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Sateri next in Finnish line

by Bill Ballou || AHL On The Beat Archive  

If Worcester Sharks head coach Roy Sommer worked in Hollywood, he might think about starring in “The Finnish Connection.”

Sommer had Miikka Kiprusoff in net when he coached the Kentucky Thoroughblades and Vesa Toskala was one of Sommer’s goaltenders in Kentucky and Cleveland.

Now, the latest in the Sharks goaltender line from Finland is Harri Sateri, who made his North American debut in Worcester late last season and was on San Jose’s early season roster this year.

Aside from ex-Sharks forward Teemu Selanne and Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, goaltending is a Finnish specialty. Sharks goaltenders Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki come from there. In fact, two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins (who was born in Michigan) had four different stints in Finland and was the league’s best player. Sateri remembers what Thomas did very well.

“He had 15 shutouts in 54 games,” Sateri said of Thomas’ 2004-05 award-winning season at Jokerit. “That was unbelievable.”

Sateri, who recently turned 22, could have stayed closer to home and had a good career playing in Europe. But he made the move to North America as soon as he could, getting into his first game for Worcester last March.

“I want to play in the NHL,” Sateri said of his decision to come to North America.

For Sommer, having Sateri is a bit of déjà vu. The kid netminder resembles former Shark Nolan Schaefer in appearance and plays like, Sommer thinks, Kiprusoff.

The Schaefer look-alike is purely coincidental but the Kiprusoff comparison may not be, since Finnish goaltenders tend to be stylistic.

“They have a structured development system there,” San Jose goaltending development coach Corey Schwab said. “Players are in an organization pretty early and they get consistent coaching.”

While goaltending eventually just comes down to stopping the puck anyway possible, there’s a learning curve in making the transition from playing in Finland to playing in North America.

“Because the rinks are bigger, there’s more movement and it can be easier to find the puck,” Schwab said. “The game here, especially in front of the net, is more stationary.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t find the puck,” Schwab added, “but instead of being able to see it all the way, you may have to look at the release point and determine where a shot is going.”

Sateri, Schwab said, is making the necessary adjustments.

“He’s sort of a hybrid,” Schwab said. “He’s got very good technique and is athletic.”

Another thing Sateri will have to learn in the American Hockey League is how to handle the puck – or at least know what to do with it.

“He handles the puck well already,” Schwab said. “But because the rinks here are smaller and because everything happens more quickly, he doesn’t have as much time as he probably had in Finland. As he progresses to the NHL, things happen even faster to the point where you really have to know what to do with the puck before you even get it.”

Sateri already has a foundation as he started playing at an early age.

“I was a skater my first year,” he said, “but then I became a goaltender. That’s really all I’ve ever wanted to be. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be up front scoring goals. But I never really want to change.”

Sateri has followed the National Hockey League since playing youth hockey. His first favorite was Vancouver Canucks veteran Kirk McLean. More recently, he’s been watching another Canuck star, Roberto Luongo. Closer to home, Sateri is a fan of countryman Kari Lehtonen, who spent his early NHL years with the Atlanta Thrashers.

Last year, Sateri was one of seven goaltenders to play for Worcester as injuries at the position raised havoc throughout the Sharks organization.

By March, Worcester was battling for a playoff spot. Sommer had Carter Hutton and Tyson Sexsmith in net because Alex Stalock was out with a severe injury. Sateri arrived from Finland in the middle of the month.

Sateri’s AHL debut came on March 18 in Providence in relief of Hutton. The Bruins put on a dominating performance and came away with a 4-1 victory but it could have been more lopsided. Sateri appeared for the start of the third period and stopped 22 of 23 shots, many in spectacular fashion. One of his saves was on a penalty shot.

As Worcester tried to stave off playoff elimination in the final weeks, Sateri was at his best. He started three of the Sharks final four games, saving 88 of the 92 shots he faced.

This year, Sateri has settled into a rotation with Sexsmith. The tandem has given Worcester some of the AHL’s best goaltending.

Along the way, Sateri keeps learning.

“The game over here is a lot different,” he said. “Not only are the rinks smaller, but the game is faster and it’s more physical.”

Kiprusoff and Toskala needed time in the AHL to adapt to the differences in the North American game, but both wound up where Sateri wants to go – the NHL.

And if all goes well, Sateri will be the next link in the Sharks Finnish connection.

Bill Ballou covers the Worcester Sharks and the AHL for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.