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Burnside: Raanta's Summer of Loss & Season Of New Beginnings

From a challenging offseason, to starting anew and reaching higher highs in Raleigh

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / Hurricanes.com

RALEIGH, NC. - From a summer of loss to a season of challenging new beginnings in new surroundings, to an unexpected starring role in the playoffs, it has been a season of great upheaval for the man they call Father Finn, Antti Raanta.

And the truth is there is much road to travel before the final chapters are written in this unlikely, meandering narrative.

But to find out how we got here, we have to go back to last summer, to the Raanta family home on the western coast of Finland, north of Turku.

Raanta, 32, was coming off his fourth season with the rebuilding Arizona Coyotes and was an unrestricted free agent.

Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon had approached Raanta's pal, Teuvo Teravainen, with whom Raanta had played with in Chicago on the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks in 2015.

Teravainen called and wanted an update on Raanta's health.

"He said, 'how's your body?'" Raanta recalled with a smile. "He was doing the scouting."

 

 

But the summer of 2021 wasn't just about figuring out the next chapter in Raanta's professional career, it was a summer that would test the family's resolve, as they were forced to come to terms with unexpected family loss.

It began with both Raanta's father and grandfather being hospitalized.

For a time it appeared as though both would recover, but it would not be so.

Raanta's grandfather, 88, had suffered from dementia and related physical and mental problems. Hospitalized, he contracted COVID and passed away.

"He always wanted to do his own thing," Raanta recalled. "He was also, 'I'm not going to get the vaccine, I'm not going to take the vaccine,' and obviously then he got COVID. I think it was three or four days later and that was it."

Raanta recalled being in the local funeral home making plans for his grandfather's funeral and thinking his grandfather was in a better place and finding some solace in that.

A few days later Raanta's phone rang around 2 a.m. and it was his older brother calling to say that his father had passed away.

Raanta's father had undergone surgery and contracted an infection in the lungs that ultimately led to his death.

"His body had just shut down," Raanta said.

He pauses as he considers that time, planning not just one funeral, but two, and then also trying to make the critical decision for himself and his family about what he was going to do vis a vis returning to the NHL for the coming season.

"You just couldn't believe it. It was kind of like, what is going on?" Raanta said.

"I think the last two-three weeks (before returning to North America) you were trying to focus on daily stuff but it was just kind of something where your mind wasn't there and you were still trying to work out and do the right things," Raanta said. "Obviously it was really tough. You just had to put hockey aside for a little bit."

Given the above, it's no surprise that the netminder was the Canes 2022 Masterton Trophy nominee.

 

 

Even though time has passed there are still moments when Raanta will remember what and who has been lost.

"There's still days where you kind of like remember all the good things and get a little emotional," he said. "I just try to think positive and try to think maybe of them in a better place now. No pain, no suffering. It's just something that you try to keep in your mind."

His father was so proud of Raanta. Sometimes during their regular phone calls, Raanta's father would mention people in the community he'd run into back home and how they said to say hello even if Raanta really didn't know who his father was talking about.

And there was the ritual both pre- and post-game that connected the two across the miles.

"Before every game, he used to text me. Sometimes it was just a thumb's up. Then he figured out the emojis it started to get a little wild. It was always a little puzzle before the game to figure out what that means, but mostly it was just like fire emoji or something like that," Raanta said. "After the game, we win or lose he always says, 'hey you did whatever you can.' Sometimes you're kind of like, 'oh, I could have probably stopped a couple of those' but he never went there. He knew that win or lose that doesn't matter if you're playing in the NHL."

The first time he pulled on his Carolina Hurricanes jersey Raanta admitted it was a painful reminder that those rituals had come to an end.

"It was super weird when I played my first game this season and kind of went and checked your phone all the time like, 'what's going on?'" he said.

Now when he reaches for his phone there'll be a text from his brother who has in some ways stepped in to fill the void left by their father's passing.

 

 

Raanta's mother has worked in the local social services department helping allocate funds for the less fortunate in the community for decades. She waits to get a text from Raanta's older brother or someone else in the family loop after Raanta's games to make sure she can check in on how her son has done.

"I think somebody, maybe my brother or somebody, texts my mom in the morning, 'hey, it's okay, good game. And then when she gets off from the work she watches the whole game," Raanta said.

Raanta's father looked after the local rink during hockey season and the soccer fields in the summer. In keeping with family tradition, Raanta's older brother is now looking after those duties at home. His uncle works at the arena, too.

