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Steady as he goes

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
bill fleischman
Flyers fans appreciate the offensive creativity of Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, and the ice presence of Chris Pronger. For hockey purists, Kimmo Timonen’s proficiency also is a treat. Watch the Flyers defenseman for any length of time and you’ll notice that Timonen rarely makes a mistake.

“Kimmo is very efficient: he doesn’t waste a lot of energy,” said Flyers assistant coach Kevin McCarthy. “He’s so smooth and so smart.”

When McCarthy was an assistant coach under Peter Laviolette with the Carolina Hurricanes, he didn’t see much of Timonen because Carolina didn’t play Timonen’s Nashville Predators often. Now that McCarthy is around Timonen every day during the NHL season, he has a new appreciation for the veteran rear guard.

“He’s one of those players you can’t appreciate until you see him all the time,” said McCarthy, a former NHL defenseman and Flyers first-round draft choice (1977). “You can count on one hand the bad games he has. It’s amazing how consistent he is.”

Since the 5-10, 194-pound Timonen is a shrub compared to the maples that are the 6-6 Pronger or 6-5 Braydon Coburn, he relies on his hockey smarts to be productive on the ice.

“I’m not even an average-size (player) any more,” Timonen said, “I’ve always think it’s in your head how you play the game. It comes down to hockey sense: how you read the play. Since I’m smaller, I can’t run around (on the ice) because I’m going to get beat that way.”
Timonen & Mike Richards pose at the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone after being named to the 2008 NHL All-Star Game. Click for photo gallery.

At age 35, Timonen expects to play a high level several more years.

“When I was young, I thought once you’re 35 you might be done,” he said. “But now I’m 35 and I feel I have at least a couple more years to go. The game has changed. People are in better shape now than 10 years ago. The game is faster.”

Timonen has the respect of Coburn, his blue-line partner the past two seasons.

“(Timonen) is one of the top D-men in the league,” Coburn said. “He’s been one for quite a few years. He’s very underrated.”

When Coburn was first paired with Timonen, the younger defenseman relied on the more experienced Finn for some guidance.

“You want to (establish) communication,” Coburn said. “At the beginning, we kind of clicked right away. We compliment each other’s games well.”

Referring to Timonen’s efficiency, Coburn said, “He’s very reliable: he doesn’t panic. He’s usually able to put himself in a position to hold onto the puck long enough to make a play. He’s a smart player.”

McCarthy agrees that Timonen is underrated.

“Even on our own team, sometimes we almost take him for granted,” McCarthy said. “He is the consummate defenseman that can play in any situation. He can kill a five-on-three, he can play in a five-on-three. He plays both ends of the ice so well (and) he sees the ice so well.

“He very rarely makes a bad pass. Everything he does is with a purpose. If he’s in trouble, he never puts his teammates in trouble. He’s able to get the puck into an area where it relieves the pressure.

“He’s a very durable guy. He’s so strong on his feet. He’s a lot more physical than you think.”

Contributing to the Flyers offense isn’t Timonen’s top priority, but don’t forget that he scored 11 or more goals five times with Nashville. In recent games, Timonen has swooped in around the net, ready to pounce on loose pucks.

“I try to score as many as I can,” he said, “but it hasn’t worked out that well the last couple years. Those years in Nashville, I played a lot. I got a lot of special-teams ice time. That’s the way defensemen usually get points. Here, we have a lot of good D, so we have to share the ice time.”

Like many Scandanavians, Timonen speaks softly. He doesn’t seek the spotlight and, when the media is around, he isn’t cracking jokes. “I’m not a person who likes to be in the media: it’s not my thing,” he said. “But if you talk to my friends, I’m sure they’d have a lot of good things to say about me.”

McCarthy enjoys Timonen’s sense of humor. “He has a really quick wit,” the Flyers assistant coach said. “He comes up with some things and you do a double-take. He surprises you because he comes across as a quiet guy.”

McCarthy’s experiences with Finns as a player and coach has been positive. “They all love being on the ice (and) around the guys. They always seem to be in a good mood. Ville Leino is like that, even when he wasn’t playing last year (during the regular season).”

There is a sense that Timonen isn’t a consistently big voice in the Flyers lockerroom. However, when he does have something to say, his teammates listen.

“He’s like that old E.F. Hutton commercial,” McCarthy said (“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”). “When Kimmo talks, people stop what they’re doing and listen. He commands a lot of respect in that dressing room.”

When the NHL season ends, Timonen and his wife Johanna and their three children spend the summers at a lake house in Finland. “We don’t think about hockey there,” he said, smiling.

While his family likes the Philadelphia area, Timonen is proud of his native country and the highly regarded Finnish education system.

“It’s really good, and it’s free,” he said. “That’s why we pay a lot of taxes, for health care and education.”

Whether it’s hockey or any other sport, there’s an intense rivalry between Finland and Sweden. Quick history refresher: after Sweden conquered Finland by 1200, Sweden and Russia fought several wars to possess Finland. Finally, in 1917, Finland declared its independence from Russia. During World War II, Finland was defeated by Russia.

When the subject was mentioned during our conversation, Timonen didn’t seize the opportunity to rip into Sweden. Acknowledging there is a rivalry, Timonen said, “I think it’s more media-created. Still, when you play against them it’s a big game.”

(A tennis tidbit: when Sweden’s Stefan Edberg was a prominent pro tennis player, the Sweden-Finland rivalry surfaced during a U.S. Open press conference in New York. Edberg was asked to tell a joke poking fun at Finland. He reluctantly obliged, and when he was finished we all looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Must’ve been a knee-slapper in Stockholm).

At the start of a new season, Timonen hopes the Flyers can build off their run to last season’s Stanley Cup Final. The Flyers know they are a solid team. They proved it by beating New Jersey, Boston and Montreal in last year’s playoffs. Once a team learns how to win, it should pay off during the following season.

“We have a good team again,” Timonen said. “It’s early in the season, so we have to slowly build to the end. We have new players, so it takes time to get used (to them). We have as good a chance to win the Stanley Cup as anybody else.”

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1982, he was an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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