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Sulander gets belated respect after beating Hawks

by Risto Pakarinen /
It may sound strange to say that Ari Sulander, the ZSC Zurich Lions' 40-year-old goaltender, doesn't seem to get the respect that he deserves when a sold-out arena is chanting his name after another highlight reel save.

After all, we're talking about a player who's won four Finnish championships with Jokerit, three Swiss titles with Zurich's ZSC Lions, a couple of European club championships, the Champions Hockey League, a World Championship -- and now the Victoria Cup.

Maybe it's because of his quiet demeanor. Maybe it's his unflashy style of play -- or the fact that he disappeared from his native Finland and international hockey 10 years ago and has never been drafted by an NHL team -- the yardstick against which all players are measured.

In fact, before the Victoria Cup game on Tuesday, Sulander had never faced an NHL team -- though he had played against Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet in the Swiss League.

"We played against his Lugano (team) in 2000 and 2001, and this was the first time since then that we faced each other again," Sulander said after the Lions won the Victoria Cup on Tuesday by edging Huet and the Blackhawks 2-1.

After the game, Huet congratulated Sulander, and the goaltenders shared a moment in the handshake line.

"I told him that I just can't seem to be able to beat him," Huet said, smiling.

Back in 2001, when Lugano and ZSC Lions played in the Swiss National League A final, the series went to Game 7 in Lugano.

"We were trailing by 1-0 with five minutes remaining, but managed to tie it up and take the game to overtime, and then win it," Sulander said.

The Lugano fans didn't enjoy seeing their favorite team losing the title in overtime, so they started to tear up the seats and throw them -- and anything else that was handy -- onto the ice while the players were hurried to safety.

Sulander and Huet hadn't played against each other since 2001 because Huet left to come to the NHL. Sulander stayed in Switzerland -- where he won another Swiss championship in 2008.

"I don't know why I never got drafted to the NHL, I guess you'll have to ask the people doing the drafting," Sulander said. "I had some contacts to the NHL in 1999, but the offer that I got wasn't just good enough. I was already 30, and I was offered an entry-level contract so I stayed in Switzerland instead."

Last season, Sulander was the rock that the ZSC Lions were built on, especially in the Champions Hockey League, a league for the top clubs in Europe, running parallel to the European domestic leagues. In the second game of the best-of-two final of the CHL, Sulander shut out the Metallurg Magnitogorsk 5-0 as the Lions went on to win the first CHL title.

For somebody who never got a shot at making it to the NHL but who's still, at 40, arguably one of the top goalies in Europe, the Victoria Cup was an excellent opportunity to see what he's made of.  The Hawks' first goal caught him by surprise, but after that, Sulander was unbeatable.

"It was a weird shot, like a curveball: the puck fell down, and turned to the side. I had to refocus and get ready for the next shot. It was important that we tied the game, our guys got five inches taller after that," he said.

While Sulander has had a great career, with a lot of success, many times he's been overshadowed - or he's stepped out of the limelight voluntarily -  by other players on the team, be it Teemu Selanne in Jokerit or Saku Koivu or Jarmo Myllys in the Finnish national team.

But the fans have always loved him.

To wit: In 1995, when Team Finland won the World Championship in Sweden, the team was flown back to Helsinki for the championship parade. A dozen big, old American cars carried the players from the old Helsinki arena along the main street, Mannerheimintie, to the market square by the harbor. With tens of thousands of people celebrating the championship, the cars had to travel very slowly – and the car with Sulander overheated.

In the end, the fans pushed the car to the square.

Because they knew that Sulander would always pay them back during the season.

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