Ask a Pro: Jonas Hiller on Swiss goalies and unique gear
As part of our weekly Ask a Pro segment, InGoal Magazine sat down with Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks. And if we didn’t already know it, the questions from our readers made it clear the Swiss puck-stopping sensation has gained quite a reputation as an innovator when it comes to goaltending equipment.
In addition to talking about his history in goal as a young boy in Switzerland, and a late transfer over to the National Hockey League after not even being on the radar for his homeland’s top junior programs, Hiller also answered questions about his “Batman” mask and custom made carbon fiber and Kevlar cowlings.
Of course being an innovator means experimenting, and ironically given partner Curtis McElhinney would get cut open for stitches during a game against the Canucks shortly after we talked, Hiller also talked about how a practice puck managed to get through his cat eye cage and split him open above the eye – and the adjustments he’s had to make to the cage construction since then.
We’ll start where Hiller started, however, growing up in Switzerland.
InGoal Magazine subscriber Robert Denham asks: I’m always interested in knowing what age they started playing goal and at what age they became a committed goalie? We have some kids who just want to play goalie, others who like to go back and forth.
Jonas Hiller: “I’m not really sure exactly, but I had been a goalie and a forward for like three or four years – I think the first time I was like seven or eight years old. And then I didn’t start being a goalie only until I was 12 or so. My parents always told me to do both and now I am glad I did because I learned to skate properly, I learned to stickhandle, and all that stuff. And I kind of got to see everything from both sides and was still able to make the decision at 12 when I kind of like really knew what I wanted to do.”
InGoal follow up: You and I have talked before about your history as a late bloomer and how you learned the position, but can you refresh our readers on how your style evolved, and the roles played by both Francois Allaire, your former goalie coach in Anaheim, and other Swiss-born goalies that made the NHL?
Jonas Hiller: “I worked with Francois at his mid- to late-July camps in Switzerland since junior right through playing for Davos [in the Swiss Elite League]. The first time I already knew pretty much about his style because I practiced it a few times with [David] Aebischer before and he showed me a lot and I learned just by watching those guys. I got a pretty good feeling for it, but first time was easier for me than for other guys who never heard something like get up with the right leg and block and those things. For me it was easier but still a big thing and to listen and get it explained again, I really liked it, and worked really well for me in the season. It made it easier to sign in Anaheim (Editor’s note: Hiller had 16-one way NHL contract offers that summer and the Ducks were weeks from winning a cup with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov still under contract for the next season). At least I knew what I can expect in goalie practices and I knew the guy and I get along with him pretty good so it makes you feel much more comfortable instead of going somewhere you don’t know anybody.”
InGoal Magazine subscriber Matthew Chippin asks: Do you think that because you came to the NHL at an older age like many of the other successful European goalies (Hasek, Lundqvist etc.) that it gave you a higher level of maturity and experience to adapt to the North American style game? (Editor’s note, Hiller came over as a free agent to Anaheim in 2007 at age 25)
Jonas Hiller: “If things goes well, it’s easy anyways. But the problem is if you have a tough time or can’t find your game or get a tough loss. If you are 18, it goes pretty quick that you start worrying about too many things and you are kind of like losing your head and losing your mental game and at my age I had won certain things (Editor’s note: like consecutive Swiss League titles) and knew what I was capable of. If I had a bad game I knew I could play better the next game without worrying what all the people said because I already went through those situations a couple of times in Europe. You have that good feeling from being in that situation and you know you are able to fight through it.”
InGoal follow up: You didn’t really attract NHL attention until your mid-20s, but was that always the goal, to come over here and play?
Jonas Hiller: “It was always a dream to play in the best league in the world, and you always got to have that dream. But for me it was pretty far away because I never played junior national team or anything because they had a lot of good goalies at that age. So first I was happy that I can jump in the Swiss league and get a chance and it worked good and I came up to national team and played some games. It was step by step. But as a kid I always had that dream but it was so far away at that time and I came closer and closer every year. I knew the big NHL goalies like Patrick Roy, but for me it was guys like David Aebischer or Martin Gerber, those guys that like made it from Switzerland, so I was looking up to them and tried to follow them. It’s great for me that Swiss goalies proved they can play in that league and for me it’s much easier to be third guy or fourth guy over there instead of being the first guy.”
InGoal Magazine reader John Manning asks: I once read in the old Goalie News magazine that your cowlings were custom made and that you helped designed them so that you are able to get that push edge from your knees easier without catching the cowling on the ice. (Editor’s note: the cowlings are designed so the inner part below the big toe is as tight to the boot as safely possible, thus reducing the thickness of the area where most goalies would get that “slip out,” and Hiller also combines them with Thrust Blades, which have a taller profile, therefore raising the distance that area is off the ice and reducing the chances it makes contact as he is making lateral movements from a wide or down stance.)
Jonas Hiller: “It originally came because Koho discontinued their cowlings and I didn’t get along with the new Reebok and I was looking for some stuff and trying some stuff and met a guy in Switzerland and talked about what he thought, if there was a chance to do something like that. And he said ‘well it looks pretty hard’ but he gave it a try and I’m really happy with how it came out. We had some improvements to do, the first ones were not strong enough, they started cracking, but right now he has a certain way he layers up the carbon fiber and Kevlar that I can pretty much play on one set the whole year.”
InGoal Magazine reader Terry Smith writes: I love the all black mask you are wearing this year. How did you come up with the idea to keep it so simple and plain, and did it have anything to do with Swiss goalie Martin Gerber having something similar for a whle in Ottawa a few years ago?
Jonas Hiller: “No, actually it was a prototype for a new design from my mask maker in Switzerland (Alec Voggel of Airxess) and my painter just put a flat black on it because he wanted to cover the carbon fiber look and then we started putting the gold Ducks logo stickers on it and I started to think it actually looked pretty cool. And I brought it to training camp and guys liked it and I’ve never had so many people talking about it, so I thought I’d just keep it for now. I’ve heard a couple of nicknames – Darth Vader and Batman – but it’s cool if people talk about it. I always try to come up with something different. Sometimes there is so much stuff on the masks you can barely figure out what it is, but with that it fits the Ducks outfit. It’s beat up a little bit and it’s tough to try to keep it flat black because it gets shiny where it gets hit, but it still looks good. If I waned to do another layer, I could probably spray paint it, but it looks a little more mean if it’s beat up.”
InGoal follow up: Speaking of beat up, a puck got through your cage in practice a month ago and, judging by that scar over your left eye, dinged you pretty good.
Jonas Hiller: “Yeah, the puck pretty much just had the right angle and actually hit me in the eye. I wear my mask pretty close and it’s a standard cage, so those things happen. And it’s actually a good thing. The guy who makes cages was in and we decided already to make the cat eye a little smaller and move the top bar a little lower.”