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Tale of two brothers

March 8, 2012
Photo: Syracuse Crunch

by Jason Lockhart || AHL On The Beat Archive

A 21-year-old Iiro Tarkki was excited to get his first-ever start in the SM-liiga -- the top professional league in his native Finland. For the past two seasons he had spent a majority of time playing in the first division, one league below. Tarkki was between the pipes for one of the worst teams in the league -- SaiPa -- and he was ready to face one of the top teams in the form of Karpat.

It was the 2006-07 season, and Tarkki was hoping this would be his chance to prove he was capable of playing in the top division. The usual butterflies were flying about his stomach as he set for the start of the game. He looked down to the far end of the ice, ready to take on his counterpart in goal. The only thing standing in his way of his first career SM-liiga victory was his older brother, Tuomas.

By the time Iiro Tarkki was born in southeastern Finland in the town of Rauma, ice hockey was already a big part of the landscape in the Tarkki household. His father Timo, had already begun coaching youth hockey, including his older brother Tuomas, who was a goaltender. Young Iiro was immediately introduced to the sport and became what he calls a “rink rat,” watching his brother take to the ice with his father behind the bench.

“Every time my brother had a game, with my father coaching, I would be there,” said Tarkki. “I’d walk around the rink searching for loose pucks.”

At the age of four, Iiro took to the ice, lacing up skates suited for a forward, not a goalie. But after one season playing up, Iiro elected to follow in his brother’s footsteps.

“My first year I wanted to try being a skater,” said Tarkki. “After that first season I told my dad I wanted to be a goalie, mainly because my brother was one. I also liked the look of the pads. There was one rink in particular that I went to with my dad which had a huge pile of goalie equipment for sale.”

Just like his brother had done five years earlier, in 2000-01, Iiro joined the nearby junior team Lukko, 150 miles east of their hometown. After one year in the junior ranks, Iiro saw his brother make the move to North America to help better his chances of reaching the NHL. Tuomas took advantage of an opportunity at Northern Michigan University, hoping to go the U.S. college route to reach the top league in the world.

While his brother Tuomas was beginning to make a name for himself in the United States, ultimately becoming a Hobey Baker Award finalist in his senior year, Iiro was putting up modest numbers at the junior level. But Iiro continued to press to improve his game.

In 2006-07, Iiro turned pro, and Tuomas returned to Finland from North America after just one year of playing professional hockey, spent mostly with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.

Upon his return to Finland, Tuomas signed with one of the top teams, Karpat, while Iiro began his career in the first division.

On Dec. 7, 2006, Iiro got the call from SaiPa to start his first SM-liiga game. Coincidentally, the game was against his brother Tuomas. It was quite the circumstance, and Iiro was up for the challenge.

The first period ended scoreless, with Iiro making nine saves; Tuomas countered with 11 saves of his own. The second period proved to be the deciding period, with Iiro allowing three goals, and the game ended in a 4-0 win for Tuomas, who earned third star honors.

Tuomas would get the best of his younger brother a majority of the time over the next four seasons.

“It was an exciting experience playing against my older brother in my first start,” said Tarkki. “Since we traveled the night before, I had a chance to catch up with him after the game. I spoke to my parents beforehand, but they wouldn’t say who they were rooting for. They were just hoping for a scoreless game.”

The first loss would not discourage Iiro, who earned a 5-3 victory in his only other SM-liiga start of the season. Tarkki’s 2006-07 performance earned him a permanent spot on SaiPa’s team for the entire 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons.

In 2009-10, Tarkki joined the SM-liiga’s Blues, which was a much more competitive team. Tarkki reached the postseason his first season, and then followed that up with his best season in 2010-11, finished with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.

It was in 2010-11, when Tarkki’s team reached the SM-liiga final, that NHL teams began to take a look at the 25-year-old netminder.

“I had two good seasons in Finland, and I started to get offers to play in North America,” said Tarkki. “I had a good chance to come here, and I wanted to play in the NHL.”

With wife and baby, Tarkki packed his bags for Anaheim, Calif., to participate in Ducks training camp in September. It helped Tarkki to have fellow Finns Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu in the mix to help ease the transition.

“I was able to tell pretty quickly the differences between hockey in Europe and North America,” admitted Tarkki. “With the rinks much smaller here, guys will shoot once they gain the blue line. In Finland, they will go into the corners, hold the puck and look for better opportunities.”

As expected, Tarkki was sent to the Crunch to begin his North American hockey career in the AHL. In his first two starts of this season, Tarkki was the unlucky loser in a shootout in Rochester and in overtime versus Lake Erie. It only took game number three to earn his first victory and shutout, in a 7-0 thumping in Cleveland against Lake Erie.

Tarkki proved he could play the North American game, allowing more than three goals just once in his first 11 contests. He has also been an asset to the Crunch down the stretch, allowing more than three goals in a game just once between Feb. 17 and Mar. 4 -- a span of nine games.

In between his strong efforts, Tarkki will never forget Jan. 7, 2012. Following the Crunch’s 4-3 win against the Penguins in Wilkes-Barre, Tarkki, Kyle Palmieri and J.F. Jacques were told they wouldn’t be heading with the team on the bus back to Syracuse. Instead, they were recalled by Anaheim and would join video coach Brett Ferguson and assistant equipment manager Matt Brayfield in a car headed to Philadelphia.

The three players spent the night in a hotel by the airport before flying in the morning to Anaheim with just their track suits and wallets in hand.

Tarkki and his teammates landed in the afternoon in Anaheim, with the Ducks hosting Columbus that night at the Honda Center. Tarkki prepared as usual like any other game day, knowing he would be backing up Swiss starting goaltender Jonas Hiller.

Just as Tarkki was settling into playing door operator for the Ducks bench, Hiller suffered an injury with about a minute to play in the first period, paving the way for Tarkki’s National Hockey League debut.

“I was a little bit nervous, but I’m always nervous and excited going into a game,” said Tarkki. “It happened so fast that I don’t really remember what guys were saying to me except for maybe ‘good luck.’”

Tarkki ultimately picked up the victory, stopping seven of 10 shots in just over two periods of work.

“After the game I got a lot of phone calls and text messages,” said Tarkki. “My brother was one of them, sending me congratulations from Finland.”

While he may have followed in his brother’s footsteps for more than two decades, Iiro will always be able to lay claim over his brother, Tuomas, that he reached the pinnacle of the sport, playing in a National Hockey League game.