Pesäpallo helps Finnish hockey goalies

Last season, 92 goaltenders played in the NHL. Eleven of them (12 percent) were from Finland. That was up from nine in the previous season and tied the record from 2009.

Over the years, 30 Finnish goalies have played 4,411 regular-season games in the NHL. But only five of them played in the league before 1999.

So why has Finland — with a population of 5.5 million, one-sixth that of Canada — been producing so many world-class goalies in recent years?

One of the reasons for Finland’s steady production of high-quality goalies — there are seven Finnish goalies in Russia’s KHL, too — is their tradition tracing back to the 1960s and ’70s.

Urpo Ylönen, Jorma Valtonen, Hannu Kamppuri, Kari Takko and Jarmo Myllys were among the Finnish pioneers, helping pave the way for a new first wave of true NHL goalies, such as Miikka Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne and Niklas Bäckström, who have either retired or are closing in on the end of their careers.

Finnish club Pori Ässät produced Takko, one of the NHL’s four Finnish pioneers. When Takko was 10, the Ässät goalie was Valtonen, who was named best goaltender at the 1972 world championships. And when Jaakko Rosendahl, the 33-year-old goaltending coach of Ässät, was 12, Finland won its first world championship gold with Myllys, who played 39 games in the NHL.

Then there was Ylönen, best goaltender at the 1970 tournament who later became a goaltending coach for Finnish League powerhouse Turku, with students such as Kiprusoff, Antero Niittymaki, Fredrik Norrena, Jani Hurme and Joni Ortio.

“Role models are important,” said Rosendahl, who doubles as Team Italy’s goaltending coach, in Finnish. “I’m sure a lot of kids wanted to play goal thanks to Myllys, and when Finns finally made their NHL breakthrough, they gained self-confidence.”

Winning begets winning, and goaltending heroes beget goaltending heroes.

Of course, Finland has built up a great coaching training system, and the federation’s nine districts each have a dedicated goaltending coach who makes club visits to spread the knowledge. Rosendahl’s Assat is a midsized club, with 12 junior teams and the Finnish League team. The club has 18 goalie coaches.

Also, with a functioning goalie factory in their own country, the clubs often have two good Finnish goalies on their roster, which creates a healthy competition. Only three non-Finns have won the Urpo Ylonen Award which goes to the best goalie in the league, the latest being Tim Thomas in 1998.

So is there a Finnish style then? Something others could copy?

“It’s hard to say, not really,” said the Vancouver Canucks’ Jacob Markstrom, in Swedish. “When I was growing up, there was Niittymaki and Kiprusoff, and they had a similar style, but I don’t see a Finnish style.”

Kiprusoff and Niittymaki both came up through Ylonen’s goalie school.

“I’d say, generally speaking, that Finnish goalies have good hands, and we try to control the puck, use our glove a lot,” said Nashville Predators No. 1 Rinne, in Finnish. “I believe I can spot a Finn, but I’ll admit that the styles are pretty similar everywhere these days.

“Everybody has his own style, which I think is great. There was a time when everybody looked almost the same. But one detail that still separates the Finns is the active hands.”

Rinne credits his own hands to the game of pesäpallo, a baseball-like sport that was developed in Finland in the early 1920s.

“When I was a kid, I wore the glove all the time, and I still like to catch the puck if I can,” he said. “I think it can be traced back to pesäpallo, but it’s probably not the whole explanation. I don’t know any other Finnish goalies who have played pesapallo.”

Tuukka Rask, a goalie for Finland’s World Cup of Hockey team along with Rinne, liked the pesäpallo theory, even if he hasn’t played the game seriously.

“Only at school … but I think it makes sense,” Rask said, in Finnish. “Finns are good with their hands, and just look at Rinne. I think Finnish goalies are catchers more than other nationalities.”

Even if their national sport wouldn’t explain Finland’s success with goalies, Rosendahl wouldn’t mind if more kids played pesäpallo.

“It’s good practice for your hand-eye coordination because you need to read the ball’s trajectory quickly,” he said. “A goalie has 0.3 seconds to make a move when somebody shoots from the point. There’s no time to look where the puck’s going. You have to know it.”

The fact that there’s no particular Finnish style is a testament to the way coaches like to start with an individual goalie’s qualities and then build on them.

“No coach in Finland thinks that his goalies should play a certain way,” Rosendahl said. “In Sweden, they trust their blocking style and teach it to everybody, even small kids, even if they can’t really block the whole net.

“A big part of our coaching has to do with a way of looking at life itself. How you should only focus on the things you can control, not look at skaters’ mistakes, how to work every day, how to enjoy the work every day.”

Finland’s goalie coaches have to work hard to keep the factory going. Of the 11 Finns in the NHL last season, four could be considered No. 1s — although Antti Niemi (43 starts) and Kari Lehtonen (39 starts) split the season pretty evenly for the Dallas Stars. Rinne played 66 games and Rask, 64. Four other Finnish goalies made double-digit starts, including Ortio, who has signed with a Swedish League team, and Karri Rämö, who suffered a torn ACL in February and is currently unsigned. In the 2016-17 season, Rinne will turn 34 and Rask 30.

Meanwhile, Finland has a group of young forwards on their way up in Patrik Laine, Teuvo Teräväinen, Aleksander Barkov and Jesse Puljujärvi. Could change be in the wind?

“Maybe it’s not cool to be a goalie anymore,” Rosendahl said.

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