SUN Hockey Pool

International Man of Mystery!

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

He is one of the best-known sports figures in Calgary and, paradoxically, also one of the least known sports figures in Calgary. When goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff joined the Calgary Flames in 2003, his spectacular play and unflappable attitude made him an immediate fan favourite.

Yet, more than three years since his arrival here, very little is known about the reigning Vezina Trophy winner -- and, as Sun hockey writer Randy Sportak reveals in this special feature, that is no accident. The Finnish netminder wants to keep his private life private and even his closest teammates admit not knowing much about Miikka. He is, indeed, an international man of mystery.

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More than a decade later, Fredrik Norrena still can't contain his laughter.

It was the beginning of training camp for Finnish team TPS Turku and four goalies were to go for an hour-long run as part of the fitness regimen.

Norrena and Kimmo Lecklin headed out with veteran Jouni Rokama and a young netminder who would spend the season with the club's junior team, Miikka Kiprusoff.

"We had to run through the forest, it was like a big park, just outside of Turku," recalls Norrena, who now plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"But Miikka and the older goalie just went into the bush and ate blueberries for an hour and relaxed.

"They never ran but went back with us."

There you have it -- the secret to the Calgary Flames netminder's success.

"Now everyone knows blueberries are good for you. Antioxidants," says Kiprusoff, a big smile on his face when reminded of the escapade.

"I was ahead of my time."

Not only a great goaltender but a nutritionist.

It's been more than three years since Flames GM Darryl Sutter pulled off one of the most significant trades in franchise history.

On Nov. 16, 2003, Sutter dealt a second-round draft choice to his old team, the San Jose Sharks, for the goaltender who was languishing third on the depth chart and watching games from the press box.

Since then, Kiprusoff has backstopped the Flames to the Stanley Cup final, set a modern-day NHL record for the best goals-against average in a season, been the backbone for a divisional championship squad, claimed a Vezina Trophy and first-team all-star honours and been a finalist for the league's MVP trophy.

Yet, so little is known about the 30-year-old called Kipper.

Even in a hockey-crazed city, he's an international man of mystery.

"International man of mystery," he says with a wry smirk and a far-off look in his eye, maybe envisioning himself as a Finnish James Bond.

"I like that."

Peeling away the facade is no easy task, either.

Kiprusoff is quiet, almost aloof at times, in big part because of the language barrier.

He's very private about his personal life and time away from the arena, even with friends and teammates.

Even people within the Flames organization don't often see his fiance, Seidi, and son, Aaro, who'll turn two this summer.

It's not, he insists, a sign of being anti-social.

It's just the way he is, someone who loves his space.

"I try to keep my outside hockey life, my privacy," Kiprusoff says.

"When I talk, I talk about hockey and try to keep everything to me.

"It works for me best, so I try to keep it that way."

It's not just the media he keeps at bay.

Vesa Toskala, a teammate through several years when they worked their way through the Sharks' system and close friend, even has a hard time tracking him down, especially in the off-season.

"Even I can't talk to him in the summer," Toskala says with a shrug. "I phone him and leave a message and he never calls me back."

Still, there is a very fun side to the fan favourite.

Kiprusoff may be soft-spoken and low-key but he has a playful nature, a quick wit and practical joker side that comes through loud and clear.

"Yeah, a twinkle in his eye and a tongue in his cheek," says Sharks assistant GM Wayne Thomas, a former goaltender himself.

While at the 1996 world junior tournament in Boston, Kiprusoff and Toskala freaked out the coaching staff by putting baby powder on their faces to make themselves appear sick.

In his first year with AHL Kentucky, fellow goaltender Johan Hedberg was forced to serve as translator for Kiprusoff, who does speak Swedish, even though he did have a handle on English.

Despite Hedberg's best efforts, Kiprusoff never had to divulge the truth.

There was a reason for that secret, Kiprusoff admits.

"They said rookies had to carry all the bags all year but I didn't like that," he recalls. "I played stupid and it worked out well for me. I didn't touch any bags all year."

Kiprusoff's antics aren't saved only for teammates.

"He still owes me for about $150," Thomas says. "We had our summer camp, I think it was the last year before he was traded, the August before, and had to leave to go back to San Jose.

"On the last day, I gave him the American Express card to take out all the goalies for dinner, him being the senior statesman. There are a couple of miscellaneous charges other than the dinner.

"I can find the exact amount. I still have the expense report because I couldn't submit that one."

Nor are the high-jinks limited to off the ice, as Toskala found out.

