Miikka Kiprusoff milestone started with technical tweaks in Calgary
“International Man of Mystery” had a side to him few saw
Maybe it was all the guests from Finland on the InGoal Radio podcast (and one more special Finnish guest to come soon!). Or maybe it was all the talk of Finland celebrating its Independence Day on Dec. 6, and the ensuing conversations about Pekka Rinne, his amazing glove hand and it’s ties to playing Pesapola (Finnish baseball) on the InGoal writer backchannels, and our social media feed. Whatever the reason, we were feeling nostalgic for Finland, which led to a glimpse through the archives and the discovery of this old deep dive into the goalie who player perhaps the biggest role in the Finnish goaltending revolution breaking through in the NHL: Miikka Kiprusoff. The soft-spoken Finn’s incredible turnaround after being traded to the Calgary Flames by the San Jose Sharks included some specific technical and equipment changes under the guidance of the Flames goalie coach David Marcoux, but perhaps the best part was the spotlight it shone on the shy stopper, and some of the stories that emerged. Whether it was stretching for three hours on a game day, skipping out on training runs to eat blueberries in the woods back home, or pretending not to speak English to avoid carrying bags, it was fun to revisit this feature story, so we thought we’d pull it out of mothballs and re-publish it here just for you, our InGoal Premium readers, in the hopes you enjoy it just as much.
“Of course I was,” Kiprusoff insists. “I didn’t have that strong a season the year before and when I came back for training camp it was pretty clear I’m not going to play in San Jose. So I was working as hard as I can and I knew if I was going to get moved I had to be ready to go. So it was really big for me to get off to a good start.”
Given Kiprusoff’s uncertain situation at the time – he had been watching Sharks games from the press box before former coach Darryl Sutter freed him in exchange for a second-round draft pick on Nov. 16, 2003 – the nerves are understandable. But now, with Vezina and Jennings Trophies on his mantle, a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on his resume, his name in the NHL record book for the best goals-against average in a season, and that now famous poker face under his mask, it’s near impossible to imagine that arguably the world’s best goaltender ever worried about his place in a league he now dominates.
Then again, a lot of things have changed since Kiprusoff arrived to help turnaround the Flames franchise, starting with the fact he simply is no longer the same goaltender.
For all the second-guessing and hand-wringing in San Jose about giving up on a guy who then knocked them out of the playoffs that same year, few realize the Kiprusoff that left the Sharks press box isn’t the same one now turning away shots and turning heads in the Calgary crease.
“Like when you go down you don’t have to always come up, if it’s close you are using your legs and staying down,” said Kiprusoff. “I did a little (sliding) in San Jose, but I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here about that and I think right now it’s one of the strongest parts of my game.”
Watching Kiprusoff slide effortlessly across the ice on his pads now, it’s hard to imagine that just four years ago he really didn’t know about getting up from the butterfly on the proper leg. But in San Jose, he didn’t need to.
Like most pupils of legendary goalie guru Warren Strelow, who passed away on the eve of the the 2007 playoffs, the strength of Kiprusoff’s game was positioning. Yes, the Sharks goalies still made saves with the butterfly (or as Strelow called it, the “V”) but they typically got back to their skates before moving laterally again, rather than pushing across while they were still on their knees.
“When you go to San Jose with Warren Strelow everything is about positioning and depth and perfect angling, and there are great things out of that,” said Marcoux. “The great base he has now in terms of positioning, you know he got that from San Jose, but then again with a guy that has so much athleticism, so much flexibility and so much power in his legs, you have to utilize his strengths.”
Now there aren’t many goaltenders that stay over their legs as well, or slide laterally as smoothly, as Kiprusoff, a product of his exceptional leg power and flexibility.
“The big thing when he came to us was raising the good leg and shifting over, loading on the good leg. He would see 90 per cent of the goalies in the NHL do it, but there was nobody there to reinforce it. And now he doesn’t even think about it anymore. Technically he bought into that. Technically he bought into the fact that on an angle if you lower your center of gravity by playing one-knee down technique, you can freeze pucks quicker, you’re closer to the ice, you’re covering everything and you can push off and load of that leg and all these details. He sees other goaltenders doing it and you learn a lot from other guys. He has an incredible talent and now to see different guys playing a certain way, they develop a new way of thinking, like maybe I can add that to my game.”
Marcoux was quick to add Kiprusoff is not and never will be a “purely or perfectly technical goaltender.” He’s not a puck blocker, except when certain situations, usually involving screen plays, call for it. Instead Kiprusoff maintains very active hands even when he’s down, or moving, in the butterfly, allowing him to control pucks and limit rebounds.
Naturally, his first instinct wasn’t always to stop the shots.
“He would protect his face first and then open it up,” Marcoux said of the unique glove action. “I can’t change that.”
