By: Steve MacFarlane
It’s become traditional for NHL teams who win at home to trot out to centre ice and raise their sticks to the crowd.
The fact the Flames players forced Miikka Kiprusoff to make that celebratory twirl alone on Friday night after he backstopped them to a 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks in the Saddledome finale of this lockout-shortened season was extremely telling.
In case anyone still doubts the likelihood the franchise goaltender is going to retire following this season, that special moment in front of a crowd still chanting Kiprusoff’s name was just one of many signs.
Another came in the locker-room as the Finn bent over and untied his skates. One of the Flames owners sidled up to Kiprusoff and quietly told him, “You’re welcome back if you want to come.”
Publicly, he says he’s not yet sure he wants to return for the final season of his current contract.
Privately, he’s telling people he’s done.
That’s why his teammates played their hearts out in front of him Friday, cringing when Corey Perry ended the shutout bid and spoiled what would have been a fitting ending to the former Vezina winner’s ninth season wearing the Flaming C on his chest. That’s why Kiprusoff savoured the five-plus-minute ovation from the locals, which started with two minutes still on the clock in a game as meaningless as a pre-season contest.
That’s why Lee Stempniak scooped up the puck for him after the final buzzer sounded.
That’s why so many owners and executives felt the need to seek him out and shake his hand. They know there’s a good chance they’ll never see him again — unless he agrees to come back when they eventually decide to honour his jersey (remember, they don’t retire them here anymore).
Where does he go from here?
For Kiprusoff, what comes after hockey isn’t something he says he’s thought much about. He’s been doing it professionally his entire life.
Money will never be a problem. He’s been paid a handsome fortune for his heroics during his time in Calgary. He’s also part owner of TPS Turku back in Finland, and has a piece of the Warrior stick company.
Most joke he’ll disappear back in Finland, spending his mornings on the water with a fishing rod and a bottle of vodka. Teammates will hear from him on rare occasions, he’ll tell them they should come to his place in the middle of nowhere, then conveniently forget to give anyone directions.
But he said something interesting after Friday night’s game. Maybe it was just to make the one or two writers remaining around him second-guess his impending retirement, or maybe all his success in Calgary, and the way he’s been treated here, makes the idea he’s not so eager to leave town even after his playing days are done just a little more believable.
“Well actually, we haven’t even yet decided where I’m gonna be after I’m done hockey,” Kiprusoff told me, suggesting he and wife Seidi will decide where they and young boys Aaro and Oskar live once they officially declare his NHL career over.
“We really like it here. We like Finland, too. It’s where the family is. It’s one call to make, too, when it’s time.”
How far he’s come
It’s incredible to think how quickly Kiprusoff rose from unknown commodity to superstar following the trade from San Jose, where he was third on the goalie depth chart, to Calgary, where he made an instant impact.
It was Kiprusoff, not Jarome Iginla, who was responsible for the majority of Flames victories over the last nine seasons. As one scribe suggested Friday night as the crowd voiced its appreciation, “He made a whole lot of bad teams pretty competitive.”
As brightly as Iginla shined during the 2004 playoff run, as hard as he worked and as big of an impact he made, it was incredible goaltending that allowed the team to surprise the top four seeds in the Western Conference that spring. It was Kiprusoff’s amazing athleticism, his reflexes, his flexibility, his anticipation of the play and refusal to quit on any play that earned the Flames their first division title in more than a decade the year following the lockout.
And through all that, Kiprusoff had yet to take training — stretching aside — seriously.
He was a smoker when he first joined the team, although how much he actually lit up only he knows. He more recently admitted to trying smoking and not liking it, stating that he doesn’t do it anymore and that it’s not good for you. He did eventually give it up a few years ago — but he still loves his chewing tobacco. A wad under the lip makes an interview with the soft-spoken introvert even more difficult as he pours on the over-exaggerated accent he’s always relied on to avoid talking much.
He loved his drink, too, although he would never do it at inappropriate times or let it affect his game.
There was one memorable night in Columbus during the 2006-07 season, following his Vezina Trophy winning season, when the Flames had a rare evening in the same city following a game. A tired but famished newspaper beat writer who had skipped dinner and was packing up for an early-morning flight to the next town ordered last-minute room service and when the hotel staff member saw his press pass from the game, asked if he knew Miikka Kiprusoff.
“As well as anyone covering the team can get to know him. He’s kind of quiet,” the reporter replied.
“Well, he just ordered some food, too, along with a six-pack of beer,” laughed the kid. “I think he drank three of them before I even left the room.”
Realizing as he aged how much harder he would have to work to continue as one of the most consistent goaltenders in the modern era, Kiprusoff dedicated himself to a healthier lifestyle. He came back to Calgary earlier in the summer before training camp began, and skated with some of his teammates in their informal pre-season gatherings.
This year, it made no difference. The lockout seemed to take away from the rhythm he developed.
But he doesn’t have anything left to prove, and isn’t the type of guy who has to win a championship at the NHL level to feel fulfilled. He’d already done that in Finnish hockey, where he’d won a league title along with the equivalent of a Vezina and the Conn Smythe for TPS Turku.
His dry but quick sense of humour was front and centre at his unofficial goodbye party as he was asked about those telltale signs of his retirement decision.
The solo skate at the end of the game? “I told them they’re not giving me any options after that.”
The puck getting picked up for him? “They’ve been doing that the last 10 games. I don’t know why. They want me out of town.”
The idea of teammates trying to talk him out of retiring. “No, they want me to go.”
No one really wants to see that, but barring a last-minute change of heart, it’s all but official.
(Thanks again to Steve for sharing his thoughts and experiences of Kiprusoff. You can follow Steve on twitter here.)