The training overhaul that brought Sergei Bobrovsky back to the top
New Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky spent the last three weeks in August working out at the Finnish Ice Hockey Association’s main training facility in Vierumäki, a small village about 120 kilometers north of Helsinki in Finland’s southern region.
This was the fourth straight summer that Bobrovsky, who turns 31 on Sept. 20, worked closely with the Finnish-born duo of trainer Sami Karjalainen and goaltending coach Hannu Nykvist, embracing their holistic approach in the hopes of ending the groin injuries that had plagued his career.
Before their unique relationship was born, Bobrovsky spent nearly half of the 2015-16 season on injured reserve with groin problems, and missed time with four different groin-related injuries over three seasons. The last three significant groin injuries occurred over a 13-month span, starting with a six-week absence in early 2015, another six-week absence to close out the calendar year, and a third six-week stint on injured reserve just two games after coming back from that injury.
The trio started to work together in the summer of 2016, just six months after Bobrovsky returned from the third stretch of missed time. Since then, he’s missed four games due to illness and one with a minor upper-body injury. Bobrovsky hasn’t missed any time with lower-body injuries since teaming up with Karjalainen and Nykvist, which should be music to the ears of the Panthers after signing him to a seven-year, $70 million contract that takes him through age 37.
Bobrovsky’s performance also improved with his health; after falling below league-average with a .908 save percentage in 2015-16, he rebounded with a .931 save percentage and won his second Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender in 2016-17. Despite that turnaround, the three have operated largely under the radar since Karjalainen, who operates a training company called Eye of the Goalie, first got to know one of the NHL’s biggest names through Nyqvist.
They met for a few weeks here and there each year in Columbus, Russia, Austria, and Finland to make sure they made the most of the unique, interlocking system they developed to get Bobrovsky to the top. Now, as Bobrovsky prepares to start a new chapter in Florida, the three allowed InGoal Magazine to peel back the curtain and get a glimpse at what makes their methods so unique.
Karjalainen didn’t set out to specifically become a kind of dry-land goaltending whisperer. Before he ever sat down to talk about goaltending with the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) five and a half years ago, he was a Han Moo Do martial artist, boasting nearly 50 full-contact fights during his career before moving back to Finland in 2010 to make a career change.
It started with an idea based on his training as an eastern health exercise method instructor. He believed there was a way to adapt the discipline to other sports, so he took what he’d learned from his martial arts masters about health, the mind, and finding a harmony that improved both, and started to explore the possibility of working outside of the martial arts community to build better athletes.
It was a process of trial and error, finding the right sport to marry discipline-specific physical training and martial arts. He tried ice hockey players and ski jumping first, then soccer, but not altogether surprisingly, goalies seemed to be the perfect fit. The way he explains it, goaltending and martial arts are almost completely identical in how you have to approach training.
“The movement for both has to be so accurate, fast, and controlled – accurate and controlled above all, with rhythm,” Karjalainen said. “After that, perhaps, comes speed. If you move accurately with a good timing, you don’t need to rely as much on needing to just move fast.”
Martial arts and goaltending are also nearly impossible to fully train for outside of actual competition. Goalies and fighters can only control a small percentage of the outcome in any given moment, and they can’t train themselves for everything their opponents will do; most of what happens will be largely unexpected. The only difference, according to Karjalainen, is in the offensive; where a martial artist can go on the attack, a goaltender can only let the attack come to him.
It was those similarities, he believes, that gave him the perfect opportunity to get involved in a sport he’d never played. By early 2014, Karjalainen had been introduced to FIHA as a way to learn more about hip and groin movement for goaltenders; two years later, he was on a plane halfway across the world to join Bobrovsky in Columbus for an intensive season-long physical training overhaul.
Karjalainen and Nykvist met during the crossover in their time spent with FIHA, where Nykvist served as the head of goaltending instruction from 2012 to 2015. Nykvist played in Finland’s first and second divisions throughout the 1980’s, but the impending arrival of his 30th birthday coincided with an economic downturn that prompted him to hang up his pads and take up coaching.
Nykvist coached across Europe in the 30 years following his retirement. He worked predominantly in Finland with the national program, Jokerit Helsinki, and HPK, but took jobs in Switzerland with the ZSC Lions, Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, and HC Sierre as well. He then set his sights on Austria, where he spent three perfectly-timed years at the Hockey Academy with Red Bull Salzburg.
Nykvist got to know Karjalainen with FIHA in 2014, but lost touch the following year with the move to Austria. It wasn’t until Bobrovsky met Nykvist at a Red Bull camp in Salzburg that Karjalainen’s ideas about mind-body training found the perfect player to develop them with.
Bobrovsky told InGoal he had gone to Salzburg in 2016 prepared to work on his on-ice game with Nykvist, but the frustrations from a 2015-16 season marred by pain and injuries found the pair talking about what it would take to prevent a year like that from happening again.
“I had so much pain of course,” Bobrovsky explained. “I didn’t know what’s going to happen, my concern was just about my health, what’s going to happen with my career and stuff like that. In one year, with like three injuries, same one, it’s tough. You go to compete, and you don’t think; it’s all instinctive. When you have some tough thoughts in the back of your mind, it kind of holds you. What’s going to happen to further this? It’s a tough thing.”
That’s when Nykvist asked him if he’d be willing to try something new. The pair reached out to Karjalainen just ahead of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey; for Bobrovsky, it was worth a shot.
“Hannu said ‘you know, try it, because he knows about this area, like the groin/hip area’,” he said.