In most cases, he doesn’t want to. As flawed as it may be in a technical sense, Kiprusoff’s glove motion helps him create a rhythm, and given the incredible glove saves that result, there’s really no need to mess with this natural ability – as long as he can see the puck. It’s when he can’t see, when he needs to go into more of a blocking mode, that Marcoux has Kiprusoff working to abandon the glove-down habit because it simply doesn’t generate as much net coverage as a more open, upright glove position.
Still, there’s little doubt he’s improved his technique. With it has come some of the consistency that was missing during that fateful false start in San Jose in 2002. But what really sets Kiprusoff apart from the crowd are his otherworldly natural skills and a Gumby-like flexibility.
Oh, and did we mention the hands yet?
“The best hands in the NHL?” Marcoux asked rhetorically. “It’s not Sidney Crosby, it’s Miikka Kiprusoff.”
The more things change: Kiprusoff still a private prankster
The hands have always been there for Kiprusoff. So too has a slight of hand when it comes to the stoic Finn’s personality, one that leaves most outsiders wondering if he even has one.
Kiprusoff’s teammates know better. They know behind the hard-to-hear voice used for media interviews is an intense competitor with the ability to either spark or settle them on the ice, depending on the situation. They know that as dry as he can come off in the press, he’s a prankster in the room. Maybe not in as spirited a manner as former backup turned current goaltending coach Jamie McLennan, but no less effective.
“He’s one of the funniest men that I have ever met,” said Johan Hedberg, who roomed with Kiprusoff for a year in Kentucky of the AHL. “I laugh just to look at him.”
“He has a very good sense of humor, but it’s dry,” added former Flames defenseman Andrew Ference, who is now in Boston. “He’s witty, but he’s definitely his own guy. It’s tough for me to describe and I know him quite well. He’s just a good, funny guy who plays to his own tune.”
Ference isn’t alone in his struggles to describe Kiprusoff.
Even in Calgary, where the goalie’s popularity quickly grew to rival even captain Jarome Iginla, little is really known about Kiprusoff. Even teammates don’t really know him away from the rink, where prefers to keep his life with partner Seidi and their young son Aaro to himself.
“I think he chooses his times when he wants to open up, like when he feels that he’s secure,” said Hedberg.
Not surprising then, that Kiprusoff once listed his hobbies as reading and fishing, a favorite summer escape back at a “middle of nowhere” cottage in Finland, where he enjoys quiet mornings alone and no one knows where he is.
“Even I can’t talk to him in the summer,” said long-time former teammate Vesa Toskala. “I phone him and leave a message and he never calls me back.”
“I like that,” Kiprusoff said of the nickname.
Especially if it helps him get away with more shenanigans both on and off the ice, a long history of which was once well documented in a feature in the Calgary Sun. He may have listed “Jackass” as his favorite TV show in the 2002-03 San Jose media guide, but Kiprusoff’s own manner of comedy, much like the goalie himself, is a lot more understated.
Like that time back in Finland, when Kiprusoff and ex-Columbus goalie Fredrik Norrena were among four stoppers sent out for an hour-long run in the forest by their team, TPS Turku. While Norrena and one of other goalies were out running, a then junior-aged Kiprusoff stayed behind with the other older goaltender, eating blueberries for an hour before rejoining Norrena on the way back.
Or the 1996 World Junior Championships, when Kiprusoff and his future Sharks teammate Toskala freaked out the Finnish coaching staff by putting baby powder on their faces to make it look like they were sick. Or years later in San Jose, when Toskala turned to Kiprusoff for relief from a rigorous drill only to find his practice partner on his knees, with his mask off, eating an energy bar.
Or during his entire first season in the AHL, when partner Hedberg was forced to serve as his translator for Kiprusoff, who also spoke both Swedish and English at the time. So why not speak for himself? Because rookies had to carry all the bags, a task he wasn’t impressed with and managed to avoid by playing dumb all season.
“His English was good enough that he could understand what everybody said but whenever he needed to he would use me as a translator to get away from things he didn’t want to do,” recalled Hedberg with a laugh. “He’d say `no comprende, no hable englais’ and he would give me this look like ‘I can fool these guys all the time.’ It was awesome. He was doing it in such a funny way.”
And always, it seems, getting away with it.
“It’s easy to pull things because nobody believes it’s me because I’m a nice, quiet guy,” Kiprusoff told The Sun. “Most times, I can walk away and they are blaming each other. Those are the best laughs.”
Don’t, however, confuse that sense of humor with a lack of work ethic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“We had a lot of fun together,” said Hedberg. “But he’s very, very serious about what he’s doing even though at times it can look like he doesn’t care, but I knew he was extremely serious about his work, his goaltending.”
