by Doug Plagens || AHL On The Beat Archive
Finland is not the largest country in the world by any means, but the hockey-loving nation of just over 5 million people continues to churn out all-world players at an incredible rate with one specific position coming to mind: goaltenders.
Second-year Lake Erie Monsters goalie and Colorado Avalanche prospect Sami Aittokallio hopes to be the next in a line of very successful Finnish backstoppers in North America, a list that includes former AHL All-Stars Miikka Kiprusoff, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Kari Lehtonen, just to name a handful.
But what is it about Finland and goalies?
“One part is the goalie coaching we have there,” said Aittokallio, who played his first National Hockey League game on Apr. 9, 2013, and has skated in one game for the Avalanche this season. “We have coaches from the time we’re about 10, and they help us get better every day. And our nature, we’re always a bit calm, and I think that’s good for a goalie.”
Aittokallio’s hockey journey took him from Finland to Cleveland for last season, and after his first go-round in the American Hockey League, his NHL debut, and being familiarized with his second home on the shores of Lake Erie, Aittokallio knew this season would bring a level of comfort to his hockey quest. He also knew he could benefit from some of the new faces within the Avalanche organization.
First-year executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic and new head coach Patrick Roy brought loads of energy to the Avalanche, but beyond the two former players who helped give the fans of Denver multiple championships, a new goalie coaching staff was also in place. The 21-year-old Aittokallio began working with new Avalanche goalie coach Francois Allaire in training camp, and has worked extensively with Monsters goalie coach Jean-Ian Filiatrault this season.
“My Finnish goalie coach actually knew how they like to teach their style, so we practiced that a little bit last summer,” said Aittokallio, who was drafted by Colorado in the fourth round (107th overall) in 2010. “Both of those guys, they know so much. When you look at who Francois has coached, there are so many great goalies who have had success. I want to believe that if I practice their way, I can be there someday.”
Observing others who have played the position has been important to Aittokallio over the years. Growing up as a young goalie in Finland, Aittokallio spent a great time of time watching the best netminders from across the globe, including Roy.
“Roy, [Martin] Brodeur, all the goalies; I love to watch all the goalies, and I didn’t just have one favorite. I wanted to get new things from everyone, and try to find what works for me,” Aittokallio said. “When I watched [Dominik] Hasek, he didn’t even have a style, but he always got behind the puck, and you always need to get behind the puck.”
Today, Aittokallio finds himself as part of a very talented group of goalies throughout the Colorado organization, along with fellow second-year Monsters netminder Calvin Pickard. Knowing what it’s like to man the crease in an NHL game, Aittokallio is excited for the next opportunity, but knows that getting to the highest level is always a challenge.
“This year, the [Avalanche] goalies have been so good. [Semyon Varlamov] has been unreal, [Jean-Sebastien Giguere] has been really good and now they have [Reto] Berra as well,” said Aittokallio, whose list of requirements to get to the NHL remains simple: “Work hard and play well.”
Colorado Avalanche director of AHL operations David Oliver has witnessed the development of Aittokallio first-hand over the last two seasons, and has been impressed with the young goalies overall character.
“It’s almost easy to forget he’s so young because he’s so mature beyond his years and because of how fundamentally he plays the position,” said Oliver. “With a lot of goalies, the development curve can take five years, and he’s positioning himself to take a big leap next year based on how he’s played the last couple months.”
Oliver also gives Aittokallio credit for his ability to deal with adversity. An injury sustained in practice held Aittokallio out of the lineup for the end of February and the first three weeks of March.
“Everyone goes through some adversity, especially in the early part of their careers. The way he handled things speaks volumes about him,” said Oliver, who notes that Aittokallio was playing some of his best hockey at the time of the injury.
“Injuries are part of the game, and they can make you stronger at the end of the day if you’re able to persevere,” said Lake Erie head coach Dean Chynoweth.
Like anyone else, when Aittokallio’s not “working,” he likes to wind down at home. Away from the rink, he loves his sushi, plays video games, and has gotten back into an old hobby this season.
“You’re at the rink probably four hours a day, and the rest of the time, you’re at your apartment,” Aittokallio said. “I used to play guitar when I was a kid, and I started it again this year. I went and bought an acoustic guitar.”
But as an NHL hopeful, Aittokallio remembers each day what his job in the AHL is, and what his goals are.
“Every day you’re on the ice, [the NHL] has to be in the back of your mind, and you have to work hard,” Aittokallio said.
The Monsters staff recognizes that Aittokallio is working toward his ultimate goal.
“He certainly has a will to make it to the National Hockey League, and I think he’s taking the right steps,” Oliver said.
“Sami’s strength is he’s very technically sound, and that’s why at times he looks so calm and cool in there. I know he’s had an adjustment with the schedule and level of play; being a pro, he has done a good job getting himself prepared,” said Chynoweth.