At the end of the Hawks’ 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey Friday April 2nd at the Prudential Center, Stanley Cup winning goalie and Devils TV color commentator Chico Resch spoke his mind. “Antti Niemi just made a believer out of me. They’ve found the goalie who can carry them far in the playoffs.”
A few nights later, as the Blackhawks made short work of the Stars in Dallas in a 5-2 victory, the local Fox Sports television crew remarked, “Niemi doesn’t say much, and he won’t win any points for style. But he is effective.”
Stars TV analyst Daryl Reaugh, who played in Edmonton and Hartford, covers the NHL for Versus, ABC, ESPN and Fox. He noted that Niemi grew up in the same Finnish town, Vantaa, as current Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen. “Kari said that Antti’s a fighter. He battled to work his way up to the top leagues in Finland, and he battled to get himself to the NHL.”
A number of hockey observers have noted that there seems to be a factory in Finland where they produce goalies. An overview of the talent currently populating the league reveals an impressive roll call.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Kari Lehtonen, Antero Niittymaki, and Niemi are all starters for their respective clubs—that’s almost a quarter of the NHL’s number one netminders.
Writing for NHL.com, Finnish hockey journalist Risto Pakarinen offered this view: “Finnish goalies have always been great. As far as I can remember, goalie has always been the most important player on Team Finland. And even longer than that. In 1967, Finland beat Czechoslovakia for the first time in the World Championships, and the hero of the game was goalie Urpo Ylonen. Finland won the game, 3-1. It was the first time Finland beat any of the “big nations.”
Pakarinen goes on to say how Ylonen became one of Finland’s top goalie coaches, and he adds that there may be something about Finns that makes them suited to play the position.
“Finland has always had great goalies, and probably always will. Being goalie suits Finns well. Infamous for being quiet, stoic, and not very social, it’s like Finns were born goalies. What better position for a Finn than goalie, where he can stand alone in front of the net, covered by a mask, and fight alone against the world? Yes, the pucks hurt, but so what? It only makes the Finns grit their teeth and say: Bring it on. Bring. It. On. You say that goalies are a little crazy? Well, Finns are born a little crazy!”
“Oh. Jani Hurme, Miikka Kiprusoff, Antero Niittymaki, Fredrik Norrena have one thing in common, though. They’ve all been coached by Urpo Ylonen.”
What does this tell us about Antti Niemi, the 26-year old rookie who has seemingly come from nowhere and stolen Cristobal Huet’s job right out from under him and his 5.625 million dollar contract?
What is it about Niemi that has earned him the affection of the Blackhawk fan base?
Most important, does Niemi have the skill and character to become the first goalie since Glenn Hall to backstop the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup?
When Niemi was awarded the first star in the Blackhawks’ shutout win over the Coyotes at the United Center on March 23rd, he stood in the spotlight as the full house roared and Hawks TV reporter Sara Kustok held up her microphone. Niemi’s responses were as understated as his style is unconventional. “It’s good to get a shutout, because nobody gets those too often.” That one being his sixth of the year, he simply went out and got another one in Minnesota a week later.
The last time a Blackhawks goaltender thrilled the fans with this many shutouts, a young man named Ed Belfour was guarding the gate. Before Niemi, only Eddie The Eagle, Tony Esposito and Glenn Hall have posted seven or more goose eggs in the regular season. That Niemi has played less than forty games this year makes his accomplishment even more worthy.
His unpredictable approach has earned him a variety of nicknames, including ‘Tush Save Specialist’ (for his ability to stop pucks with his derriere flush to the ice). But he seems impervious to the praise. He has even admitted to the nervousness that goes with being the last line of defense. Conversely, after letting in a bad goal, he does not appear to stay rattled for long.
Some of his moves are decidedly quirky, such as a boxer’s stance he took in a recent game as he challenged a shooter on a breakaway. His glove hand has been questioned by observers such as ex-Hawk goalie and current TSN and Blues TV commentator Darren Pang; by the same token, some of the grabs Niemi has made when he flashes the leather have left jaws dropping.
Perhaps one of the reasons Niemi has captivated the Hawk fan base is because he reminds some of another unconventional goalie who once wore the Indian Head. Dominik Hasek’s career in Chicago was brief, but he managed to bring the home crowd to their feet more than once with his Gumby impressions.
Niemi resembles more a stocky construction worker than a blue chip athlete. His blonde hair is just wisps surrounding a round face that might be better suited to a couch potato. But this lack of glamour only makes him more appealing to the blue-collar fan.
His even tempered unpretentiousness has also endeared him to his teammates. When Brent Seabrook went out and bought a wrestling championship belt and designated it as the team award for the ‘Hawk of the Game’, Niemi—now christened ‘Nemo’ by his mates—was the first recipient.
It is evident that Antti Niemi has that quality that is both difficult to define, and fleeting: the ability to make the timely save that, in the common parlance, “gives his team a chance to win”.
The confidence it engenders is, at best, temporary. The hope in Chicago is that the time is now.
Being second in the NHL in goals against average right behind countryman Tuukka Rask, and having a winning percentage among the best in the league, the question looming, looms larger and larger.
Can Niemi carry the load for as much as another two months as the pressure increases exponentially?
Unlike Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, Niemi has not been groomed carefully in the minors, learning every aspect of ‘the system’, with occasional auditions to test his level of readiness.
He got thrown into the fire after Cristobal Huet got torched by the Calgary Flames for three goals in sixty seconds in the first period of an October 12th home game that looked like a downer for the UC faithful. Though he allowed two more, Niemi locked it down and made a stunning breakaway save that gave the Hawks the momentum to turn the tide and register the biggest comeback in franchise history with six consecutive tallies on their way to a 6-5 win.
Some might say that Huet lost the Number One job in Chicago—again—that night.
There has been some speculation about Niemi being favored from the outset. Scotty Bowman was reported to have spoken very highly of the Finn before he had played a single game in the NHL. If the opinions of several Chicago writers and bloggers were to be believed, one could assume Cristobal Huet was on the trading block almost as soon as Niemi’s services were secured. Conspiracy theorists might extrapolate events to suggest that Niemi’s emergence was leveraged to oust Dale Tallon and install Stan and Scotty Bowman as the head honchos at Hawkey Central.
Whatever the truth might be in the murk of pro sports front office politics, the facts are frozen in the framework of the upcoming Quest For the Grail.
Chicago is heading into the postseason with an unknown quantity in net, and history dictates that the odds are long. Since 1971, Cam Ward, Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden are the only goalies to capture the ultimate prize in their rookie years.
Tony Esposito came close. In his rookie season, he racked up 15 shutouts and took the Hawks to the semi-finals. The next year, he took them all the way to Game Seven of a devastating Finals defeat against the mighty Canadiens.
History is not kind.
Nevertheless, the Blackhawks have put their eggs in Antti Niemi’s basket. And hockey fans are on the verge of seeing if The Nieminator can whip up a Stanley Cup Soufflé.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.