-- Before the Chicago Blackhawks
had ever heard of Antti Niemi
, a man named Matti Lehto made a call to his son Markus and said that he'd just seen a young goalie worth a look.
Matti, who runs an ice rink in Helsinki, Finland, first watched Niemi play for Kiekko Vantaa, a team that plays in a lower-level Finnish professional league called First Division. At the time, Niemi was virtually unknown outside First Division.
He also was driving a Zamboni between practices at his home rink to make ends meet.
Markus Lehto, a Finnish agent who partners with Chicago-based agent Bill Zito, followed up on his father's advice. He checked out the young goaltender from the Helsinki suburb of Vantaa with the butterfly style and steeled nerves. After liking what he saw, Markus asked Niemi if he'd like to be represented by Zito's Acme World Sports. The soft-spoken Niemi –- 22 years old at the time -- said what he often says to reporters now during an impressive run through the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That, in a nutshell, is how the 26-year-old Niemi's road to Chicago began, even though the Hawks weren't even aware of him at the time. In fact, no NHL teams were aware of Niemi because no teams in Finland's top professional league (SM-Liiga) wanted him.
Another partner of Zito's in Finland, Simo Niiranen, tried for two years to no avail.
"Nobody would give him a chance," said Zito, a former collegiate player and coach who has a penchant for signing hidden gems. "They tried and tried. It was almost a joke. They tried to get him tryouts, and each time it was just, 'Nope ... nope.' Because he was playing in First Division, people were like, 'If nobody else wants him, then why should I?'"
Niemi, who is about to lead the Hawks into the Stanley Cup Final against Philadelphia, said it was a trying and difficult time.
"After each season for two years I felt like I played a pretty good season," he said, following Friday's practice at United Center. "There were some talks with teams, but they didn't really want me."
Finally, he caught a break.
Goalie Markus Helanen
got injured for SM-Liiga's Lahti Pelicans, a middling team without a sterling history. Lahti, owned by former NHL goalie Pasi Nurminen
, was in a bind when Helanen went down.
The Pelicans gave Niemi a shot, and he took full advantage. He was impressive enough that Nurminen decided to tutor him for three seasons, helping him with technical skills and a staid mental approach.
Niemi's play also drew interest from NHL teams, including the Detroit Red Wings
and Blackhawks -- who under former GM Dale Tallon
's guidance, signed Niemi as an unrestricted free agent in May 2008.
That was hardly the end of Niemi's career hurdles. He played in just three regular-season games for the Hawks last season and spent most of it in the AHL playing for Rockford, something Zito thinks was good, overall, for Niemi's development.
The Hawks re-signed Niemi as an unrestricted free agent in May 2009 with the thought of him becoming Cristobal Huet
's backup, but it wasn't that cut and dried. The Hawks now say they knew this kind of goaltending ability was inside Niemi all along, but it's also been reported that they faced a difficult decision just before this season began, coincidentally, in Helsinki.
It came down to Niemi or Corey Crawford
, with Niemi just making the cut. He then got a start in the second Helsinki game and blanked Florida 4-0. The Finnish native whom not many believed in just a couple years before, came home and pitched a shutout.
Suddenly, his phone was ringing off the hook with well-wishers.
"It was unbelievable," said Niemi, whose wife is the only person from Finland who came with him to Chicago. "I felt really lucky to play at Helsinki."
Just like his luck breaking in with the Pelicans and just like his luck near the end of the regular season with the Hawks -– when Huet's illness eventually led to an extended tryout to be the starter. The Hawks initially brought Crawford up and started him, but Niemi eventually rose to the top.
"Nobody would give him a chance. They tried and tried. It was almost a joke. They tried to get him tryouts, and each time it was just, 'Nope ... nope.' Because he was playing in First Division, people were like, 'If nobody else wants him, then why should I?'"
-- Bill Zito on Antti Niemi
The Hawks sewed up the Central Division title with Niemi in goal, their first since 1992-93, and then chased San Jose in a tight race for the top spot in the Western Conference. Next were the Stanley Cup Playoffs and three series victories that have put the Hawks in position to end a 49-year Stanley Cup drought in an Original Six city where "Niemi Fever," has taken hold.
"I think he really likes (Chicago)," Zito said. "He's getting recognized more now. Of course, the beard is a dead giveaway."
Indeed, it's been a long journey from the days in Vantaa, when Niemi would hop on the Zamboni in his warmup gear and prepare the ice for practice. Just don't expect him to reflect on it yet. He still has one series left to complete his storybook tale.
"I shouldn't be thinking about that too much right now," he said. "I should be thinking about tomorrow's game. Maybe later this summer, when I get back home and relax I will. Maybe then."
Meanwhile, Zito scoffs about skeptics who are still waiting for Niemi's bubble to burst -– possibly against the Flyers.
"Has the bubble ever popped for Niemi in his career?" he said. "I think this is what he is. I'm not surprised at all."
Back in Helsinki, there's a manager of a small ice rink who isn't either.