Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames walks to the dressing room after the first period at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Sunday February 20, 2011. The Flames were facing the Habs as the marquee event in the Heritage Classic outdoor-hockey weekend. LYLE ASPINALL/CALGARY SUN/QMI AGENCY
Calgary Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff is scored on by the Edmonton Oilers during second period action at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday March 3, 2007.
Miikka Kiprusoff from the Calgary Flames stops a shot from Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the last shot of the shootout against the Minnesota Wild in NHL action at the Pengrowth Saddledome in downtown Calgary giving Calgary 2-1 win.
COLUMBUS/FLAMES – Flames Miikka Kiprusoff kicks a shot away t as Columbus’s Rick Nash gets dumped on his head during the first period at the Dome.
As 2020 winds to a close, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson profiles Calgary’s sporting icons of the 2000s……
Those acrobatic, sprawling, holy-bleep sort of saves didn’t happen by fluke.
During his heyday in the Calgary Flames’ crease, Miikka Kiprusoff stretched …
And stretched …
And stretched some more …
“That’s all he did,” said former Flames teammate Craig Conroy. “I just felt like from the time he got to the rink, he was always in the splits.”
Not just at the rink, actually.
“I remember going to his house in the summer, to Finland, and we would train during the day and hang out and do our thing, and then at night, we would watch a movie,” said fellow netminder Jamie McLennan, who was Kiprusoff’s backup, then his coach and remains one of his best buddies. “We would be in his living room watching a movie, and he had this mat — like a gym mat, a padded mat — and he would sit in the splits or some form of stretch for two hours. That became part of his daily routine, part of his ‘This is what I need to do for my body.’ ”
There was no arguing his approach, although his pals at the Saddledome would half-jokingly suggest Kiprusoff’s insistence on stretching was a ploy to skip some of the more taxing off-ice activities.
“When everybody was working out, he didn’t have to lift any weights, so they would say that he was lazy,” said David Marcoux, the Flames’ goaltending coach from 2003-09. “But there was nothing lazy about the guy. It was all about preparing the body and the mind to play a different style of game than his teammates.
“He had this spider-web in the workout area. It was these big, big elastics that would go on an octagon up on the wall, for example, and he would grab onto that and just stretch, or he would go on the floor facing that. It’s funny, I’d sometimes bring friends into the dressing room and into the weight room on a day-off, and I would tell them to sit down where Kipper sits. I’d say, ‘Look at the mat, over at the east and over at the west. Look at that area where it’s all broken down.’ I’d say, ‘Try to put your foot at the east and at the west, because that’s where Kipper puts his feet.’ They would say, ‘No, that can’t be!’ But it was his running shoes that just chewed up the mat.
“He was a specimen from that standpoint,” Marcoux concluded. “And that aspect of who he was allowed him to make saves that nobody else could actually make.”
This is not a stretch … Kiprusoff was one of the greatest goaltenders of his generation.
During a nine-season stint in Calgary, he would re-write the franchise record books with 305 wins and 41 shutouts. He logged 70-plus appearances in seven straight seasons, a staggering workload.
Just a few months after his arrival, Kiprusoff helped the Flames end a seven-year playoff drought. That spring, he and co-star Jarome Iginla carried a lunch-bucket crew to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final. Kiprusoff posted an absurd 1.85 goals-against average — and five goose-eggs — during that fairytale run.
With the flexible and seemingly unflappable Finn between the pipes, fans would often be dragging their jaws as they left the Saddledome, gobsmacked by some of the saves they’d just witnessed.
“Jarome was a five-tool player. He could play every different type of way,” said McLennan, now an analyst for TSN. “And Miikka was like a five-tool goaltender. What I mean by that is he was a superstar from a skillset standpoint, but he was also a superstar between the ears. I’ve never seen an athlete more in-tune with himself. He knew exactly what he needed to be ready every night. Sometimes, that was a little extra work. Sometimes, that was a little extra stretching. Sometimes, he needed nothing and he knew he was ready.
“I think after a while, people just got, for lack of a better word, spoiled by how good he was. You forget sometimes, but this guy could play 70 games every year and give you a chance to win every night. And you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it. For many years, you had that stability back there.”
