A few months ago, goaltender Antero Niittymaki was uncertain if he would be able to continue his professional hockey career. Chronic hip injuries hastened his departure from the National Hockey League. He had an artificial joint placed in his hip before last season and ongoing difficulties limited him to 13 games at the American Hockey League level in 2011-12.
According to newspaper reports in Finland following the season, Niittymaki contemplated retirement as an active player. But after consulting with doctors and making some adjustments to his offseason conditioning regimen, the 32-year-old has instead elected to continue his career in his native Finland.
On Monday, Niittymaki signed a one-year contract with TPS Turku. The deal marks a return to the organization where the goaltender began his career and enjoyed considerable success before departing for North America.
Antero Niittymaki has signed a one-year contract with TPS Turku. (Photo: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI)
"It feels good to come back to TPS," he said in a statement released by the team. "The club made it possible to put this in place over the summer, and we came to terms very quickly on the contract."
Signing Niittymaki was not originally part of TPS's plan for the 2012-13 season. In May, the club brought 24-year-old Atte Engren back from the Nashville Predators organization on a one-year contract with the intention of re-installing him as its full-time starter. As a member of TPS in 2009-10, Engren won the Urpo Ylonen Trophy (the SM-liiga's equivalent to the Vezina Trophy) and backstopped an underdog team to the championship.
When Niittymaki became available, the plan changed somewhat. Depending on the veteran's health, TPS may use a "1A and 1B" rotation of its goaltenders, somewhat akin to the way the Vancouver Canucks deployed Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider in each of the last two seasons.
"In order to have success, every team needs two good goaltenders," said TPS player personnel coordinator Ari Vuori.
Niittymaki is slated to start in goal for TPS on Friday when the team travels to take on Swiss National League club SC Bern in European Trophy tournament action.
Before coming to North America in 2002, Niittymaki won the SM-liiga's Jarmo Wasama Trophy as Rookie of the Year in 1999-2000 and went on to capture three consecutive championships with TPS, including two as the team's primary starter After his first go-round with TPS, Niittymaki spent 12 years and 234 career NHL games in North America.
Niittymaki's greatest triumphs have taken place outside the NHL. In the AHL, Niittymaki won the 2004-05 Calder Cup and the Jack Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP. On the international stage, Niittymaki was named MVP of the 2006 Olympics in Turin and earned a silver medal with Team Finland.
At the NHL level, Niittymaki's career was repeatedly set back by inconsistency and hip injuries. He often stood at the precipice of gaining full-time starter status but was unable to hold the job as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning or San Jose Sharks. Prone to labrum tears, Niittymaki gritted his way through several seasons and underwent offseason surgeries to repair the damage.
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Despite his uneven performance in North America, Niittymaki set a pair of unusual goaltending records that are unlikely to be broken.
On April 11, 2004, while playing for the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms, Niittymaki became the first goaltender at any professional level to be credited with an overtime goal. With the Phantoms shorthanded and the Hershey Bears needing a victory to stay in playoff contention, Hershey pulled its goaltender. Niittymaki was the last Philadelphia player to touch the puck before an errant pass by the attackers slid all the way into the vacated cage at the other end of the ice.
During his NHL career, Niittymaki, who had an overall career record of 95-86-31 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .902 save percentage, set an NHL record for the most consecutive wins and longest lifetime undefeated record against one team. In 18 career games against the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets), the goaltender posted a 17-0-0 record, with a 1.77 GAA and a .940 save percentage.
"There's no explanation for it. It's just one of those things, and I never think about it," Niittymaki said of his mastery against Atlanta. "My team has played good and I've probably had some good luck, too."
Many of Niittymaki's wins in North American hockey came at the expense of his more highly-touted countryman, Kari Lehtonen. Three years Niittymaki's junior, Lehtonen was unable to attain a single career victory in either the AHL or NHL when Niittymaki was his goaltending opponent. Before both goalies graduated to the NHL, Lehtonen's Chicago Wolves came out on the losing end of a Calder Cup Finals sweep in 2005. Niittymaki also supplanted an injured Lehtonen as well as Miikka Kiprusoff as the starter for Team Finland at the 2006 Olympics.
Despite his many non-NHL decorations, Niittymaki has often played in the shadow of Kiprusoff, who is also a product of the TPS system, as well as other Finnish netminders such as Niklas Backstrom and Lehtonen, who have enjoyed a greater degree of success in the NHL.
When Niittymaki signed with San Jose in the summer of 2010, he hoped to receive an extended opportunity to become the Sharks starter. However, when the club acquired countryman Antti Niemi -- fresh off a Stanley Cup Championship with the Chicago Blackhawks -- Niittymaki settled back into his more accustomed backup role. He appeared in 24 games.
Last season, ongoing hip issues forced Niittymaki to miss the first half of the regular season. In the meantime, Thomas Greiss entrenched himself as Niemi's backup. When he was finally cleared to play, Niittymaki was waived and assigned to the AHL. The Finn played in 13 AHL games for the Worchester Sharks and Syracuse Crunch.
Now that Niittymaki has returned to TPS, Kiprusoff will be one of his bosses. The Calgary Flames goaltender owns a minority share of the club. Other prominent former TPS players of NHL fame who are now minority owners include the brother combination of Saku Koivu and Mikko Koivu.