TALLINN – At the beginning of this shortened season, Leo Komarov made his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs. When he made his debut on January 19th he became the first ever Estonian-born player to play in the National Hockey League.
The 24-year-old who was born in Narva, Estonia, which is a city located on the eastern tip of the country and is known for its close proximity to the Russian border, scored his first NHL goal on February 9th which was a goal that turned out to be a game winner against Toronto’s long-time rival, the Montreal Canadiens.
Although being born in Estonia, Komarov does not refer to himself as Estonian. The Maple Leafs forward was born in Narva to Russian parents and when Leo was five he and his family moved to the Swedish-speaking town of Nykarleby, Finland where his father was a professional hockey player there. Because of this, Komarov holds a dual Russian-Finnish Citizenship and represents Finland at the international level.
Estonia itself lies in the Baltic’s bordering such hockey powers as Russia to the east, Latvia to the south, and Finland which is a short ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland. The nation has a population of just over a million and of that only 1,500 play hockey. For a small country, Estonia has been quite successful in sports especially at the Olympics winning medals in athletics, weightlifting, wrestling, and cross-country skiing. Also Kaia Kanepi, who is a top ranked female tennis player, hails from Haapsalu which is located on the west coast of Estonia.
The sport of hockey though has never really experienced any kind of success as the country’s national team has never qualified for the Olympics or top level World Championships since its independence from the Soviet Union.
The highest level of hockey in Estonia (Meistriliiga) is one of the weaker leagues in Europe and consists of a very small amount of games and only five teams (Tallinn Viiking Sport, Narva HK PSK, Välk-494, Panter Purikad, and Viru Sprutnik Kohtla-Järve.) This is a big reason in why the country can’t produce many high-quality players and compete against the higher level countries in the world.
In fact the common hockey fan would most likely be unable to name even one of Estonia’s top players which currently include 19-year-old Robert Rooba, who plays with the Espoo Blues in Finland, Lauri Lahesalu, Sergei Ivanov, Aleksander Petrov, and 22-year-old goaltender Villem-Henrik Koitmaa.
Koitmaa was born and raised in Tallinn, which is the capital and largest city of Estonia with a population of 400,000. He began his hockey career playing in his hometown for the Tallinn Stars junior club before moving to Finland for three years to further develop his skills playing with clubs such as HeKi and Jeppis. Upon returning to Estonia, he has been playing for the past two seasons with Panter Purikad.
With the national team, Koitmaa is a bit of a workhouse playing the majority of the games which suits him well apparently. At the recent Olympic Qualifications tournament, Estonia was vastly outmatched in the tournament especially one game in particular which was an 8-0 loss to Poland. If it wasn’t for the stellar play of Koitmaa in goal though the score could have been much worse as he stopped 55 of 63 shots in a valiant effort.
In Reykjavik, Iceland, at last year’s World Championship Division II Group A, Koitmaa led his Estonians to promotion to Division I by going undefeated in their pool defeating the likes of Spain, Croatia, Serbia, New Zealand, and the host country of Iceland. Koitmaa boasted a 92.6% save percentage, which was second only to Spanish goalie Ander Alcaine in the tournament.
This upcoming World Championship Division I Group B will mark the 12th tournament that Koitmaa has represented Estonia which is quite the international résumé for someone who is still very young at only 22 years of age. We will most likely be seeing Koitmaa in an Estonian jersey competing for many years to come.
Koitmaa will be competing for Estonia at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Donetsk, Ukraine, starting on Sunday.
IIHF.com asked Villem-Henrik Koitmaa some questions.
How was life growing up in Tallinn and Estonia?
I didn’t miss out on anything I guess. I had some great friends from the neighbourhood who I did some stupid but fun stuff with. During the summers I often lived with my godparents in Denmark where I learned English and also made a lot of good friends.
How did you start playing hockey and at what age?
Starting hockey was a funny story for me. My mom took my bike to the shop to get it fixed, and as it later turned out the guy who was fixing the bike was my first hockey coach. He asked my mom how old I was and if I would like to start playing hockey. My mom said no at first but later when her friend’s son (also my age) started she thought it would be a good excuse to meet up with her more often. Her plan didn’t work because the other boy didn’t like it so much, but 15 years later I’m still here.
How did you become a goalie?
I loved how the goalie pads looked. That’s why I started goaltending.
Describe your playing style.
I try to play a hybrid style because I'm small for a goalie (181 cm). But mostly I’m a butterfly goalie.
Are you excited for the upcoming World Championship Division I Group B since Estonia got promoted last year?
Of course I'm excited about the upcoming championship. I think we have a good chance to stay up this time.
How well do you think Estonia can do at the tournament?
Poland and Ukraine are way ahead of us. Against everybody else we can win if we have a good day.
How was it like playing in the Olympic Qualifications tournament?
I had my men’s national team debut in the Olympic Qualifications four years ago, so its special being on the roster still after four years.
What are your goals in hockey?
Well, every hockey player’s dream is to play in the NHL. At least it should be... But reality is something different. My goal is just to enjoy playing hockey, but of course I hope it’s on a high level.
Estonia isn't exactly known as a hockey country, do you see hockey getting more popular in your country? Maybe make the top Worlds or Olympics one day? Or produce other NHL players?
Right now hockey in Estonia is not doing very good. The local league is not very strong and doesn’t have many games either. We don’t have many junior hockey players right now, and the reason for that is the lack number of hockey rinks. There are some Estonian prospects but they have played abroad since they were 13-14. The next Leo Komarov could be Robert Rooba. He has been playing in the Espoo Blues organization for some years now and was also on the draft list two years ago.
You are still very young at 22 years of age. Do you feel any pressure being the top goalie or starting goalie in your whole country at such a young age?
I feel lots of pressure when I'm starting for my country, but I think it gives me positive energy. After all it’s the same game, no matter what shirt you're wearing or how old you are.
You are also the goalie coach for the Estonian U18 team? How did you get that job?
The manager for Team Estonia asked me and I immediately said yes. I was coached in Finland by Petteri Kilpivaara for three years so it’s good to pass the knowledge ahead.
How many ice hockey arenas are there in Estonia?
There are five ice hockey arenas with seven rinks in total in Estonia. I think they are building a new one in Tallinn soon, or so I heard.
Did you know at a young age that you were talented at this sport?
I wasn't really good before I was 16. I was mostly the back up. I really loved the game and worked hard in practices but I remember getting super nervous before games. I couldn't catch anything.
How does it feel representing your country on a regular basis?
Representing my country is special. There is something special every time I put on the national team jersey. I feel really lucky that I can do that.
Why do you think your country hasn’t experienced the same success in hockey like your fellow Baltic country Latvia for example?
I think there should be a full pro club in Estonia so there would be some motivation for the young players. Also a bit of extra money for the hockey federation would help.
NHL Team: New York Rangers
Childhood Idol: Patrick Roy
Video Game: Fifa 13
TV Show: Entourage
Pump-Up Song: Deadmau5 –Ghosts N Stuff (Nero Remix)
Activity Away From the Rink: Golf, Snowboarding