TURKU – Antero Niittymäki is back with TPS Turku. The 32-year-old goaltender, the 2006 Olympic MVP, signed a one-year contract with his alma mater. With Atte Engren back from the Nashville Predators’ organization as well, TPS fans won’t need to worry about goaltending this season.
Niittymäki's contract came as something of a surprise, as the 32-year-old has battled with major hip problems in recent years.
“On some level, I had already mentally retired in May. I had had so many setbacks that I thought I just didn’t want to do it anymore. But things felt better in the summer,” Niittymäki told Finnish MTV3 on Tuesday.
Ten years ago, Antero Niittymäki was the latest in a long list of goalie prospects to come out of the TPS Turku system in Finland. Before him, there had been Fredrik Norrena, Jani Hurme, and of course, Miikka Kiprusoff. By 2002, before signing with the Philadelphia Flyers, Niittymäki had been on two Finnish championship teams, taking over the starting job in the middle of the playoffs in 2000.
Five years ago, he had taken Finland to an Olympic final in Turin, been voted into the tournament All-Star team, and named the MVP of the tournament.
So far so good.
But then, in September 2006 during the Flyers training camp, it was reported that Niittymäki suffered a torn labrum in his left hip during a practice session. He had had problems with his right hip earlier that season and was scheduled to have surgery after the season, though it didn’t seem to bother him in the Olympics or the World Championship in Riga, Latvia, where he recorded two shutouts in his first three games.
In the game against Canada, Niittymäki made a pad save on a Glen Metropolit shot and pulled his groin, ending his season. The scheduled hip surgery kept him sidelined all summer, and once he came back, he tore the labrum in his left hip, but instead of going under the knife again, he decided to take cortisone shots and postpone the surgery. He re-injured the hip during the season, and in April, had another surgery.
15 months later, Niittymäki would again go under the knife. He signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent, and then moved onto the San Jose Sharks, and that’s where his latest injury problems started. After a decent first half of his first season with the Sharks, he suffered some groin and “lower body” injuries, had a major hip replacement surgery in September 2011, and didn’t play any NHL games last season, and just 13 in the American Hockey League.
In early August, he hit the ice with the TPS SM-liiga team, and hasn’t had any problems with his hips.
“It’s been a long process for him. I was in touch with him after the season, and then Antero worked out on his own through the summer, considering his options,” said Ari Vuori, the club’s director of hockey operations, to MTV3.
“When things felt good, we agreed that he’ll practice with us for a few weeks, and since things have gone well, we decided to sign him. All good teams need two good goalies,” he added.
Now Niittymäki and Vuori are all smiles. As Vuori says, nobody knows how well the new hip will work in the long run, but so far things are looking good.
“The hip hasn’t bothered me, it’s been great to be back on the ice, and I’ve enjoyed hockey again. The most important thing for me now is to stay healthy,” Niittymäki said.
“It’s good to be home,” he said.
Next, he’ll hit the road with the team, though, as TPS will travel to Switzerland to play two European Trophy games against SC Bern and HC Fribourg-Gottéron on Friday and Saturday, respectively.