HELSINKI – When you’re a kid, getting in touch with your idols is fantastic. Just to cross paths is a dream come true, but to wear their old pads must feel like out of a fairy tale. As a junior in his hometown, Rauma, Petri Vehanen was once given former Czech national team goaltender Petr Briza’s old pads.
Now, the fact that the pads were filled with holes and worms were crawling out them may put a damper on Vehanen’s joy, but what’s an aspiring young goalie to do? Those pads may have also been a statement on Vehanen’s position on the Lukko Rauma totem pole.
Vehanen, now 34, the oldest player on the Finnish team, has taken the long way to the top. Always a good goalie, but never a great prospect, he wasn’t even a starting goalie in Lukko's under-20 team.
In 1998, a 21-year-old Petri Vehanen packed his equipment bag and headed to Norway. According to his stats, Vehanen had 13 Finnish SM-liiga games under his belt, but he hadn’t seen any action in any of them at all. Between 1994 and 1998, he had played just 28 games in the Finnish junior league and Division I, the third-tier league.
In Norway, he played 31 of Stavanger’s 34 games, and played well. After the season, Vehanen was voted best goaltender in the league, and he returned home to Rauma.
“That’s when he found goaltending coach Ari Moisanen, and they began to systematically work on Vehanen’s game,” says Marko Leppänen, hockey writer at Rauma’s local paper Länsi-Suomi.
Even if Vehanen was working diligently with his game, once again, he ended up on the bench, playing just 13 games in the next two seasons, and only six of them in the Finnish SM-liiga. But in his second season back from Norway, Lukko signed a veteran Canadian goaltender, a one-time NHLer, Bruce Racine.
“Backing up Bruce taught me a lot, he gave me a lot of pointers, about stretching, for example. He’s one of two Lukko goaltenders who have influenced me the most. The other is Petr Briza," Vehanen said in an interview 2003.
Vehanen took over from Racine the next season, played 53 games, and made his national team debut in a game that was played in Rauma, of course.
“During the 2004-05 season, when Vehanen was injured, Lukko signed Dwayne Roloson, and that must be another turning point in his career. Vehanen studied Roloson’s way of doing things, and that helped him,” says Leppänen.
He had turned 30 when his big breakthrough came. After a year in Sweden, and another in the Russian Superliga, Vehanen had, once again, returned home to Rauma. A solid season in the Finnish league took him to his first World Championship in Canada. Vehanen backed up Niklas Bäckström, and played one game, against Norway, which Finland won in overtime.
He returned home with a bronze medal and has been one of head coach Jukka Jalonen’s core players ever since. In 2010, Vehanen won the Gagarin Cup in the KHL, in 2011 he finished the season with the best save percentage in the World Championship in Bratislava - 95.34 in the eight games he played - and a gold medal around his neck.
No wonder several NHL teams are interested in Vehanen, who recently signed with Lukko again, but with an out clause for the NHL.
This year, he started the tournament backing up Kari Lehtonen, but after Lehtonen’s knee injury, the net is all Vehanen’s.
“His style is very minimalistic now, he makes no unnecessary moves out there. He’s like the opposite of Dominik Hasek,” says Leppänen.
So when the clock was ticking down in Finland quarter-final game against the U.S., Vehanen stayed cool in his net. Sure, he thought about an overtime period, but mostly he just stayed focused on the next puck coming his way. He wasn’t thinking about Bobby Ryan’s goal anymore, the one that he scored off a rebound.
“The rebound was fine, but I didn’t like how it just went through me,” he said after the game.
Then Jesse Joensuu scored with 8.8 seconds remaining, Finland weathered the last storm, and was in the semi-final.
“Of course I get nervous, too, but not in a hockey game anymore. The importance of winning, and losing, has changed. I like to win, naturally, but I’m not afraid to lose, not anymore,” Vehanen said.
“He’s always been down to earth, but with all the success in recent years, he’s even more down to earth, it seems. When he says that he puts family first, he truly means it,” Leppänen adds.
In his first team, the kids were asked who’d like to be the goalie. Vehanen’s buddy took a place in line, so Petri followed him there. And now, seven clubs, several moves from and to Rauma, worm-eaten pads, and thousand of hours of hard work later, he’s getting ready to defend a World Championship gold.
“It’s not going to be easy, but that’s what we’re here for. I see a lot of similar elements in this team as in the 2011 team. We work hard, we’re a team, the dressing room is good, and I hope that everything just clicks,” he said.
“In one game, just one player can be the difference,” he added.