In Finland not long after World War II, kids would play a street game called ice ball, which had few rules and less strategy. They’d scramble through neighborhoods buried in snow, batting and kicking a piece of cork the size of a tennis ball—graduating, eventually, if they were keen and had money for skates, to a soccer field covered with ice. But some of the more serious kids wanted to play hockey. Back then, teams weren’t especially well organized: the worst athlete was usually stuck in front of a net, while the better ones attacked. Until one day, in the early 1950s, a hockey team in Rauma put a kid called Upi, who had been a powerful skater since his ice-ball days, in the net. And his team began to win.
About 10 years later, Upi—emphasis on the oop—moved to Turku, on the southwestern coast, where he found a place in goal for one of the local hockey teams. Like Roy Hobbs, he fashioned his own stick. Turku was a port town, roughly halfway between Stockholm and the Soviet border, the gateway to a 20,000-island archipelago that extends into the Baltic Sea. Its people knew how to fish and build big ships. Few people had TVs. No book about how to be a goaltender had ever been translated into Finnish. And so nobody really knew what a goalie was supposed to do. (The first proper indoor ice-hockey rink in all of Finland wouldn’t be completed until 1965.) In this splendid isolation, a school of goaltending was born, with Upi, who today is 70, as its first practitioner and eventual guru.
Until recently, aside from a handful of Americans and Europeans, National Hockey League goalies were overwhelmingly Canadian. But at the turn of the millennium, the Finns began to arrive. In 2002, Pasi Nurminen secured a starting role in Atlanta. The next season, Miikka Kiprusoff led Calgary to the league-championship finals. And then it was as though a dam broke: Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Bäckström, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask. Before 2002, no Finnish goaltender had ever locked down a starting role in the NHL. Suddenly, a country with a population of just more than 5 million people was producing one-sixth of the league’s starting goalies, most of them true blue chips. The Finns, who have now won just about everything a goalie can win in the league, are not particularly distinguished at any other position. (One NHL general manager suggested to me that outside of goaltending, no Finnish skater would crack a list of even the top 50 Canadians.) Yet any of Finland’s three Olympic goalies could have started for Canada’s team this year. How deep is Finland’s pool of talent? In 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks signed an undrafted kid who’d only recently started playing in Finland’s top professional league—before that he’d been driving a Zamboni in suburban Helsinki to pay his bills. Two years after he was signed, Antti Niemi led the Blackhawks to the championship.
This has unsettled the birthplace of hockey. In any single game, the most important player on the ice is typically the goaltender. For the past quarter century, Canadians like me have been especially smug about what seemed to be an endless supply of elite goaltenders from Quebec. Yet at the same moment that Finland’s goalies have glided so effortlessly onto hockey’s biggest stages, a crisis of confidence has begun to emerge in Canada. The last great Canadian netminder, Martin Brodeur, is in his 40s. And the pipeline behind him has gone dry.
A bunch of half-cocked theories have emerged to explain how these Finnish goaltenders came to be. People I asked would cite everything from the welfare state to the stoic national character. Then I began to hear too about Urpo Ylönen, the old man who lived on Finland’s southwestern coast. People who knew hockey and Finland spoke of him the way Jedis would talk about Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi. That they referred to him simply as Upi only added to the mystique. So early one foggy morning, I found myself on a train from Helsinki to Turku, a place I knew only from the back of hockey cards, hoping to meet him—and to figure out what had gone so awry back home.
Read more. [Image: Tuukka Koski]