarus.
It’s vintage Kiprusoff, short and to the point when he talks at all, sometimes at the expense of his own reputation in the press. It was the same four years earlier, when the stoic Finn opted out of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin with claims he needed to rest a sore hip, a public relations disaster when he didn’t miss a start for the Calgary Flames the rest of the season, even drawing the ire of a few fellow Finns. The locker room now, though, is a different story.
“They all said ‘hi’ to me when I came in so I guess they are all right with it,” he said with a wry smile when asked if the ultimatum was an issue. “Ask them.”
Turns out they are fine with it too, and while no one expected his teammates to raise a stink at the Olympics, the sentiment seems sincere – as long as Kiprusoff continues to stop the puck at an all-worldly rate. His ability to do so in Calgary this season was what made his ultimatum a non-issue with coaches.
“It was pretty simple when we started to know he was playing well this season and he would be the guy,” said coach Jukka Jalonen. “Okay, if he hadn’t played so well, maybe we would ask him to come as a backup or take somebody else. I don’t know, but he was our first choice and he’s a great first choice.”
Kiprusoff’s numbers in Calgary bear that out, including the NHL’s fourth-best goals-against average (2.18) and sixth best save percentage (92.5%) behind a Flames team still prone to long periods of the defensive ineptitude that plagued them the last two seasons. Jalonen said Kiprusoff will start Wednesday against Belarus, Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild will play on Friday against Germany, and “from then on the plan is that Kiprusoff is playing.” That means Antero Niittymaki, who backstopped Finland to silver at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin and has been one of the NHL’s hottest goaltenders over the last month for the Tampa Bay Lightning, won’t play a game in Vancouver.
“The goalies know what the situation is, what their roles are and there’s no problems,” said Jalonen. “I know Kiprusoff, what kind of guy he is, and he’s always been a starting goalie so it’s understandable if he doesn’t want to be a backup or third goalie. I don’t have any problem with that.”
That’s easy for a coach to say, but the fact that his fellow goalies appear to share that sentiment may have less to do with Kiprusoff’s statistics this season, and more to do with his status as a groundbreaker for Finland’s puck-stopping peers.
Kiprusoff first commanded the NHL spotlight by leading the Flames to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 before losing to Tampa Bay in seven games, and won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender in 2006. He wasn’t the first Finnish goalie in the NHL, but his play made it easier for others to follow. That includes Backstrom, who made his NHL debut in 2006 at the age of 28 after 10 seasons playing professionally in his native Finnish leagues.
“All the Finnish goalies talk to him, send texts to him because he opened a lot of eyes here to see the Finnish goalie can play well here, can win, can take your team to the Finals,” Backstrom said of Kiprusoff. “Without that we probably wouldn’t have that many Finnish goalies in the league, and all Finnish goalies know we needed someone to play really well so everybody believes in us.”
Today there are seven Finnish goalies in the 30-team NHL – eight if recently traded Kari Lehtonen, a former second-overall draft pick, ever gets healthy. That’s an impressive number given forwards and defensemen account for more than 90 per cent of the roster space in the league; even more so given Finland has only produced 20 players currently filling those other positions.
There are three Finns in the top-5 in NHL goals-against average, including Antti Niemi and Tuuka Rask, a rookie who has displaced U.S. Olympic goalie Tim Thomas as the No.1 in Boston and leads the NHL with a 2.08 goals-against average.
“It’s pretty amazing we have 5 million people and the amount of goaltenders we are producing right now in the NHL,” said veteran Finnish forward Saku Koivu. “It’s a huge, huge advantage for us.”
It’s an advantage the Finns recognized two decades ago they needed to compete on the international stage. With that in mind, they began a program targeting young goalies for position-specific instruction in the late 1980s and early ‘90s – shortly after Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire began to revolutionize the approach to puck stopping in Montreal, and long before it other teams in the NHL recognized the need for goaltending coaches. It began with the club teams in the Finnish SM Liiga, the top professional circuit, who made sure there were goalie coaches available to the feeder teams right down to the lowest levels, and that those coaches were teaching the same thing to 10-year-olds as to 10-year pros.
Those regional goalie coaches were then brought together annually by the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation – not to tell them how to teach, but to share ideas and information as the science and technique of goaltending began to evolve rapidly. The results 20 years later speak for themselves – both in the quality of Finnish goaltending and in the style differences among goalies from each region.
“Everyone is really proud of the system we have back home in Finland getting goalies over here,” said Backstrom, who was in Turin in 2006 but never got to play. “We’re not the biggest country so it’s nice to see. But it’s hard work and you need a couple guys to play well and open the doors for the rest of us.”
That someone was Kiprusoff, which makes it easier for the other goalies to accept opening the door – this time to the bench – for him in Vancouver.