Miikka Kiprusoff Part 2: International Man of Mystery
In recognition of Miikka Kiprusoff playing his 500th NHL game last week and passing Habs legend Ken Dryden with his 259th career win at the same time, InGoal Magazine took a look at the recent work he’d done to simplify his game. We also went back into the archives and reprinted Part 1 of a feature on the style changes Kiprusoff made after being traded from San Jose to Calgary in 2003, and how, without the addition of certain basic butterfly elements after that move, he might not still be in the NHL.
Today we present Part 2 of that feature, a closer look at the quiet – or so you think – man behind the mask, and how he grew up a goaltender in his native Finland:
The more things change: Kiprusoff still a private prankster
The hands have always been there for Miikka 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,” says 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,” adds 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,” says 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,” long-time former teammate Vesa Toskala told the Calgary Sun. “I phone him and leave a message and he never calls me back.”
It’s all by design. The soft-spoken, red-bearded Finn wants to keep his private life private, leading one city newspaper to dub him the Flames’ International Man of Mystery.
“International Man of Mystery,” he told The Sun when the name was floated for an in-depth article in that newspaper a couple years after his arrival in Calgary. “I like that.”
Especially if it helps him get away with more shenanigans both on and off the ice, a long history of which was well documented in the same 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 current Columbus goalie Fredrik Norrena were among four goalies 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,” recalls 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,” says 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.”
Growing up a goaltender came naturally in Finland
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 says. “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 say – 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.
“He’s at the top of the game and I haven’t in all the years I’ve played seen a goalie work harder than him,” captain Jarome Iginla says. “If he’s one of the best and he works that hard, all of us want to follow that. All of us see it and respect it and see him always trying to get better. His demeanor doesn’t change, his approach doesn’t change, he goes out and does the same things, he keeps working at it and that’s why he’s such a good goalie.”
Kiprusoff’s routine now 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,” says David Marcoux, the goalie coach when Kiprusoff arrived, and the man responsible for adding sliding and proper legs recoveries to his game. “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,” says 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,” adds 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 is 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 says. “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 500 NHL games now on his resume, and more evolution-resistent peers like Toskala and Nabokov out of the league, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t for the better.