When goalie Viktor Fasth signed a two-year contract with Stockholm AIK in 2010, it was barely news in Sweden. The biggest morning paper, Dagens Nyheter, had a three-line blurb about it, and Aftonbladet, the biggest daily, pulled the general manager's comments off AIK's website.
No wonder. AIK played in the second- and third-tier leagues for years and had just then, in 2010, earned promotion to the Swedish Elite League. Fasth, too, spent his career in the second- and third-tier leagues, and had just signed his first SEL contract at 27.
"He was a good goalie when he came to Stockholm, but he had only played about 40 games in the previous two seasons due to his knee injury, so I suppose other teams didn't want to take a chance with him," AIK goalie coach Stefan Persson told NHL.com. "We had another goalie who had also struggled with injuries, but our GM, Anders Gozzi, just said that we can't be so unlucky that both goalies get injured at the same time."
Now, a slight injury to Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller has given Fasth his chance in the NHL -- and he has taken full advantage. The 30-year-old rookie has won all six of his starts and is one of the surprise stories so far this season.
The path he has taken is a long one.
The knee injury Fasth suffered while playing soccer to warm up before a practice kept him sidelined for nine months in 2008-09, but it had also gave him the opportunity to build himself up. Together with his club's mental coach, Martin Blom, Fasth worked on his psychological and physical strength.
"The season was over [already in October], and everything was dark. So I called Martin and his first words were: 'Perfect! Now we can work on everything we've talked about,'" Fasth told Aftonbladet early in his first season with AIK.
So when Fasth returned to action with the Vaxjo Lakers in the second-tier Allsvenskan in the fall of 2009, he had made thousands of saves in his mind and had worked on getting stronger.
"There was no pressure, they had all the time in the world, so Martin had Viktor work with light weights and made sure the foundation was there," Persson said.
Fasth had been an accomplished goalie in his teens -- he played for his district team and got into the hockey high school in Lulea, about 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle -- but he also had been rejected by the Lulea club and had to play Swedish Division 2 instead. (That sounds better than it is, Division 2 is the fourth-highest division in the country.)
Fasth then moved back to Vanersborg, in the south of Sweden, 10 miles from Trollhattan, a city formerly famous for a Saab auto factory now referred to as "Trollywood" thanks to several hit movies coming out of its film production facility. He played Division 1 hockey there with the Tvastad Cobras, a merger between a Trollhattan club and a Vanersborg club.
Though that team finished last and went belly up, the top team in Division 1, Tingsryd, wanted Fasth. And after three seasons there, Vaxjo, came calling. Fasth took another step up, to the second-tier league in Sweden.
When he arrived in Stockholm in 2010, he knew what he wanted to do.
"He said he wanted to get tighter, play a little closer to the net," Persson said. "A lot of goalies can say that without knowing what it means, but Viktor knew exactly what he needed to do.
"When I saw his attention to details, I realized he'd go far. He's also a very modest person. He says he's never the best, but he just keeps working hard to see how good he can get. Maybe this is as good as he gets, maybe he can be even better."
Persson carries with him a laptop with more than 30GB of videos and clips of his goalies with training programs and playbooks for them. He pulls up a video that shows Fasth working post to post, and Europe's "Rock the Night" comes out of the speakers:
"I've gone through changes; I've gone through pain"
Persson's laptop wallpaper is of Fasth hitting the ice in an Anaheim Ducks sweater. The coach can go back and watch Fasth's every save from the past two years, or see his workout regime and practices.
Naturally, Persson is keeping an eye on his former protégé's play in the NHL.
"He was fantastic in the game against [the Colorado Avalanche], but he disappeared in the game against the [St. Louis Blues]. I had to send him a message, although I'm just happy to see him do well," Persson said.
"I'm surprised to see how well he handles the stick now. Maybe they've worked on that."
Persson and Fasth stopped worrying about save percentages and instead focused on wins and goals-against average because, as Persson said, "They don't lie."
"It's fun to see that his plan works even in the NHL," Persson said. "I think their goalie coach Pete Peeters had asked to play a little more aggressively in the NHL, and he had tried it in the camp, but it's also important for a goalie to stick to his style, because if he changes it too much, and it doesn't work, he may never get another chance.
"But he's so tough mentally. And because he has such high demands for himself, he also has high demands for others."
After his first season with AIK, which ended in a World Championship final with Sweden and a loss to Finland, Fasth caught the attention of some NHL teams. But he didn't want to sign because he was offered only a two-way contract and he had just become a father.
"He called me about an hour before the deadline and said it was time to recharge the batteries, because he was coming back to AIK," Persson said.
Last season, Fasth played more games, won more games and had a better save percentage than the season before. He had proved he was no flash in the pan, got a one-way contract from the Ducks, and left Stockholm.
"He's 30 now, and he's fought his way to the NHL just because he decided to work as hard as he could, and see how far that would get him," Persson said.
Mental changes pay off for Fasth
He also had some mental changes to make.
Fasth told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter he once threw his goalie stick 17 rows into the crowd. When his former AIK goalie coach Stefan Persson tells the story, he stops at row 7 -- but you get the picture.
"When I was in my teens and got my first real goalie mask, our equipment manager told me once that the next time you break a stick on the crossbar, I'll take your mask and throw it to the ground," Fasth told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. "Somehow I remember that one."
He's better now, he said -- and it shows.
Working with mental coach Martin Blom, Fasth improved his approach. Persson points out another detail that makes Fasth a successful goalie.
Persson made a video of Fasth, showing just the moments when he turned his head and looked around during one game. The edit was four minutes long. He edited a similar video for AIK's new goalie, Daniel Larsson, at the beginning of this season. That edit was 22 seconds long.
"No other goalie moves his head as much as Fasth," Persson said. "Your eyes are key to everything. If you know where you are and where the other players are, you can then steer the defense and talk to the defensemen, and you don't have to guess when you make saves."
Every once in a while, Fasth has to return to the basics. That's when he works on angles, positioning, and getting up from the ice.
"He had some problems with the small [NHL] rink, but it was just a matter of adjusting things a little," Persson said.
How little? Four inches.
Though he could claim some, Persson won't take credit for Fasth's breakthrough in the NHL.
"Who came up with the flop in high jump, or the V-style in ski jumping? It wasn't a coach, it was an athlete," Persson said. "Viktor's so modest, and when you hear him praise the defense after a game, that's truly him. He also knows that when he has a bad day, he'll get their support."
But the goalie coach is surprised.
"Did I think he'd get to the NHL when he came to AIK? No."
-- Risto Pakarinen
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