Raanta's brother is two years older and learned to play hockey at the age of six. Raanta followed him to the rink and with their father's blessing, there was always an opportunity to get on the ice when school was out.

Raanta was a defenseman until he was 11 or 12, but had always played goal when the local boys played floor hockey in the gym. So, when the team's goalie decided he'd had enough of the position Raanta put up his hand.

"Pretty much went once in the net and that was it. Never looked back," Raanta said with a smile.

Along with his own team, Raanta also practiced with his brother's team, even though those boys were two years older so all of a sudden the new goaltender was getting hours of practice between the pipes.

As he got older Raanta also started to go to watch the local town team play. At first, it was the hockey, and then it was a young cheerleader for the team that caught Raanta's attention.

The young girl would become his wife and the mother of his two children, a daughter, 5, and a son, 2.

"She never wants me to tell me the story, but she was actually the cheerleader for my hometown hockey team and I was playing in juniors and went to see all the games," Raanta said. "At some point, it kind of changed that I didn't want to see the games anymore I just went to see her. So that's pretty much how it started. It's been almost 15 years. It's been a long time."

 

 

Raanta, presumably thanks in part to a glowing scouting report from Teravainen, signed a two-year deal with the Hurricanes on July 28, worth $2 million annually.

It didn't take long once Raanta got to Raleigh to understand that this team was unlike any he had ever played for since breaking into the NHL as an undrafted free agent with Chicago in 2013.

"When I got to the rink the first time I was, whoa, these guys are serious. The workouts that Billy (head strength and conditioning coach Bill Burniston) puts up, the workouts that the guys are doing I was okay, this is where I have to step up also," Raanta said.

On the walls of the Hurricanes locker room are various reminders of the expectations.

'Win the day'. '1-0'. 'Our standard is the standard'.

"You could see that hard-working mentality and then you're kind of, 'okay, this is not a playground anymore.' I think that was a big wake-up call. Kind of, 'okay, let's step it up,'" Raanta added.

Maybe it was the expectations, maybe it was the fact Raanta played just one game after March 22 of 2021 through to October 29 of this season, maybe it was that Raanta's partner, Frederik Andersen, was absolutely on fire to start the season and commanding the net through the first month of the season.

And maybe, well, maybe it was just life.

But Raanta didn't get a lot of work early on and didn't get off to the start he'd hoped for.

It created a period where he was searching for his groove both mentally and physically, and in the search questioning his own abilities.

"I was probably overreacting a little bit and then you start to be all over the place. I think that was kind of where you a little bit lose your own self and your own game," Raanta said. "And when you're trying to play that catchup game for a little bit and then you almost end up feeling like I can't even stop one shot."

Raanta credits goaltending coach Paul Schonfelder with regrouping and refocusing his attention where it needed to be.

"I think when we figured that out with Paulie it all starts in the practice. Having that good mental mindset in the practice and just doing the right thing. You don't have to work super hard you just have to do the right things and focus on the right things. If you try to be all over the place it's not going to help anyone," Raanta said.

"It took a little while to adjust. I think last two months probably have been most consistent and that's kind of what I've been always trying to do is being consistent day in day out," the veteran netminder added. "You do your best and just try and give the team a chance to win and that's only what it comes down to. If there's going to be a bad goal there's going to be a bad goal. There's going to be some saves where you're like I don't know how I did that but I made that save and so it's working day in day out having that right mindset and I think that was a big change, big adjustment to kind of realize the hockey didn't change it's just the team kind of changed in front of you."

 

 

Starting in late February with a 31-save win over Pittsburgh, a team at the time vying to stay in the hunt for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with Carolina, Raanta has been rock solid. He's gone 9-2-3 in his last 14 decisions (regular season and postseason) and thrust into the number one role with Andersen out of the lineup due to a lower-body injury. Included in that run was a sparkling 36-save effort in a shutout win over Stanley Cup-favorite Colorado, the only time the Avs were shut out all season.

"It took a little bit longer than I wanted, obviously, but now when you've been playing more and you're getting more comfortable it's just like you know why didn't I do this straight away in October?" Raanta said with a laugh.

"Never too high but never too low also, you want to ride in that middle wave all the time," Raanta said of his mindset in recent weeks. "So I think that helped me to kind of get into the team also. Kind of show to the guys that hey you can trust me also. It was a big thing for me."

Looking back on all of this Schonfelder wasn't all that surprised at how things unfolded for Raanta.

"When you come to a new team it's different for everybody. You want to fit in, you want to show everybody why you're here and what you can do and sometimes that just kind of overtakes just going out there and playing and keeping it simple and getting back to what you do well," the goaltending coach said.