Bobrovsky agreed to meet Karjalainen just before he reported to St. Petersburg for Russia’s World Cup camp. The pair sat down face-to-face for the first time in September 2016, and spent a few days working together in Russia to see if there was a potential relationship to be built.
In Bobrovsky’s words, those first few days were interesting. He immediately felt the improvement from what Karjalainen was teaching him, so he figured it was worth his while to give the martial art-based trainer a shot, and after a full year of intense training and daily workouts, he was all in.
The results speak for themselves.
The primary goal of that first season was to make sure Bobrovsky could play without worrying about his health. The trio put together a plan to create a better goalie by ensuring a healthier goalie; a successful season would one without any physical limitations.
Bobrovsky only missed one game because of illness despite making 63 starts with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016-17, and has made 189 starts since changing his training, trailing only Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs (192) over the past three seasons.
In 2016-17, he had seven shutouts, 41 wins, and a .931 save percentage in all situations, earning his second Vezina Trophy with a league-leading 33.45 Goals Saved Above Average. According to goaltending data analyst Cole Anderson, Bobrovsky finished his 2013-16 stretch with +43 cumulative goals prevented over the available data for replacement-level goaltending; during his 2016-19 stretch, is cumulative goals prevented over replacement-level was +134.
That first year was the most crucial for Bobrovsky, and it’s when the most intense work happened.
Bobrovsky hosted Karjalainen in Columbus three different times during the 2016-17 season for roughly three weeks at a time, working together almost daily to identify everything from the starter’s habits and patterns to his biometrics and physical strengths and weaknesses.
Karjalainen believes in a hands-on approach to training, preferring to physically see and feel what an athlete is doing in order to identify where the problem areas are. So that first year in Columbus, he and Bobrovsky laid the foundation for everything they’ve done together in the ensuing two years and counting, witnessing and analyzing everything from Bobrovsky’s training habits to his diet, sleep patterns, and personal life.
Nykvist made the trip to Columbus twice as well, but predominantly provided an extra set of ears and both a sounding board and goaltending perspective for Karjalainen through the telephone. The two trainers spoke on the phone up to three times every day, with Nykvist providing insight for Karjalainen to better understand all things goalie – practices, game routines, and habits – while helping point out where things might be going wrong. They created a tailored process for keeping Bobrovsky’s groin healthy, but without sacrificing goaltending training in the process.
While the pair were turning Bobrovsky’s health and well-being into a full-time occupation, Bobrovsky was the one who was doing all the heavy lifting and committing their observations and practices to action. He threw himself fully into what Karjalainen taught him, listening to Nykvist for insight into how everything tied together on the goaltending end while ultimately putting in all the work in the gym and on the ice.
For Bobrovsky, it was both a physical training overhaul and a mentality shift. He described Karjalainen and Nykvist as responsible for a lot of his change in philosophy the last few years, moving towards a human-first approach to being a professional athlete thanks to their direction.
“Not only enjoy the hockey,” Bobrovsky told InGoal, “but enjoy life too. You have to be a human being first … then be the goalie.”
It’s an approach that works remarkably well with a work ethic that Nykvist describes as one of the most intense and outstanding he’s seen in his thirty years as a coach. The only other goaltender he’s ever worked with who has the same drive for perfection that Bobrovsky shows was Tim Thomas, who worked with Nyqvist during the 2004 lockout while playing for Jokerit Helsinki, years before he became one of the NHL’s most iconic late-career success stories.
It’s not surprising, in retrospect, to see Bobrovsky capable of showing just as much resurgence in his career a decade into his own NHL action. His passion and athleticism, explained Nykvist, were already elite; all he had to add was the health to get his game to where it needed to be.
The physical side of the training, though, was a little bit more difficult to explain.
Karjalainen said his task was simple – keep Bobrovsky healthy – but that no two players need the same solution to get them from point A to point B.
“All we do … it’s already stuff we know,” Karjalainen said. “Everything we know about the human physics, agility, elasticity, speed production … this knowledge already exists. It’s about the quality, and not rushing, and you break it down a little bit and chop things into pieces to make sure that the pieces are in the right order, the right place technically. Then you put pieces back to the puzzle, to the big picture, and to the performance.”
With Bobrovsky, that’s what that first year was about. They broke everything down – his game, his practice habits, even the way he went about his days – and made sure he was doing everything in the right order, the right way, to keep him durable. They re-visited and adjusted and evaluated, making sure the right habits were being put in place, and then used that as the foundation moving forward; they no longer have to meet face-to-face throughout the season, but instead maintain the good habits with phone calls and check-ins to keep that foundation in place for years to come.
That support system gives Bobrovsky more than just a good summer workout consisting of martial art-inspired workout tapes. It uses that emphasis on being in the right place mentally, building training habits up from the mind and out into the body, and helps give him an edge that keeps him both healthy and on top of his game physically.
The toughest part of explaining what they do together may very well be trying to fit it into a neat, single-sentence box. The trust and chemistry in their relationship is as important as the exercises themselves; they continue to adjust what they focus on depending on what works and what still needs work, relying on respect and enough humility to collectively continue developing their roles as coaches and trainers and as student. Four years in, they’re still discovering what works best.
They are, as Nykvist explained it, still writing the book on what they do month by month.
What makes it unique, though, is what might make that book a model for goaltending training in the future, one that incorporates multiple disciplines and strengths into a cooperative training team.
It certainly seems to be working for Bobrovsky.