Ortio taking the AHL by storm

by Kat Pettengill || AHL On The Beat Archive

Joni Ortio didn’t have a dream start to the 2013-14 season, backing up Reto Berra for four games before heading to Abbotsford’s ECHL affiliate, the Alaska Aces.

But when Berra received his call-up to the Calgary Flames, Ortio was given the opportunity to step in and take the reins as the Heat’s backstop. Winning his first nine starts with the Heat and consistently sitting among the league leaders in victories has shaped Ortio’s Cinderella story. No one could have imagined such a strong start for this rookie, not even himself.

“I knew where I was at and that I could play well, but going 9-0 to start the year that probably wasn’t in my mind,” Ortio said. “So it was kind of surprising, a pleasant surprise.”

The native of Turku, Finland, has had a bumpy road to Abbotsford. His first outing with the Heat in 2010-11 was rough to say the least, allowing six goals on 30 shots. He returned in the 2011-12 season to play in nine games, allowing 19 goals and posting one win and four losses before returning to Europe for the remainder of the season.

After spending the 2012-13 season perfecting and simplifying his game in Finland’s SM-liiga, Ortio returned to the Heat as a new goalie.

“Just that experience, I was a little kid, if you could say that, when I first got here,” laughed Ortio, now 22. “I had played pro back home, but it’s still different going to a different country and I probably wasn’t as good of a pro as I am now. I’m two years older and two years more experienced, that makes a big difference. So I think just based on that it’s been so much easier this time around.”

Ortio’s transformation wasn’t so much in the technical change in his game as on the mental side. The winning focus and mentality of North American hockey was a tough difference for the goaltender to overcome.

“There are so many things you can’t control and that’s what I learned two years ago, is that it’s just trying to block all that extra stuff out of your mind because you can’t control that. I think if you start wasting your energy towards things you can’t do anything about it’s going to harm you.”

With Ortio (17-5-0, 2.22, .925) playing at a consistently high level with the Heat, he admits the possibility of a call-up has crossed his mind, but chooses to focus on his play in Abbotsford and the success of his team. He realizes that while his NHL dream is important, it is a factor outside of his control that he will not waste time or energy worrying about. “When it’s time for it to come, it will come,” he said.

The Heat have only benefited from Ortio’s steely focus, as goaltending has been a huge factor in the team’s success this season. His quick reflexes and strong technical play have allowed the Heat to end the first half near the top of the standings in the American Hockey League.

And though the Heat have struggled in the second half of the season, dropping to second place in the West Division, both Ortio and his goaltending partner, Joey MacDonald, have remained sturdy providing their team every chance to stay near the top.

“The success we’ve had the first half of the year has been nice, but we can’t just look back and think about how nice it was,” Ortio said. “We’ve got to keep going and this second half is going to get a lot tougher. We can’t sneak up on teams anymore, they know we’re the real deal and we have got to act like that in practice and play like the top team we are. We’ve got to put in that work every day.”

With such a strong first half of the season both personally and with the team, Ortio isn’t able to point to any particular moment as being the biggest highlight for him. In his words: “I hope it’s yet to come.”