Kiprusoff had his first goalie coach when he was 10 years old in Finland, but didn’t add butterfly elements like sliding, proper leg recovery, or this VH, or one-pad down, technique until after he arrived in Calgary.
Kiprusoff was following his father, Jarmo’s footsteps when he first went between the pipes, but older brother Marko, who played for Montreal and the Islanders, kept him there to face street hockey shots from his older friends.
“My brother always said ‘Get in net. It will be awesome,'” he said. “I didn’t really want to go there but … “
Once in net, Kiprusoff was in the right place at the right time for young goalies. With the Finnish federation focused on improving internationally through better puck stopping, every young goaltender had position specific instruction.
Kiprusoff was six when he got his first equipment. Within four years he also had access to his own goalie coach.
“I think we started when I was like 10 years old we had a guy come in and practice at least three times a week, sometimes more,” Kiprusoff said. “It’s good of course, but when you’re young I think you have to remember it must be fun and you can’t do too much of that serious stuff like we’re doing now. It’s more playing and having a good time, but I think it’s good to have somebody to show you some basic stuff. It’s good to do skating like goalie stuff at early age.”
Kiprusoff went on to star for Turku’s junior squad and was on Finland’s world junior team before being drafted in the fifth round by San Jose in 1995. After a couple of seasons in the Swedish Elite League, Kiprusoff came overseas and enjoyed immediate success with Kentucky in the AHL, appearing in a pair of all-star games and a few with the Sharks before making the jump to the NHL for good in 2001-02, playing 20 games behind Evgeni Nabokov.
With Nabokov embroiled in a contract dispute at the start of the next season, Kiprusoff got his first chance to be an NHL No.1. But the Sharks stumbled, costing Sutter his job as head coach and Kiprusoff his spot on the San Jose depth chart.
Stuck behind Nabokov and Toskala the next season, all he could do was work hard in practice, watch from the press box during games, and wait for a trade. Back then it was just as hard to imagine winning a Vezina as it is now to think the cucumber-cool Kiprusoff could have been nervous when the trade came.
“You have to believe in yourself,” Kiprusoff said. “It was one thing in San Jose with Warren Strelow, he was great for the young goalies there. Mentally he would push us and he was positive and he was huge for me.”
Before and after the trade, Strelow always maintained his belief big things were possible for Kiprusoff. His student certainly made quick believers out of the Flames.
Kiprusoff went 24-10-4 after arriving in Calgary, finishing with a modern-day record 1.69 goals-against average and tied for the league lead with a 93.3 save percentage. He posted five shutouts and finished second in Vezina voting, largely because of the late start and another month missed because of a sprained MCL in his left knee.
It was during that time that Kiprusoff started turning over his glove a la Marty Turco for improved puck handling – “It’s easy to have two options, backhand or forehand, so for me it’s been good,” he said – but he’d already made a great impression on his new team, both with his incredible play on the ice, and an impressive work ethic off it.
Kiprusoff’s routine includes three hours of stretching on game day, starting with 45 minutes before and after the morning skate, and again before and after the game.
“He’s always the last one to leave,” said Marcoux. “He’s a Ferrari and if you do the maintenance, you can have great thrills with that Ferrari. He understands that concept and he understand he’s not 25 anymore and if he wants to play a long time he has to take care of himself.”
Clearly the days of faking his forest runs are over.
“It’s a big thing for me. I play a lot of games and taking care of my body is huge,” said Kiprusoff. “When you get older you get smarter too and you know what you have to do to be ready. When you get older you have to work harder and harder. When you’re young you can pretty much just go to the game and you’re ready to go. But right now it’s getting more and more important to warm up and cool down after the game and really take care of myself.”
Kiprusoff also takes better care of his preparation, using video provided by Marcoux to prepare himself for each new game, each new team differently than the last, and says video has become, “a big part of my game.”
“He’s a perfectionist. It comes out in his ability to adjust to a different team every second night, to re-program,” added Marcoux. “He has to program his mind every second night on a new team, new tendencies, certain player tendencies, power plays in general, and some technical differences with how certain teams forecheck.”
Marcoux was particularly fond of camera angles from behind the net that provide a goalie-eye view of developing plays from future opponents and his own past performances.
“He sees himself, like a video game where you can choose the view you want, so those are priceless,” he said. “You can talk to him about making sure this skate is inside the post, and he sees his skate there, it’s a mental image and a feeling. He’s not watching his skate when he does it, but he has that feeling he’s all right on that post. He’s very good at that, pulling mental images out of the video.”
The images of himself on that video have changed a lot since Kiprusoff arrived in Calgary as more of a stand-up, recover-to-the-skates-every-time goalie. With the Flames all-time wins record now on his resume, and more evolution-resistent peers like Toskala out of the league, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t for the better.