"In our conversations, it was 'we got you here for a reason, because we like you, so just go out there and play and do your thing.' But, easier said than done," Schonfelder said.

Both Andersen and Raanta are veteran goalies, so Schonfelder's job has been more tinkering and focusing on the things each does well and making sure those habits are repeated.

With Raanta, the two worked a bit on his stance and some positioning around the posts.

"But nothing huge," Schonfelder said.

"The way he's playing now we want it to continue. We want him to be consistent with it," he said.

For Schonfelder, the measure of Raanta's evolution was crystalized after a recent loss. "You could tell in terms of his mindset maybe from the beginning of the year to now the one thing he mentioned was 'I'm hungry to get back on the ice again.'" When things aren't going well for a goaltender sometimes there's a tendency to want to stay away from the games.

"You don't want to go back in there and make a mistake, you don't want to lose again, but he's got that hunger and that's all mindset," Schonfelder said. "He's just in a really good place right now mentally. And the mental side's going to unlock the physical side."

 

 

There are so many factors that go into finding a comfort zone, especially for goaltenders whose workloads and practice routines are different than skaters.

Certainly having his family settle in nicely to the rhythm of the team and the community has been key.

If you happen to be at PNC Arena for a Hurricanes game and look down in the corner where Raanta is warming up, you'll see his biggest fans, his kids.

"They usually come to the warmups and then they spend maybe first and second period," Raanta said of his cheering section. "You can see my son is like right now, he's staring the whole warmup behind the glass in that corner. He's just like he's following and now I think now he realizes who I am with my mask on and everything else. And then my daughter is just like pretty much like a cheerleader just jumping and going crazy. It's a lot of fun. My wife said that usually when we're playing on the road they watch the game a little bit and then they start playing in the living room like they're playing the game."

His daughter has started skating and Raanta's son, of course, is demanding that he, too, have a chance on the skates.

And the kids are especially excited when the Finnish boys come over, Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, whose father used to coach Raanta back in the day in Finland.

"He was 11 when I was playing in his hometown and his dad was coaching me. I remember when I was that big tall guy and now he came in and I'm looking up at him thinking 'what happened?' What happened in those nine years?" Raanta wondered aloud.

It's amazing, but after nine years in the NHL and outside of his brief time with Teravainen in Chicago - part of one season - Raanta has never enjoyed the company of Finnish teammates. Carolina, of course, has become a magnet for talented Finns and the ability to step into the comfort of your own language over dinner on the road or at the Raanta house is not to be understated.

"Talking with Teuvo a little bit he was helping us to get us a house and he was like, yeah that's a good area, that's a good place," Raanta said. "I think it's been great. Even for my wife and for my kids. Some nights guys are coming over and we have dinner, and I think my daughter has a big crush for Sebastian. Everybody knows that."

Recently she joined the boys on a golf outing much to her delight.

"I think it's been a little bit more of what I was expecting. More fun," Raanta said. "Sometimes when you have something in your mind and you want to get it out you go to the corner and talk with Teuvo or KK or Sebastian and get that out of the system and you don't have to think about how to say that in English. There's no language barrier anymore. It's been a lot of fun."

Teravainen recalled how important Raanta's counsel was when Teravainen got called up to the big club during what would be a Stanley Cup run for the Blackhawks in the spring and summer of 2015.

When Dundon broached the subject of Raanta's availability this summer, Teravainen felt it would be a great fit.

"I was right away really excited. I wanted this guy here," Teravainen said. "It's a great fit for him. And he's been really good for us."

Now Teravainen has seen his friend and mentor become the kind of goaltender he knew all along he would be for the Hurricanes.

"It's all about confidence really and you can see his confidence getting better and better as the season has been moving along," Teravainen said. "He's played just the way I thought he would play and it's a great level of play."

 

 

So, now what?

Well, with Frederik Andersen's availability for the playoffs in question, Raanta has moved seamlessly into at least a temporary starter's role.

The 32-year-old made his first playoff start Monday, denying 35 out of 36 to earn a series-opening win for his club over Boston. But he views the post-season through the same lens that everyone in the Carolina locker room views the coming challenge - as a tremendous opportunity.

"It's a different mindset and I think everyone in this room is expecting us to make that step this year and I think that's realistic," Raanta said. "You see what we've been doing the whole year. We've been really consistent as a team also. Obviously, in Chicago I saw the big names what they did in the playoff run and I was really close to that and I can see that there are similarities in this room to what we had in Chicago in 2015."

 


  

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