"There were four goalies on the ice at training camp, two goalies at each end, and we were taking turns in the net. I was getting tired and started to motion for him to come in the net," he recalls.

"He didn't come for a while, so I looked to see what he was doing, and he was on his knees, with his mask off, eating one of those energy bars.

"I don't know how he got it or where he put it to have it on the ice but it was pretty funny."

Kiprusoff's reply to that story: "See, healthy food again."

He's not innocent but, for some reason, Kiprusoff gets away with his shenanigans.

"I think it's easy to pull things because nobody believes it's me because I'm a nice, quiet guy," he says.

"Most of the times, I can walk away and they are blaming each other. Those are the best laughs.

"It's a big part of hockey."

A big part of surviving the grind, too.

Just like Kiprusoff's big love away from the arena: Fishing.

His escape in the summer, when he goes to his cottage "in the middle of nowhere" in Finland, is bringing in the catch for supper, whether it's by casting, trolling or even nets.

"It's nice to eat fresh fish from the Baltic Sea. Fishing is pretty much the only thing I don't feel tired doing in the mornings," Kiprusoff says.

"It's a big part of my summer. I have my place on the water, so I go when I feel like it. I enjoy those quiet mornings when I mostly go alone.

"Not too many people know where I am and I like it that way. Here, there's so many things going on, so it's nice to be there and load your batteries for the coming season."

He has to charge those batteries. Again this season, Kiprusoff -- who recently won his 100th game as a Flame -- will be among the league leaders in minutes played.

He's a workhorse, leaned on as much as humanly possible.

Just the way he dreamed of when first strapping on the equipment all those years ago, and stepped into his father's footsteps.

"My dad, Jarmo, played a little bit of goalie, too, so he asked me. I think I was six years old when I got my first equipment and loved it," Kiprusoff recalls.

"I have an older brother (Marko, who played for Montreal and the Isles) so when I was playing street hockey with older guys, they would put me between the pipes."

From those beginnings, he worked his way up the ranks, eventually starring for Turku's junior squad and being chosen for his country's world juniors team before being drafted by San Jose in 1995.

In fact, he was a standout at the Saddledome back then, backstopping Finland to a 3-3 tie with Sweden, which clinched gold for Canada at the 1995 tournament.

Shown a picture of him receiving player-of-the-game honours, Kiprusoff beamed.

"This is when I won the gold medal for Canada," he said, displaying the picture to teammate Jamie McLennan.

"They had no pressure after that. I've got to get a gold medal. (Jeff) Friesen is gonna give one to me."

From there, following a couple of pro seasons in Sweden, came the climb up the final steps to the NHL.

After a pair of AHL all-star game appearances while with Kentucky, with a handful of NHL starts blended into the mix (he became the first Finnish goalie to win a NHL playoff game in the spring of 2001), Kiprusoff made the jump pretty much for good in 2001-02, playing in 20 games for the Sharks while serving as back-up to Evgeni Nabokov.

What should have been his big break, though, turned into a nightmare.

He was given the starter's job to start the season while Nabokov was embroiled in a contract dispute that lasted until late-October.

It didn't work out as planned, with the Sharks stumbling out of the gates to the point it eventually cost Sutter his head-coaching job. Kiprusoff was a focal point for that disappointment.

Eventually, with Nabokov and Toskala, Kiprusoff became expendable for a San Jose team that was a victim of its own success drafting and developing goaltenders.

"It wasn't beause we didn't like him or didn't think he could play in the NHL," said Sharks goaltending coach Warren Strelow.

"When I saw him play, I thought he'd be a No. 1 guy in the National Hockey League and an all-star. In fact, I felt so strongly about it, I wrote it on a piece of paper with my name on it and signed it. It's in the general manager's desk. It's still there.

"I really believed it and knew he was a talented guy."

Those expectations came true almost immediately upon arriving in the Stampede City.

Since coming to the Flames, Kiprusoff has shone with a star nearly as bright as Jarome Iginla. Could he even imagine it would have worked out this well?

"At that point, I didn't think those things. For me, it was getting a chance and getting ice time," says Kiprusoff, who, in typical fashion, didn't attend the NHL Awards last year to collect his Vezina Trophy. "I didn't think about stuff like that, just about how great it would be to get a chance to show what I've got.

"It was a great trade for me. It's probably the biggest thing that happened for my hockey."

Actually, Norrena believes it extends further.

"He's done a great job for Finnish goalies," says Norrena, who finally was given his chance in the NHL at age 32.

"He's like Hasek for Czech goalies.

" A lot of guys can thank him for helping them out."

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