SUN Hockey Pool

Keeping tabs on Kipper

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

So much for the theory Miikka Kiprusoff is media shy because of a language barrier.

The Calgary Flames goaltender was visited by a Finnish sports writer recently, and Marko Leppanen said Kiprusoff may drop his guard a little with someone whose first language is the same.

But not a whole lot.

"Yeah, Miikka doesn't return my phone calls," Leppanen said with a laugh.

Leppanen has been based out of Toronto the past two years working for Ilta-Sanomat, a national daily newspaper in Finland, and a weekly sports magazine, Veikkaaja, where his main duties are to keep tabs on his country's NHL players.

That's how big the thirst for NHL news is in Finland.

"That's why they send me over, mainly just to cover the NHL. It's a very big deal in Finland. Hockey players and Formula-1 drivers are the biggest stars in Finland," Leppanen said. "Hard-core NHL fans care about everything with the NHL, but a lot of people are interested mainly in Finnish players and how they're doing, and that's my main job."

Leppanen said the big three are Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, Montreal's Saku Koivu and Kiprusoff.

That's why he goes through all the effort for a sit-down, one-on-one interview with the Flames goalie.

"The only way to get a Miikka Kiprusoff interview is to come to Calgary," said Leppanen, whose story on the Flames goalie will anchor the paper's NHL playoff coverage. "When (the Flames) came to Toronto, I set up an interview with him and had to come here to do it. He's such a big name in Finland, you have to do that."

It's not the same for all players, obviously. Leppanen can quickly dial up most of the Finnish players -- he was pressed into action when a plane crashed near the homes of Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman in Buffalo -- but has found he has a different rapport with younger players.

"Rookie guys, sometimes I feel I'm more of a mentor for them because they want to talk to somebody in their own language," he said. "It's nice to know these guys better. Most are great characters and funny, too."

New Flames centre Olli Jokinen falls into the category of veterans who keeps their life close to the vest.

"Olli is a guy who wants to keep it private," Leppanen said. "I think he's so committed to hockey and focused. Not too many people know Olli well, so it's hard to tell much about him."

The experience of covering the NHL has become a dream come true for Leppanan, who admits being a die-hard fan of the league long before he began writing about sports a dozen years ago.

His perception of the NHL, however, turned out to be different from the reality of it.

"I was always watching games and reading stories, but when you're here, it's totally different," he said. "The NHL is much more laid back and relaxed. The players are more relaxed than I thought. How much they care about the media is surprising. Here, it's easier to co-operate with players than in Finland. Here, the players are available and have great PR departments. In Finland, they don't understand the value of media so well."

From his time spent with Kiprusoff, Leppanen has a bigger understanding of why the goalie skipped the 2006 Olympic Winter Games -- he was battling a hip injury -- and from what he's been told believes the fences have been mended between Kipper and the country's hockey federation.

"I think a lot of people were disappointed, but it ended up well -- they went to the final -- so people can't be too mad," said Leppanen, who pointed out Kiprusoff is part-owner of team TPS Turku. "People back there don't know how hard it is to play in the NHL. You have injuries to play through. I think one of my jobs is to tell people how hard it is to play here, so people understand and know it's not easy to play overseas after the season or at the Olympics.

"I think next year, in Vancouver, Miikka is the number-one goalie. Miikka and Niklas Backstrom would be a good tandem."\


Videos

Photos