Saturday, July 20, 2013

The wonderful world of Miikka Kiprusoff ... since 2003

By Larry Wigge

He was considered a Mystery Man.

Miikka Kiprusoff mask on or off was a contradiction in terms. He was a loner. Kept to himself. But ... he was a good interview if you took the time to listen and learn.

There's no masking the obvious, goaltending is never more important than in the playoffs, when every shift, every shot and every save is magnified 10,000 times. The recipe for playoff success is hard work, timely scoring, good defense, a few lucky bounces, shrewd coaching and great goaltending. Goaltending is the most important ingredient, because shaky goaltending can make a good team mediocre and great goaltending can transform a mediocre team into a champion.

For better than a decade, it was either Marty Brodeur or ...

Some would say Roberto Luongo or Ryan Miller or J.S Giguere or Marc-Andre Fleury, but they'd be wrong. Kiprusoff was, in fact, perhaps the most dominant goaltender of his time with his butterfly style and Gumby-like low-to-the-ice style of play.

He's a workhorse, leaned on as much as humanly possible by a fair-to-middling team. Miikka Kiprusoff made the Calgary Flames. They did not make him.

Miikka  played in 70 or more game in seven straight season with Calgary, showing his consistency and durabilty. There were individual awards, which Kiprusoff won: He was the Vezina Trophy winner in 2006, the William Jennings Trophy winner the same year, posting a near-record 10 shutouts. For a period beginning in 2005-06, he won 42, 40, 39 and 45 games. And, Miikka led the Flames on a fantastic run in 2003-04 that took Calgary to the Stanley Cup finals. After posting a brilliant league-leading 1.69 goals-against average -- he was one victory away from eliminating Tampa Bay in Game 7.

Little was known about the Turku, Finland, native, before he arrived in Calgary from San Jose for a second-round draft choice. After all, he had been himself a fifth-round draft choice, 116th overall, by the Sharks in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft.

Darryl Sutter, who had him as a backup when he coached the Sharks, pulled off what you might call the steal of the decade in acquiring Kiprusoff.

"I've never seen a goalie so calm and relaxed and confident -- a confidence that has carried over to the rest of the team," said the fiercely competitive Sutter.

And without his MVP-like performance the Flames likely would have missed the playoffs for the EIGHTH consecutive season. 

Who would have thought that his 7-9-2-2 start for Kiprusoff last season while Evgeny Nabokov was holding out? That didn't stop Sutter from grabbing him and proving San Jose they were wrong about him.

"I was there," Sutter told me. "You could have had God playing in goal those first 20 games, and it wouldn't have mattered."

A determined Sutter, who was fired by the Sharks in 2002-03, made that same dramatic statement a couple of times ... for emphasis, I guess.

Emphasis? Miikka Kiprusoff was the Calgary Flames for nine seasons. No one quite did it like Kipper.

"With some goalies you get a lot of baggage -- you know, quirky, superstitious, crazy," long-time Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "With Miikka, we hardly know he's around most of the time. But on the ice, he can change the momentum of a game in a blink with one of his saves. Some of the saves he's made can, well, be contagious -- and we all get caught up in the momentum.

In this his epitaph story, the 36-year-old Kiprusoff -- "If Calgary has not announced it, you guys can do that," Kiprusoff is quoted as saying on June 25.

Thus, no Miikka Kiprusoff story is not complete without his acquisition from San Jose. That was so delicious. 

Kiprusoff was No. 3 on the Sharks depth chart behind Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, just wasting his time rattling around in that San Jose hotel room on that November 16, 2003 morning. If Sharks GM Doug Wilson risked trying to send Kiprusoff through waivers to send him to the minors, he surely would have lost him ... for nothing.

"I remember I was sitting there in my room, looking to see what movie I might watch, when the phone rang. For me, hockey had become monotonous. Practice, practice and more practice. No games. ... For what, five or six weeks ... " 

Kiprusoff told me after beating the Blues in St. Louis, 4-2, the other night,  his voice trailing off signifying the obvious frustration he was feeling on that Sunday morning in November.

"When I heard Doug Wilson’s voice on the phone, I got a little excited. I knew the Sharks had a decision to make with three goalies on the roster.

"When Doug said, 'Go to the rink, get your gear and head to the airport. You'll be in Calgary in about three hours.' Well, I ... uh ... well ... a million things were running through my head. But the best was that someone wanted me ... Darryl Sutter (his old coach with the Sharks) wanted me. I had a lot of people I wanted to call. But I didn't have time. I had to go."

That was the story that lived with him until he retired a Calgary Flame.

"I grew up watching hockey, watching my dad play goal," Kiprusoff says of his dad Jarmo's sputtering netminding career in Turku, Finland. "I remember always sitting in the stands watching hockey back then. I'd watch my dad and kind of rock to my left or right to make the same kind of save he was making on the ice -- and my wanting to become a goaltender kind of started there.

"In Finland, we had a lot of goalies. Hannu Kampurri and Jarmo Myllis made it to North America to play. But there were others who played for our country and stayed around to teach, sort of like the way Patrick Roy and his goalie coach (Francois Allaire) did with ALL of those young kids in Quebec. It seemed like goalies in Finland got special treatment. There would be a goalie coach around to work with me two or three times a week.

"It wasn't always the same style, either (like the butterfly of Roy in Quebec.) One coach would teach you to stand up a lot. Another would teach the butterfly. I guess that's why my style isn't exactly one or the other."

What makes Kipper better in Calgary?

"Everyone around me here seems to have confidence in me," Kiprusoff says with a self-assured smile. "That's important. Real important. I don't think I am playing that much differently than I did in San Jose. It's just getting the chance to get back in there regularly."

Kiprusoff forgot about how much better he is on rebounds.

"There are a lot of goalies who can stop the first shot," former 50-goal man Iginla says. "I remember getting a couple rebound goals on Kipper when he was in San Jose. But now, he stones me in practice all the time."

"His biggest asset is he stops lots of pucks. That's why he has a calming effect on players in front of him," said Sutter. 

Calm as a cucumber?

"Everyone says I'm calm. I guess I am. That's me," he said. "Everyone should be how they are most comfortable." 
He still remembers the razzes his dad heard from the crowd. 

"I also remember hearing fans around me, how you say ... yeah, razz, my dad after he let in a bad goal."

I remember asking Kiprusoff about obstacles he had to face in his career. He recalled one in particular. A goaltender coach he was at odds with.

Kipper recalled, "I remember the goalie coach we had on the Finnish national team telling me that I go down too much in the butterfly and I'll never make it as a goalie at a high level because of that."

The smile and calm and quiet approach of Kiprusoff shows that while he's an emotional man inside, he never lets the outside temperature and pressures let him boil over.

Miikka Kiprusoff has clearly been the face of the Flames franchise for the last nine seasons. He never brought Calgary a Stanley Cup ... but he came close.

Said coach Bob Hartley, "Looking at Kipper, what he's done in the past years for this organization, he's been a face of this organization and a very important part of this organization."

Next to Marty Broduer, Miikka Kiprusoff had been the most dominating goaltender in NHL history from 2003 on.

Enjoy you retirement. You deserve it.

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