HELSINKI – It was an unforgettable night for one Antti Raanta who played his first game in a Finnish national team sweater, ever.
The 23-year-old goaltender hadn’t played in any of the junior national teams coming up the Lukko Rauma system and he hadn’t been tested in the Euro Hockey Tour when he skated onto the Hartwall Arena ice on Saturday, to the cheers of 13,000 people.
A few minutes after that, he stood on the blueline and listened to those 13,000 yell out a part of the Finnish national anthem that sounds like his last name, and then he went to work. Sixty minutes later, he had recorded his first national team game – and a shutout.
A star was born.
It’s not the first time an unknown goalie makes his international breakthrough in the World Championship. In fact, it’s become almost a trend.
Last year, Jan Laco, 30, was named an All-Star and Best Goalie when he backstopped Slovakia all the way to the final. Laco played nine games in the tournament, and recorded 80 more minutes than the next goalie, Russia’s Semyon Varlamov, in the tournament. Laco’s save percentage, 92.40, was the fourth-best last year.
And the year before that, Sweden had a fresh face between the pipes. In 2011, Viktor Fasth emerged as the starter for Tre Kronor when the then-AIK Stockholm goaltender recorded three shutouts, and a 94.57 save percentage in seven World Championship games as the Swedes went to the final.
In 2011, not even Tre Kronor teammate Robert Nilsson - who played in the KHL - knew who Viktor Fasth was before Sweden’s pre-World Championship training camp.
Fasth, undrafted by any NHL team, received several NHL offers, but decided to play another year in the Swedish Elitserien, before signing with the Anaheim Ducks last autumn. There his teammate is Swiss Jonas Hiller, who made his World Championship debut in 2007, also as an undrafted talent.
Hiller, then 25, played six games, posted the tournament’s fifth-best save percentage - on par with established NHLers Cam Ward, Kari Lehtonen, and Dwayne Roloson - while facing more shots that any of the four goaltenders ahead of him. Hiller signed with the Ducks after the tournament, as a free agent.
And here’s Raanta.
“It’s not the Cinderella story that people might think. Antti has, naturally, worked hard for years, and has played well for a few years now, too,” says Finnish national team goaltending coach Ari Moisanen who has known Raanta for over a decade.
Yes, Raanta did record the Finnish major junior league’s best save percentage a few years ago, and was on his way to make a breakthrough two years ago when he got injured, but this season has been his big break. Raanta led his Ässät Pori to a Finnish championship after the team went from very cold to very hot in a few months, and rose from a twelfth place in February to fourth in the standings, and then going all the way in the final.
It doesn’t matter how you get to the top, what matters is that you get to the top. Raanta is younger than Laco or Fasth, the All-Star goalies of the two last tournaments, but just like them, he’s poised to make his international breakthrough.
Moisanen downplays the fact that Raanta - just like the two other Finnish goalies, Joni Ortio and Atte Engren - is a rookie on the World Championship stage.
“There’s a first time for everything, and everybody must play their first game at some point. Even though the international game is faster, the goalie’s job stays the same: he must stop that black thing that others try to shoot past him,” says Moisanen.
“It’s the work that Antti has put in that’s bearing fruit now, and his fundamentals are now consistently good, and that’s what you need more than highlight reel saves,” he adds.
Not that Raanta didn’t make any highlight reel saves in his first game against Slovakia. He did. And they were registered by the many scouts and club managers in the stands. Raanta has signed a two-year contract with HIFK Helsinki in the SM-liiga, but he’s expected to use an out clause in his contract and sign with an NHL or a KHL team instead.
And if he follows in Hiller’s, Laco’s and Fasth’s footsteps, this tournament might turn into a happy tale for the Finns.