I just try to embrace it. I’ve always been like that. The harder the pressure, the better I usually play -- I don’t know where it comes from, I’ve just always been like that. I just try to enjoy it, you only get one first game so [I want to] make the most of it and the most of every minute of it. - Joni Ortio
BROSSARD, PQ -- Joni Ortio sat on the Calgary Flames bench on Monday at the Bell Centre in Montreal, gazing into the rambunctious crowd of over 21,000 die-hard hockey fans and thought about where he was just a few months ago.
It's been quite the journey, after all.
“It was kind of surreal,” Ortio said after practice at the Montreal Canadiens practice facility in Brossard, Quebec. “It was a great experience, like not a bad place for a first [NHL] game. It was a lot of fun just kind of sitting there and soaking it all in.
“The fans are good here in Montreal so it was a good atmosphere in the game so no surprises there.”
The Turku, Finland native was summoned on Sunday after Karri Ramo suffered a lower body injury during the Flames 4-3 overtime win over the Minnesota Wild on Friday.
Ramo is expected to be out of action until the NHL resumes play after the Olympic hiatus, which means Ortio will likely be returned to the Abbostford Heat without seeing any action.
That doesn’t seem to bother the goaltender, though, as he articulated Tuesday. He’s just trying to soak in the experience and get whatever he can out of it, but he says he will be ready if he’s called upon.
“Those are the things you can’t control, you can only control what you’re doing on the ice,” Ortio said. “I don’t waste too much energy on that. If I get the call, I get the call, there’s no big deal there.
“I just try to embrace it. I’ve always been like that. The harder the pressure, the better I usually play -- I don’t know where it comes from, I’ve just always been like that,” Ortio said. “I just try to enjoy it, you only get one first game so [I want to] make the most of it and the most of every minute of it.”
Flames coach Bob Hartley indicated that Reto Berra will start against the Islanders on Thursday, but that has more to do with being fair to Berra rather than a lack of confidence for Ortio. Berra stopped 25 of 26 shots in Tuesday's 2-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
“We know Joni, he had a great camp but I think it would be unfair to pull Reto Berra,” Hartley said. “He gave [up] one goal and we didn’t give him any [goals]. [If] I put myself in his (Berra’s) shoes and the coach goes to him and says you’re not going to be playing, for me it would be a message that you cost us the game, which I think is absolutely not the case, so I think that he fully deserves to get the start in Long Island.”
After an impressive showing at the annual YoungStars Tournament in Penticton last September and a surprisingly strong training camp with the Flames in the fall, Ortio was assigned to the Alaska Aces of the East Coast Hockey League, where he participated in a four-game stint before the Flames brass decided to bring Ortio back into Abbotsford -- a team he struggled with two seasons ago -- to assess where he was.
Ortio hasn't looked back.
The 22-year-old has had an outstanding season in the American Hockey League with the Heat, going 19-5-0 with a 2.08 goals against average and .930 save percentage.
His cup of coffee in Alaska was exactly what he needed to re-start his pro career in North America again.
“It’s kind of a [big] jump when [you go] four months from the East Coast League to the NHL, but it’s just the rotation we were working,” said Ortio. “Reto (Berra) needed [to get] his games in [when we were] in Abby and me and (Laurent) Brossoit were left without games, so I think it was pretty crucial getting those four or five games in Alaska because when I came back I jumped right in so that prepared me pretty well for those games.”
Ortio looks back at the 2011-12 season, where he suited for nine games with Abbostford but struggled with the North American game and ice size, finishing the year in Finland and remained there for the entire 2012-13 season. The netminder admitted he wasn't quite ready and is a much more mature person now.
“Those two years more of experience is huge. I probably wasn’t as good of a pro as I am now,” Ortio said. “Just going back to Finland to play for that year-and-a-half and playing in a bunch of games--almost as much as I wanted—it really matured me.
“I’m much more mature right now and my game has developed to a lot. I’m technically better now and it was really important going back.”
It remains to be seen if Ortio will be handed the keys to make his NHL debut this season.
But if he does, it will be bitter sweet and long awaited for the young goaltender.
And one he's ready for.