A single mistake can overshadow an otherwise strong performance, which is why conquering the game's mental challenges sometimes can prove even tougher than achieving consistently solid physical mechanics. As his team's last line of defense, a goalie always draws scrutiny.
It is especially hard for a goaltender not to stand out from the rest of the players on the ice when he is 6-foot-7, like Lahti Pelicans goaltender Niko Hovinen. The 23-year-old Philadelphia Flyers prospect has been subjected to lofty expectations for years, but it was not until recently that he truly began to embrace the challenges that come with playing one of sports' most difficult positions.
In addition, Niko's older brother, Rami, was a defenseman in the HIFK Helsinki system, briefly appearing in the SM-Liiga (Finnish elite league) during the 2005-06 season. Their younger brother, Miro, currently plays with the top junior team in the Jokerit Helsinki system, and was a member of the bronze medal-winning Finnish team at the 2010 World Under-18 Championship.
Of all the Hovinen boys, however, Niko was considered the one with the best chance of making it to the NHL. A prodigy in the Jokerit junior system, he was chosen in the fifth round (No. 132) of the 2006 Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild. As he climbed the hockey ladder and made his SM-Liiga debut for Jokerit in 2006-07, however, the huge netminder struggled to hone his game to professional standards.
"It's pretty common for goalies, especially a real big kid like Hovinen, to take a little longer to mature, both physically and mentally,” Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren told NHL.com. "There's a learning curve they all go through, and some players need more time than others. It's pretty much one step at a time for most of these guys."
Hovinen failed to impress in his short stints with Jokerit's big team, and his struggles continued after he transferred to the Lahti Pelicans organization. By his own admission, he had trouble with his mechanics and his self-confidence. Although he continued to fare well at the junior level, stints with the Finnish under-20 national team in the top minor league (Mestis) and a brief loan to minor-league club HeKi did not yield the hoped-for results at the SM-Liiga level.
Unsigned by Minnesota and facing an uphill battle to earn the starting job for the Pelicans, Hovinen pondered his future. In hindsight, his early struggles have helped to make him a better player. Once compared to other big-bodied goalies such as countrymen Pekka Rinne and Kari Lehtonen, Hovinen realized that he had to find his own style and develop a more consistent rhythm.
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"I had no confidence left three years ago," Hovinen said in a recent interview with Finnish publication Veikkaaja. "I was afraid of making mistakes and being a failure and that's why the pucks seemed even to go through me. I couldn't catch anything back then. I was so sick of it that I almost quit playing for good."
Hovinen persevered. Although success did not come right away, he saw improvement over the course of the 2009-10 season, and last season, he finally turned the corner.
Under the tutelage of Pelicans goaltending coach Pasi Nurminen, Hovinen posted a 2.59 goals-against average, a .921 save percentage and three shutouts in 49 games for a team that struggled in the standings. A goalie who does not mind handling the puck, he also registered his first SM-Liiga assist last season. In relegation play, Hovinen was unbeatable against the low-grade opposition he faced, posting a pair of shutouts in four starts and stopping 95 percent of the shots he faced overall.
Hovinen is quick to credit Nurminen, who spent 2001-04 with the Atlanta Thrashers, with much of his recent success.
"The main thing is that he can organize game-type practices for the goalies and he's also a terrific mental helper," Hovinen said. "I can call him any time and tell him about anything that worries me. He's always there for me."
During his playing days, Nurminen was known as a fierce competitor. Although forced to retire at age 29 due to a knee injury, Nurminen has kept himself in outstanding condition, and he has demanded Hovinen do the same.
"You really don't really want to get lazy in his practices, because if you do, he starts taking side angle slap shots at your head or back or whatever part that's not protected that well. And, of course, he shoots as hard as possible to make it hurt as much as possible," Hovinen joked to Veikkaaja.
Hovinen's strong play earned him a spot with Team Finland at the 2011 world championship. Although he served as the team's third goaltender and did not appear in any games, he had the thrill of his hockey career to date as a member of a team that captured gold in the tournament for the first time since 1995 (and just the second time in tournament history). He also earned a second shot at an NHL future when the Flyers signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract May 17.
Hovinen, who previously signed an extension with Lahti in late January, has chosen to honor the contract with his Finnish club. He will remain with the Pelicans this season on loan from the Flyers and then come to North America to compete for a job in the AHL or NHL in 2012-13.
"The Flyers have treated me very fair, and it's a great organization with a lot of history and winning tradition," Hovinen said. "When I go over there, I want to make sure that I'm as prepared as I can be."
Although the Flyers signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract and also have second-year pro Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL level, Holmgren insisted that Hovinen will be given every opportunity to prove himself when he comes over for training camp next year.
"We have some talented young goaltenders in our system, and we were happy to be able to sign him," said Holmgren. "(Acquiring Bryzgalov) does not change our outlook on Bobrovsky or Hovinen."
This season, the Flyers figure to have a goaltending logjam with their American Hockey League farm club, the Adirondack Phantoms, with veterans Michael Leighton (assuming he does not make the NHL team as Bryzgalov's backup), Johan Backlund and Jason Bacashihua all competing for playing time. Come next season, however, there may be a job available for Hovinen, as all three will be unrestricted free agents.
"I can't focus on anything beyond this season," said Hovinen. "All I can do is try to do the best job I can this year."
In the short term, there is no question that Hovinen faces a difficult challenge helping the Pelicans rise in the SM-Liiga standings. He was stellar in the preseason, compiling a 1.50 GAA. Now the games start for real, as the SM-Liiga regular season starts Wednesday.