HELSINKI – A standout in sheer size and raw talent, eyes on both sides of the Atlantic are firmly kept on the rapid progress of Wouter Peeters as great things are expected from the Belgian teenager with the world at his feet.
The 13,349-capacity Hartwall Arena had been chosen as the venue for the U20 derby clash in late January this year when Jokerit Helsinki took on IFK Helsinki. With Peeters in the net, Jokerit Helsinki rolled on to a 7-3 win against their city rivals in surroundings which soon might become staple diet for the 18-year-old prospect.
Just six years after picking up the game in his native Turnhout in the Flemish part of Belgium, the giant netminder turned heads as the Chicago Blackhawks snapped him up in the third round during the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. It marked a remarkable ascent for the Belgian-born and trained player and instilled a greater belief in himself to one day reach the summit of the game.
“It was only around last season that I realized that perhaps I can get something out of this and went 100 per cent into hockey. My dream long-term is to one day play in the NHL, but it is still a long way off and a lot of hard work is needed before it can happen,” said Peeters, who earlier this month completed his first season in Finnish hockey.
Being at the right place at the right time is an essential quality for a netminder. Back in 2013, three years after he made a switch from football to hockey, a Belgian team from nearby Leuven named Cold Play was looking for a goalie to join them for a U15 tournament in Zell am See in Austrian. With their regular first-choice netminder unable to travel, Wouter stepped in as cover, which was to be his dream ticket.
“In Austria they lost their first game 11-1 and the second one 8-0,” recalled Wouter's dad Joris, who had travelled with his son to the scenic surroundings when he was approached by a scout from Red Bull Salzburg, who had seen potential in the young Belgian.
“The scout told me that they wanted my son for their team. I replied that they might want the other goalie instead as we lost both games and Wouter had conceded 19 goals in two games. But they said they were looking for a tall goalie and Wouter was 191 cm at that time,” said Joris Peeters.
Joris Peeters had back in the day been a defenceman in Turnhout, but apart from a ferocious slap shot he was well aware of his limitations and called time on his career in his 20s. In his son Wouter however, he had noticed something special right from the outset, which set him apart from his peers.
“Since a young age Wouter would do everything to reach his goals,” said Joris Peeters.
It was a virtue which has stood him in good stead. Despite only 14 at the age when scouted, Wouter was adamant he wanted to go to Austria. Salzburg’s offer was accepted and Wouter relocated to the foot of the Alps together with his father Joris. Leaving family and friends behind was a challenge and so was the considerable step-up in training at first.
“The gym part was the biggest difference, but also the speed out on the ice was much faster and so was the skill level,” said Wouter Peeters, who arrived to a Salzburg organization that meant business with their hockey program. Their state-of-the art academy was about to be completed and it was a phenomenal environment to develop in with games against teams from Central Europe but also Russia and North America coming thick and fast.
But after his third season in Austria and in the wake of being picked 83rd overall in the NHL Entry draft, he felt ready for another challenge. Jokerit Helsinki’s U20 team became his next port of call on his hockey odyssey. Arriving to the Finnish capital in the summer of 2016 his aim was to become a more rounded goalie in an environment with a glowing reputation for producing netminders.
“Wouter strengths are his big size and passion to get better every day. He is very interested in his own development and he moves pretty well on his feet for a big guy,” said Jokerit Helsinki’s U20 goalie coach Mikko Tolvanen on his Belgian adept, who has made fine strides during his first season in Finland.
“He has develop mentally during his stay in Finland and had to learn competing in practice every day to earn his playing time. It has been a big culture change for him compared to previous years but challenges will make him better. The potential is huge for Wouter and we have to remember that he started playing hockey at a pretty old age. Compared to Finnish goalies at the same age, he has less quality practice reps so as a goalie he is still really young. The sky is the limit for Wouter, but he has to be patient and work hard,” said Tolvanen.
Following a defeat on 7th March, Jokerit Helsinki’s oldest crop of juniors got an abrupt ending to their season. Wouter Peeters decided to prolong his season by crossing the Atlantic. Teaming up with the Rockford IceHogs, the Chicago Blackhawks’ affiliate in the AHL, the Belgian is currently undergoing intensive training while getting further acquainted with a franchise he one day hopes will fulfil his NHL aspirations.
With Peeters staying put in the American Midwest until mid-April, it has also effectively put an end to any hopes of him making his national team debut for Belgium at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division II Group A currently being played in Galati, Romania.
“Wouter was one of the first players I called after my return as head coach of Belgium,” said Gil Paelinck, who is aiming to improve last year’s third spot in the division. Now in his second spell in charge of Belgium, Paelinck had during his previous stint as head coach, between 2005-09 relied on the solid services of stalwart Bjorn Steijlen in net. With Steijlen retiring in 2014 following 18 World Championships at senior level, Belgium has since been looking for an apt replacement to fill his skates.
With Peeters under contract with Jokerit Helsinki for yet another season, Belgium will patiently need to wait for Peeters' debut, which could play an important role in raising the profile of the game in the country.
“If Wouter plays for the national team and we have success that could help to shine a light on him as well as on Belgian hockey. He could also open the door for future Belgian hockey players on the world stage,” said Paelinck.