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Helenius searches for success in North America

by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning
Shawn P. Roarke | Senior Writer                                                Aug 10, 2007, 11:55 AM EDT

In an attempt to make the NHL as quickly as possible Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending prospect Riku Helenius has chosen to develop his game in North America.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Riku Helenius is ready to embark on the road less traveled -- at least when it comes to the path forged by almost every top-flight Finnish goalie who has come before him.

For quite a few years now, Finland has been considered one of the cradles of goaltending by NHL scouts and talent evaluators. The proof of that fact, as they say, is in the pudding.

Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen, Niklas Backstrom and Antero Niittyimaki are just a few of the Finnish goalies who have made NHL names for themselves in the last few years.

What do all these Finnish goalies have in common? Each developed as an established star in the Finnish pro leagues before making the jump to the NHL. The thought process there being that Finland has a preponderance of elite goalie coaches and the practice-heavy routine of European hockey -- when compared to the game-heavy philosophy in North America -- is ideal for developing technically sound goalies.

Calgary’s Kiprusoff played six years in his homeland before making the jump to North America. Atlanta’s Lehtonen had a four-year Finnish apprenticeship before becoming a North American pro. San Jose’s Toskala toiled for six years in Finland before jumping to the American Hockey League.

Those tenures, however, are nothing when you look at Minnesota’s Backstrom and Fredrik Norrena of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Backstrom spent a decade in Europe before heeding the NHL’s call. Norrena, meanwhile, was home 16 years before shocking all but the most optimistic members of Blue Jackets management with his play in 2006-07.

Shawn P. Roarke

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The 19-year-old Helenius, eager to make the NHL as quickly as possible after being drafted in the first round of the 2006 Entry Draft by Tampa Bay, has opted to make the almost unprecedented jump -- for a Finnish goalie, at least -- to the Canadian major junior system. He will play this season for the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds.

“I know it is an unusual decision for me as a goalie, but I think it is best for me right now,” Helenius said Tuesday from the USA Hockey Junior National Team Evaluation Camp tournament. “The game here (in North America) is, you know, more like playing in the NHL than it is (playing) in Finland. I think by going to the WHL it will be an easier jump to the NHL some day.”

The choice to come to North America -- and specifically the WHL -- is no lark for Helenius, who burst onto NHL radars after a stellar U-18 World Championships two years ago. He has given the decision a lot of thought. And he admits that fate has played a small part in prodding him to follow this unorthodox path.

Last season, he was expected to be the man for the Ilves junior team in Finland, his final stop before joining the senior team for additional seasoning. But those well-laid plans were thrown into disarray just two games into the Finnish season when Helenius seriously hurt his shoulder and required major surgery that ended his season before it even began.

Once Helenius processed the fear and pain that goes along with any major injury, he was able to clearly see the damage his injury had done to his development. First of all, he lost a full season of games, which is the ultimate developer of any top prospect. Plus, it hurt his standing, at least temporarily, with the Ilves senior team. He was no longer the No. 1 goalie in waiting and there was a very good chance that he would be relegated to a backup role that would cost him even more games lost in the development process.

Needless to day, that glum picture was not what Helenius had in mind for his next weigh station on the road to NHL stardom.

“I had very difficult season last year,” he said. “I hurt my shoulder and was six months off the ice. Because of that, I didn’t get a lot of games. If I stay in Finland, I didn’t know if I would get a lot of games this year. My team there has a much older goalie and I did not know if it would be good for me if I just get 10 games or something like that.”

So, he started looking at other options. The WHL looked promising, although it remained uncharted waters. Seattle then took Helenius in the 2007 CHL Import Draft and the WHL became a concrete possibility.

Helenius, Tampa Bay's first round selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, will play this season for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds.
In the end, junior hockey was an option that Helenius could not ignore.

“I knew in the WHL I would get a chance to play a lot of good games and I know the Western Hockey League has developed some good, young goalies like (Carolina’s) Cam Ward and (Montreal prospect) Carey Price, so it was a pretty easy decision for me,” Helenius says.

It was easy for him, perhaps; but much harder to understand for those around him. With his decision, Helenius was blazing a new trail. Sometimes, such initiative is hard to appreciate when the established ways are so successful for so many others.

When Helenius left Finland to come to Lake Placid last week, he said goodbye to his homeland for at least nine months. Unlike most of his national team teammates, Helenius will not return home after this tournament concludes this weekend.

Instead, he will kick off a busy itinerary that will consume the rest of the off-season. First, he is going to a goalie camp in Minnesota to work with former NHL goalie Robb Stauber.

“I have heard good things about Stauber,” Helenius said. “It will be good training and I heard he knows his stuff. I think I’m going to be more ready for training camp because of it.”

After spending 10 days with Stauber, who also works as a goalie coach for the University of Minnesota, Helenius will fly to Seattle for training camp with the Thunderbirds.

The Thunderbird camp, however, will be interrupted by a commitment to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, which features the top prospects from eight NHL teams going head-to-head for several days before the official opening of NHL training camps.

So, it was a bittersweet departure from Finland this past week for Helenius.

“The hardest part was my parents,” Helenius said. “Of course, they were happy for me, but they are sad because they are not going to see me for a while. I think it was a good decision, though. I don’t think it was good to go back to Finland for just a few days.”

Plus, he is gaining invaluable experience here in Lake Placid.

Tuesday night, he played against the White Team from USA Hockey, a squad that featured Patrick Kane, the first overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, and James van Riemsdyk, the No. 2 pick in that same draft, among other highly talented players. He will get another game either Friday or Saturday.

Helenius suffered the loss Tuesday, allowing all the goals in a 5-4 loss. But Helenius still played well as the Americans dominated play throughout and peppered him with 30 shots in the first two periods alone.

Plus, in the shootout competition that follows every game here at the Lake Placid tournament, Helenius stoned Kane on his attempt, making a sprawling lunge to his right to stop the shot with his arm.

“There was a little smile there,” Helenius admitted. “It’s kind of funny because I fell down on my butt. It was a little lucky, you know, but it was a good save. It’s not how you save them, you just have to save them and it doesn’t matter how you do it.”

It is that resolute focus on results -- and not the path taken to achieve them -- that has spurred Helenius to throw tradition to the wind and take a road less-traveled to chase his NHL dreams.

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