by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive
Last season Miika Wiikman was the only one of the Wolf Pack’s goaltenders who both started and finished the year with the Wolf Pack.
At neither the start nor the end of the season, though, was Wiikman the number-one man. He began the year backing up Al Montoya, and then finished the season playing behind David LeNeveu, for whom Montoya was traded at the trade deadline.
With 34 games played, however, Wiikman ended up being the busiest of the Pack’s goaltenders in 2007-08, and he made the most of his opportunities, posting a 21-8-3 record, a 2.30 goals-against average (ninth-best in the AHL) and a 91.9% save percentage, along with a team-high two shutouts.
Coming into this year, with LeNeveu also having left the organization, the number-one job with the Wolf Pack was Wiikman’s for the taking. And he did not squander the opportunity, putting a strong enough stranglehold on the position to start 14 of the club’s 16 games.
The 24-year-old backstop says, though, that he did not change his approach when preparing for this season, even with knowing he was likely to be a lot busier than in his first AHL season, or in a normal European campaign.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Wiikman says. “I just approached it as I always do. I work hard every day and do my job.
“It’s not really different, you get used to it pretty fast. You play three games every week and you get used to it. It’s not been a problem for me.”
Wiikman played with the Wolf Pack last year on an American Hockey League contract, and his solid performance earned him an NHL deal for this season. While happy to earn the contract upgrade, the Mariestad, Sweden, native is not looking at it as a major change.
“Of course it’s big, but I knew that I was going to be down here (in the AHL), at least this season,” he says. “An NHL contract is pretty big here, but back home it’s probably not as big as here.”
“Home” for Wiikman is an interesting concept. That is because, as mentioned before, he was born in Sweden, and grew up there, but both of his parents are Finnish. Prior to joining the Wolf Pack, Wiikman played the previous four seasons in Finland, and he now spends his off-seasons there. So, does he consider himself Finnish or Swedish?
“Let’s say half and half,” is Wiikman’s laughing reply, in view of the fact that, in hockey at least, the two countries are bitter rivals.
One thing that is exciting for Wiikman’s Swedish half is to be in the same NHL organization with a goaltender like Henrik Lundqvist, one of the heroes of Sweden’s gold-medal triumph in the most recent Winter Olympics.
“Henrik is the best goalie out there right now, in my opinion,” says Wiikman of Lundqvist. “I don’t know if I played against him when I was young, maybe I was on the bench, but he was good back then already. And he’s a great guy off the ice too.”
According to Wiikman, the fact that Lundqvist has become such a top-flight netminder in the NHL is no surprise to anyone who saw him play in Europe.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Wiikman says. “I thought he was going to be even better because he was really good back in Sweden when he played there.”
While at 26 Lundqvist is not even three years older than Wiikman, one would think that it would be a pretty big thrill for Wiikman if he ever got the chance to share the Ranger net with the Blueshirts’ Swedish star.
“Of course it would be fun,” Wiikman says. “He’s the best, and it would be great. Even just to practice with him is a great experience.”
Wiikman is quick to emphasize, though, that he has no intention of getting ahead of himself.
“I’m here (with the Wolf Pack) right now and I want to do my job here first and do as well as I can here,” Wiikman says. “I have to earn it to be up there (with the Rangers).”
Part of the process of earning his chance with the big club is making the adjustment from playing in Finland to succeeding in a North American hockey environment. That has yet to faze Wiikman to this point.
“The rink is smaller (in North America), so there are obviously more shots from closer range, that’s probably the biggest difference,” he reports. “The speed is pretty much the same, but the situations come up a lot faster.
“I play like I did back home, just with some small changes I made with the goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, in New York.”
In addition to having the same logo on his paycheck as Lundqvist has, working with Allaire is another big benefit to being a part of the Ranger organization.
“He’s the best goalie coach I’ve ever had,” says Wiikman of Allaire. “He makes it so easy and he has some great ideas.
“Back in Finland almost every team has a goalie coach, and a good one too, but back in Sweden when I played in Juniors, I didn’t have any goalie coach. That’s probably why Finland produces more good goalies than Sweden.”
When asked the follow-up question of what other reasons there might be for why Finland has produced the likes of Miika Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Karri Ramo, Kari Lehtonen, Antero Niittymaki and Jussi Markkanen, among other successful NHL backstops, Wiikman comes up with the following: “Finnish goaltenders are really weird. That could be it.”
While Wiikman is quick with a quip, and sports what could be described as a fairly cutting-edge hairstyle and wardrobe, his seriousness and dedication when it comes to his chosen craft is of the old-fashioned, hard-nosed variety. Anyone who has business in the area of the Wolf Pack locker room, and the associated backstage areas of the XL Center, on a game night or a practice day, has probably seen Wiikman in the midst of his daily physical fitness routine. That is a regimen of all sorts of solitary pursuits, which Wiikman doggedly adheres to.
His explanation of what that does for him is simply, “I don’t get injured when I do all those things. I stretch a lot, I warm up, I bike-ride, run, work out in the gym, everything. I have to do that, or else I wouldn’t be able to play.
“It’s kind of a superstitious thing, to do all that, but it works for me.”
Having already reported that goaltending products of the Finnish ranks are weird, when asked if he has any other quirky superstitions, Wiikman quickly responds, “Too many!”
Wiikman was hardly a household name before coming over to the Wolf Pack last season, and he had never been drafted by an NHL team. He was carrying some pretty solid credentials, though, having captured the Jari Kurri Trophy, the award for top player in the Finnish League playoffs, in 2006. That year he helped lead HPK Hameenlinna to a league championship, under some fairly extraordinary circumstances.
Here is Wiikman’s reminiscence on that triumph: “We had a pretty young team, just like here (with the Wolf Pack), and we got a good feeling in the playoffs. Everyone played well, they did their job, and of course you have to be lucky too. It was a great year.
“The other goalie was actually Karri Ramo, who is in Tampa Bay right now, and he got injured in the semi-finals. I had to play the next game and I got injured in the warmups. But I still managed to play, and I had three shutouts in a row. So that’s why I say, you have to be lucky sometimes too.”
Three straight shutouts, in the playoffs, playing hurt? That’s quite an amazing run, but to hear Wiikman tell it, he remembers it as just a couple of days at the office.
“It was pretty hard, but it made my game a lot easier because I couldn’t move that much,” he says. “I couldn’t be too aggressive, I was more patient, and it worked out well for me.”
His tenure in North America has worked out well thus far too, but Wiikman would tell Wolf Pack fans that he thinks he is capable of greater accomplishment, as is the Wolf Pack team.
On the one hand, he says, “I’m happy to be in Hartford and get the opportunity to play a lot here in the American Hockey League. I’m happy to have come this far.”
On the other hand, though, “It’s been up and down, I think I can do a lot better,” Wiikman states. “I think it’s going to get better as the season goes along.
“I think we can beat any team in this league. We need to get a winning feeling on the team.”