VOORHEES, N.J. – For most European players, making their first jaunt to North America to play hockey is an experience that challenging both on and off the ice.
There is the adjustment to playing on a smaller rink. There is a language barrier to overcome. There is an overall adaptation to the American or Canadian way of life.
It is with those hurdles that many European players take a little longer to reach the NHL.
It’s easier for them to continue to play professionally in European Leagues that are on par, or better than minor pro hockey in North America and that allows the players to continue to play in a familiar environment in their home country.
But at some point, those players who needed a little extra time to develop have to leave the nest. This fall, it is Niko Hovinen’s turn to do just that.
Hovinen, who was originally a fifth round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild, but never signed with the team, has been property of the Flyers since May, 2011.
The 24-year-old Finn has been playing professional hockey in his home country since he was 19 and each season saw his statistics get better and better.
He played only five games in three seasons with Jokerit, before leaving for the Pelicans at the start of the 2008-09 season.
Finally given a chance to play, Hovinen showed real progression with the Pelicans. He served as a backup there in his first two seasons, but in 2010-11 took over as the primary goalie.
Considering he played for a last place team, Hovinen’s numbers were impressive, posting a 2.59 goals against average and a .921 save percentage in 49 games. He also notched three shutouts.
He returned to the Pelicans last season, but was sidelined for much of the season with a hip injury that required surgery.
He is now 100 percent and is finally making the jump to North America.
“I’m trying to get better every day, but I want to show the [Flyers organization] that I can play over here,” said Hovinen, who is one of the tallest goalies in the history of the game at 6-foot-7. “Hockey is a little different here with the smaller rink, and I’m going to have to stay back in the net more, but I personally feel that it was a good step to play three years of pro hockey [in Finland] and now I’m ready to make that next step.”
And the Flyers think he is too, which is why he comes into camp as the projected No.1 goalie for the Phantoms.
“We like a lot of things about him,” said goaltending scout Neil Little. “First of all he’s big… real big. But for a guy that size he’s impressively athletic. That’s the first thing that jumps out at you; that and the fact that he’s been around a little bit and he’s played pro in Finland and excelled there in a very good league. In that regard he’s ready to make the jump here and we expect big things.”
Yet, while Hovinen seems to be the guy expected to carry the load for the Phantoms this season, there is competition in net.
Cal Heeter, an Ohio State product, opened the eyes of the Flyers brass during rookie camp in July and is a very competitive player who will push for ice time. That and the organization brought back AHL veteran Scott Munroe after three seasons of bouncing between AHL and KHL teams.
With three goalies in camp, the competition expects to be fierce.
“It makes everyone a little bit better when there’s competition, so it’s good,” said Hovinen. “We have three good goalies here, and everybody is fighting for the spot.”
That spot is Hovinen’s for the taking, but he can’t take it for granted because the organization has elevated expectations for him.
“We sure hope he [takes it],” Little said. “As with all of our kids, they are here for a reason. We’ve watched them, we like them and they all have potential. What they do with that potential is up to them… we have to see how it all pans out.
“There’s always competition. I don’t remember a time here when there wasn’t – especially when I played. It’s a good thing. It’s the name of the game. You compete for a spot, you compete for ice time and you compete with yourself to always try to excel and bring yourself to a higher level of play.”
Hovinen knows all about that competitive drive. It’s in his blood.
His father, Seppo, was the No. 1 ranked javelin thrower in the world in 1975 and competed at the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal. His mother, Ulla, holds the Finnish record in discus, placed fourth in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Former NHL goalie and current goaltending instructor in Finland Pasi Nurminen has become a bit of a guru in the Scandanavian nation, and has worked with several goalies who have made it to the NHL out of that country, which has an ever-growing reputation as a goaltending factory of sorts.
Hovinen, who was a hotshot prospect as a teenager, sort of fell off the map for a few years. But after working with Nurminen, was able to have his best seasons in Finland, as his team made a dramatic turnaround from 2010-11 and reached the League finals in 2011-12.
Now, he’s in the very capable hands of Flyers goalie coach Jeff Reese, who worked with Hovinen during rookie camp and is assisting with the Phantoms during training camp.
“I was kind of nervous the first day here because I didn’t know anyone,” Hovinen said. “That and English isn’t my first language so it was kind of hard to chit-chat with the boys and things like that. But I settled in and now I’m feeling really confident. I’m excited to see how the week turns out and I really can’t wait to get the season started.”