Coming of Age
by Henrik Manninen|07 NOV 2018
Villem-Henrik Koitmaa debuted internationally for Estonia as an 18-year-old and has since played nine seasons with the senior men's team. 
photo: Sarunas Mazeika
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Winning might be all that counts, but for Estonia's netminder Villem-Henrik Koitmaa, playing for promotion in a World Championship felt like striking gold and helped put his career back on track.

Aided by an impressive 145:17 minute shutout streak, Koitmaa helped Estonia finish a surprise third at the 2018 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he earned the much-coveted Goaltender of the tournament award as .

"From a personal perspective being voted the best goalie of Division IB has for sure been the biggest highlight in my career so far. If you look at the names who played in that tournament and won it in the past, such as Mantas Armalis of Lithuania, it was a moment where I could not resist to smile, even though we just lost 4-1 to Lithuania," said Koitmaa.

Fast forward six months and Koitmaa is this week returning to his happy hunting ground in Lithuania. Estonia is playing at a Challenge Cup tournament in Vilnius in preparation for what could be a landmark season for Estonian hockey.

With Estonia's capital Tallinn hosting the 2019 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B, Koitmaa is getting his skills tested week-in and week-out at Vasas Budapest in the multinational Erste Liga. Having previously played hockey in Estonia, Finland, Great Britain and New Zealand, his journeyman career then saw him move to Hungary during the 2016-17 season. Having taken time to find his feet, he is now into his third season in Central Europe and his first as a regular starter.

"Our neighbours in Latvia call us Estonians slow and I only became first choice goalie this season at the age of 27. Previously I used to look at hockey as a perfect way to learn about other cultures, but it has changed a bit now as hockey is my profession. Every day I learn something new, trying to take everything in and see how far it can take me," said Koitmaa.

Although a late bloomer in terms of earning regular minutes in club hockey, Koitmaa is already a hardened veteran when representing his country. Coming up to a decade of playing for Estonia's senior national team, there has been many ups and downs in his tenure as netminder for his country.

As a fresh-faced 18 year old, Koitmaa debuted for Estonia by winning all four games at during the 2009 IIHF World Championship Division II Group A in Novi Sad, Serbia. But by the time of his introduction, sky-high favourites Estonia had already effectively shot themselves in the foot. Koitmaa had watched on in despair as a back-up during their opener when hosts Serbia lifted the roof as they turned a 1-4 deficit to a victory on penalty shots. Having travelled by bus for over 24 hours and mazing through half-a-dozen countries to arrive just in time for the first match had clearly taken its toll on a cumbersome Estonian team.

"It was a horrible feeling to lose against Serbia, which was obviously because we went down there by bus. But I still remember looking down at my jersey and thinking, 'I've made it'. My goal was to play for the national team and I was able to do that at 18, being the youngest guy on the team," he recalled of his baptism of fire at the senior international level.

By the time of his national team debut, Koitmaa was already taking his first tentive steps abroad across the Gulf of Finland. Advancing from the junior ranks to become back-up in Finnish second tier while still aged only 20, Koitmaa's predicament at the time was aptly summed up by Finnish Hall of Famer and former netminder Pasi Nurminen.

"I remember Nurminen having seen me play in an exhibition game and had been impressed, but also adding that it was a shame that I was so small. Back then most goalies were supposed to be huge, but these days it has changed a lot in Finland with goalies such as for instance Juuse Saros," said Koitmaa who at 180 cm or 5 feet 9 inches is taller than both Nurminen and Saros. 

His time in Finland became invaluable for his development as a goalie, but also made him wary of the pitfalls of putting all his eggs into one basket. In order to have something to fall back on, Koitmaa made the unorthodox step to head back home and study in his early 20's. Studying for a degree in film production and television, while still playing hockey in his native Tallinn, he came tentatively close to retirement from the game at the age of 23. It came during the dark days of Estonian hockey which saw Koitmaa and his compatriots finish pointless at the bottom of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B played in Donetsk, Ukraine. 

"Donetsk has without a question been the lowest point of my career. I remember flying back to Tallinn and at the airport taking off my team Estonia jacket, trying not to get noticed and head straight for my dad's car. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be part of playing for the national team again as it was all so unprofessional. That was the low point of Estonian hockey and also the low point for myself as I'd played a terrible tournament, but if there are no bad times, then you can not cherish the good times," said Koitmaa. 

Deciding, however, to stay put, his hockey odyssey continued with a string of moves abroad. He was combining hockey with studies in Great Britain and upon his graduation, he widened his scope with a move to Dunedin Thunder in New Zealand. In Oceania, he also started to coach goalies and it gave him a new lease of life in hockey which coincided with a steady upturn in fortunes of Estonian hockey. With Koitmaa's hometown of Tallinn now hosting the 2019 Division IB this spring, he clearly feels there is a feel-good factor within Estonian hockey.

"Now it is the highest it has ever been and we are on the right path, starting from the President of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association, Rauno Parras to our General manager Juri Rooba and to our coaching staff. Everyone is involved to try and make Estonian hockey better, so it is great to be a part of it," said Koitmaa, who could not hide his excitement of this season's World Championship being played in his home city between 28 April to 4 May 2019.

"I've played both under-18 and U20 World Championships in Estonia, and I've won gold at the 2010 World Championships Division 2A which was moved from Tallinn to Narva at the last minute. But apart from playing, my best memory comes from Tallinn from when I was 15 and I watched the national team play at the world championship in Saku Suurhall. I remember looking at our goalie Aleksei Terentjev in action and thinking 'Wow, he is the man!'. Now I might be getting the same opportunity so it is going to be a great memory," said Koitmaa. 

"I think the best way is just to approach each moment as it comes and not think about the big picture. So for me it's stopping puck after puck, save after save and then at the end of the season we'll see. Now I am trying not to overthink and I am enjoying every minute of it."

HENRIK MANNINEN

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