The Finnish goaltending program once again earned praise from the wider hockey community during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
It’s not the first time the Scandinavian nation has been applauded for its efforts between the pipes, nor will it be the last, as the number of elite Finnish netminders continues to rise.
But how has Finland set itself apart when it comes to perhaps the most specialised position in all of sport?
I asked goaltending guru Jukka Ropponen what set Finnish hockey on this path, how it has helped develop not only goaltenders, but also goalie coaches, and what the Finns can teach other nations.
Ropponen makes the initial decision to focus on goaltending sound very simple.
“The Finnish Ice Hockey Association decided twenty-plus years ago that this was one of the areas we needed to focus on,” Ropponen said. “They started the program, and budgeted for it so it was supported.”
The results of this decision are plain to see. Heading in to Sochi, Tuukka Rask headed up a group of goaltenders which can only be described as the envy of the hockey world. The Bruins No.1 was expected to take the starting role at the Olympics, but was vying with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi for much of the season before finally getting the nod.
With veteran Niklas Backstrom and Pekka Rinne, who might have been on the plane to Sochi were it not for his hip injury, also established NHL stars, it’s hard not to marvel at how this relatively small nation keeps turning out elite goaltenders.
With prospects like Antti Raanta and Sami Aittokallio, Finnish goaltenders are sure to play their part in the NHL for the next decade at least. But the program’s success does not stop in the men’s game, with Noora Räty a household name following her heroics for the Finnish women’s team in Sochi. The national goaltending program has become a great equalizer for the Finns against larger hockey nations like Canada and Russia on both sides of the sport.
A large part of this success has been down to the presence of goalie coaches at all levels of Finnish hockey, with almost every club having dedicated help on hand for the goaltenders.
The remarkable thing is that this isn’t something the Finnish Ice Hockey Association had to force on the domestic game – it has come about naturally.
“It’s not mandatory by any rules, rather by attitude” Ropponen said, adding “It’s what you have to do if you want to be competitive.”
One area the Association has helped the system to develop is ensuring goalie coaches are being trained properly, and that the information is being put out there to aid coaches’ development, as well as players
“Like everywhere in the world, there’s not enough sharing; but the Association still has very good educational program that puts three-digits worth of goalie coaches through every year.” Ropponen told me.
That’s a truly mind boggling number for someone based in the United Kingdom, where goalie coaches can be hard to find. But that commitment to the program within Finnish hockey has helped Ropponen and his colleagues become some of the most respected goaltending coaches in the world.
The 55-year old’s Goaliepro clinics have helped countless netminders of all ages and abilities, and as a result GoaliePro has gained a reputation as a top goaltending school, with a client list that includes Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild.
“People follow our pro clients closely, and their success has been the main reason for our credibility. Once you earn the reputation and keep up your quality, it is easy to get the needed support,” Ropponen said.
Perhaps the most admirable part of GoaliePro’s setup is the mentoring program for other goalie coaches, sharing their experience and knowledge with other coaches from around the world.
“I have trained coaches at U.S., Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Estonia and Russia and people in all these places have been hungry to learn” Ropponen explained, highlighting the interest the Finnish goaltending program has stirred up across the hockey community.
While Canadian hockey ponders why there is a lower percentage of top-level netminders being produced by the largest hockey setup in the world, Finland is passing on its experience for the betterment of all.
I finished by asking Ropponen what it would take for other nations to emulate the success Finland has had with their goaltending program.
“A country would need a well-defined program, and a person with right knowledge, credibility and attitude to run it,” he said. “Plus of course the budget to support it.”
When great goaltending can make such a different to a team – or nation’s – fortunes, it’s a wonder more have not looked to embrace the Finnish philosophy. But while nations like Sweden and Switzerland seem to have cottoned on to this ‘revolution’, some sadly still don’t seem to put the same stock in goaltending.
Perhaps one day the most important position will be given the support it needs, and arguably deserves, by all federations. Until then, those that want to learn know where to go – and those clubs and countries will reap the benefits, just as the Finns have.