What made Kiprusoff’s rise to superstardom so memorable is that nobody saw it coming.
Back in mid-November of 2003, with starter Roman Turek shelved by a knee injury, Flames coach/general manager Darryl Sutter struck a trade with his former club, acquiring the little-known netminder from San Jose in exchange for a conditional second-round pick.
Kiprusoff was, at that time, serving as third-stringer for the Sharks. He’d struggled to a woeful 5-14 record the previous winter. Sutter was canned as San Jose’s coach midway through that season.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who the heck is this?’ And Darryl was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to like him,’ ” Conroy said. “Nobody had heard about Miikka before but boy, that first practice, he was amazing. We’re all thinking, ‘Whoa, this guy is pretty good.’ I think he wanted to prove himself, and he did that right from the git-go.”
Indeed, the new guy in No. 34 won six of his first seven starts with the Flames and was 11-3-2 before spraining a ligament in his knee. (McLennan, to his credit, played through a broken sternum while his buddy was sidelined. He was ultimately traded just before the deadline.)
Marcoux remembers that, during his injury absence, Kiprusoff was determined to fine-tune his game. He couldn’t drop into the butterfly, so they worked tirelessly on his puck-handling proficiency, using video of Martin Brodeur to reference and compare.
Before long, he was back in the splits, back delivering those highlight-reel saves.
And when a shot slipped past him? Kiprusoff acted as if he’d barely noticed.
He’d simply lift his mask for a squirt of water, leave his crease for a brief skate.
Nothing seemed to rattle this dude.
“The thing that probably stands out the most was his mental ability to be calm in a lot of situations and, when things didn’t go well, let it drip like water off a duck’s back,” Marcoux said. “We would talk about him being ‘The Iceman.’ ”
Equally legendary was Kiprusoff’s avoidance of the spotlight, his preference to leave a little mystery to the man behind the mask.
Upon arrival in Cowtown, he needed his new teammates to keep a secret from the local media.
“He’d pretend he couldn’t speak English,” Conroy chuckled. “He would say, ‘Oh, they’re coming. OK, no English.’ And he’d just sit there. That was right at the beginning. You guys figured it out after a while.”
When Kiprusoff won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2006, he skipped the awards shindig in Las Vegas.
He announced his retirement in 2013 in a team-issued statement, refusing any sort of official send-off, and has barely been heard from since. Now 44, Kiprusoff did attend a Flames game last winter on a family holiday but couldn’t be arm-twisted into anything more than a smile and wave to the crowd.
That might be the last time he’s spotted at the Saddledome. Or maybe not.
“I don’t know the policies on retiring jerseys, but I would argue he should be right there,” McLennan said. “Hopefully, if they ever get to a point of honouring him, he shows up. But I actually feel like it would be more like Miikka if it was Miikka Kiprusoff Night and he’s not there.”
It’s a shame, as his former goaltending coach mentioned, the Flames weren’t able to raise another sort of banner to the rafters during Kiprusoff’s puck-stopping prime.
“Miikka meant everything to the city of Calgary. Finally, Calgary had the next goalie after Mike Vernon,” Marcoux said. “It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t have a Stanley Cup, but the memories he brought during that time … It was fun time to be a Calgary Flames fan, that’s for sure.”
Remember me for …
After arriving in a mid-season trade, Kiprusoff backstopped the Flames to within inches of a Stanley Cup parade in 2004, stealing several games along the way.
Oh and another thing …
Post-lockout, Kiprusoff followed up that fairytale playoff run by winning the Vezina Trophy in 2005-06.
Staggering stat …
76 x 2 — Kiprusoff logged 76 crease-calls in back-to-back seasons with the Flames, leaving his backups bored as he set and then equalled a franchise record that will likely never be broken.
These days …
Kiprusoff retired in 2013 and is now living in Finland. He made a rare appearance at the Saddledome last December and was treated to a standing ovation.
He said it …
“It’s very quiet, his life. But he enjoys it. We talked on the phone for an hour the other day, just lots of laughs. He’s very funny. He’s up on world events. It’s not like he’s living in a hole or anything. He’s just a private person.” — Kiprusoff’s former teammate and close friend, Jamie McLennan
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