Eight years ago, a young Finnish goalie name Tuukka Rask was excited because he had just been drafted into the NHL by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was only 18 years old, but his career plan was right on schedule. He had won the Finnish junior championship, recording six shutouts in 10 playoff games, and he had played in the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Today, Rask is the Boston Bruins’ starting goaltender. His name is on the Stanley Cup as a member of the Bruins’ championship team in 2011, and he might well have won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP had the Bruins beaten the Chicago Blackhawks in the Final in June.
And eight years from now? Rask hopes he’s still wearing a Bruins sweater. Right after the Stanley Cup Final he said he wanted to play in Boston “forever,” and in July he got his wish, “forever” with an asterisk, as he signed an eight-year, $56 million contract.
When the contract was announced, Rask was back in Finland on a five-week whirlwind tour to see family and friends. Unlike many European players who get back to North America late in the summer, Rask returned to Boston in early August.
“We always like to come back early so we can enjoy the offseason here too,” Rask told NHL.com “I hope I get to stay in Boston for the full eight years, but you never know in this business. Boston is our [Rask’s and girlfriend Jasmiina’s] second home. The city feels very European, and it’s a big sports town. We really like it here.”
When Rask signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract last summer, many experts thought it was something of a risky move. He didn’t.
“I didn’t consider it a big risk. I knew that if I played the way I can, I’ll get a contract somewhere. Of course, there’s always an injury risk, but I didn’t consider that much, either,” he said.
It’s that same confidence that made Rask move from his hometown, Savonlinna, to play hockey in Tampere, Finland, as a 16-year-old. It’s the same confidence that his agent, Markus Lehto, noticed when he first saw the youngster play for Finland’s Under-16 team against Sweden.
“I saw it right away that he was something special. The way he challenged shooters, and just the way he carried himself out on the ice, it didn’t leave anybody cold,” Lehto said.
“Of course, his style has changed since, and as he’s got more experience, he doesn’t waste as much energy as before.”
Rask’s career path has been practically perfect; he’s climbed the ladder step by step from Finland’s junior national teams to becoming a first-round draft choice, playing in the Finnish league, the American Hockey League, backing up in the NHL, to being a star in the NHL.
“The only little step backwards was when he lost the starter’s job in 2010, but of course, his competition was one of the best in the League in Tim Thomas,” Lehto said.
Rask himself wouldn’t have minded a faster route to the top.
“In hindsight, I think it was a good decision to stay in Finland when I got drafted and then play in the AHL, but I wanted to stay in the NHL both my first and second year, and I thought I had good camps, but I also understand it’s good to get to play in the AHL so that the jump to the NHL is easier,” Rask said.
With the last game of the season played on June 24, the summer has been shorter than usual for Rask. In early August, it was also announced that Bill Zito, Rask’s former agent, would join the Columbus Blue Jackets as an assistant GM.
“Well, at least I don’t have to worry about negotiating a contract for a while, but I’ve worked with ‘Mare’ [Lehto] over 10 years, and they have Brett Peterson here in Boston, so it’s not a big change for me,” Rask said with a laugh.
Now he’s back at home enjoying life in Boston. In the mornings, he works out and skates with his teammates at Boston University; in the afternoon, he works on his golf game.
He’s got the big contract, but no pressure, Rask said.
“Signing the contract sets me up for life, for sure, but it hasn’t changed how I prepare myself for the season or think of the game,” he said. “It’s been a little different summer with the last game of the season in late June, but I’ve been healthy and have been able to both rest and work out like I wanted.
“I still think I’m early in my career. I’m just 26.”
In March, he’ll be 27, and he also hopes to celebrate that birthday as an Olympian. With any other country, someone who led all goaltenders in save percentage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (.940) and posted the third-best save percentage in the regular season (.929) would be a shoo-in for the Sochi Games. But with Finland, the competition is tough.
There’s the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina finalist, and the San Jose Sharks’ Antti Niemi, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season candidate. There’s also the Dallas Stars’ Kari Lehtonen and the Minnesota Wild’s Niklas Backstrom, as well as Rask.
“It won’t be easy, but Tuukka is very motivated to be on the team,” says Lehto, who represented Finland in the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo (and who also represents Niemi, and coincidentally, Thomas).
“Making the Olympic team is one of my goals this season. I’ll try to play well enough to make the team, but everybody knows that Finland has several top goalies. It would be a dream come true to play in the Olympics, though,” Rask said.
In the meantime, the race for another Stanley Cup is about to get underway — and Rask is ready.
(This story ran on nhl.com).