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Saturday, September 07, 2013

Tribute to Kipper – Joni Ortio’s Mesmerizing Debut

All the big stars of past and present have one -- Garth Brooks, Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Elvis. It’s called a tribute artist and they look and perform just like the real thing. They can be so similar, it’s remarkable. Well, apparently Miikka Kiprusoff has one too. His name is Joni Ortio and he took centre stage Friday night in Penticton.

The Flames 22-year-old Finnish goaltending prospect, six-foot-one and 185 pounds – precisely to the exact inch and pound the same stature as Kiprusoff, and brandishing many of the same acrobatic qualities, had a sensational evening. Ortio turned aside 39 shots in Calgary’s 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at the Young Stars Classic tournament.

Ortio was busy right from the start, confidently turning aside Canucks 2013 first rounder Hunter Shinkaruk on a dangerous chance at the side of the net, just minutes into the game.

And he was very good right through an encore performance at the very end. To bookend a fabulous 60 minute display of goaltending, Ortio once again showed his athleticism by going post-to-post ala Kiprusoff in his prime to rob Vancouver’s other 2013 first rounder, Bo Horvat, from in-close after he was neatly set up by Shinkaruk. Ortio had made a similar sprawling stop off Niklas Jensen earlier in the game.

“It was a hell-of-a-hard first game,” Ortio said afterwards. “After a long period of not playing a game, you never know what is going to happen. Fortunately, I got a couple shots early on and that got me into the game and it took care of itself.”

Only Frankie Corrodo’s screened point shot on the power play, which it didn’t look like Ortio saw, eluded him.

Thirty-Four Connections

Growing up in Turku, which is also Kiprusoff's home town, Ortio always cheered for the hometown hockey team TPS. Naturally, he was a big fan in particular of the goaltenders that played for TPS. In addition to Kiprusoff, that meant former NHLers Antero Niittymaki and Fredrik Norrena, too.

“But Kipper, he was probably the biggest for me,” Ortio said Wednesday during a lengthy chat at the University of Calgary where he had just finished the fitness testing that kicked off Flames rookie camp. “I looked up to Kiprusoff a lot as a kid, he played in TPS first and when he came over here, I started watching the NHL a lot more.”

Ortio eventually met Kiprusoff and got to know him as they would get together when he returned home in the off-season.

“We used to skate together with a bunch of NHL players back home in the summer. I knew him that way,” Ortio said. “We also talked a lot at training camp two years ago.”

By getting to know Kiprusoff on that level, Ortio saw a side to the Flames greatest all-time goaltender that not many in Calgary had a chance to see.

“To the media, Miikka might come across as a quiet guy but once you get to know him, you don’t hear the end of it,” Ortio said. “If you just talk to him face-to-face, he’s got a lot of stories and he’s not afraid to share them with you. He’s a really funny guy.”

Ortio also confirmed Kiprusoff was back in Calgary while adding, “He’s a really hard to get hold of.” Well, that part we knew.

With Kiprusoff expected to retire despite no official word yet, Ortio is hoping to be the new Finn on the block. But he knows that in order to make the Flames hockey club considering Joey MacDonald, Karri Ramo and Reto Berra are all above him on the depth chart, he’s got to leave it out there on the ice. He certainly did that Friday night against the Canucks.

“I want to play in the NHL, that’s for sure. I came here to challenge for that spot and make those guys on a one-way contract feel as uncomfortable as I can,” Ortio said.

Four Years of Ups and Downs

It’s been a roller coaster few years for Ortio since being drafted by the Flames in the 6th round in 2009, 171st overall.

In 2009-10, he played mostly junior hockey in Finland. That included six games at the World Junior Championships where he didn’t perform all that well with a 3.02 goals-against average and .844 save percentage.

In 2010-11, he played at three different levels. He began in junior, then played in the league one below the Finnish Elite League. Later, he also played 16 games in the SM-Liiga with TPS. By that point, Kiprusoff was part of a group of NHLers that owned TPS -- Saku and Mikko Koivu also a part of that group. That year Ortio once again played in the World Juniors and this time with far greater success as indicated by his 1.86 GAA and .931 SV%, which was second best in the tournament.

Ortio came to North America for the 2011-12 season but it did not go as he had envisioned. After being assigned to Abbotsford, he ended up competing with Leland Irving and Danny Taylor for playing time for the season's first three months. Disgruntled about how it was going, he returned to Finland in January and returned to TPS, where he finished off the year.

“It was a learning experience and it was a bit of a disappointment – a little bit of both,” said Ortio, who is philosophical when reflecting back on his initial abbreviated stint in North America.

 “At that point, it was all new to me,” Ortio said. “It’s always frustrating when you can’t get the games in or get the ice time you want but at the same time, it toughens you up by giving you experience on how to deal with that type of situation for when it might happen later on in my career.”

Ortio remained in Finland for 2012-13, where he enjoyed a breakout season as the No. 1 goalie for HIFK Helsinki – the same team Flames prospect Markus Granlund played with. The team reached the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Tappara Tampere led by ex-Flame Ville Nieminen and Aleksander Barkov.

“Last year I got to play pretty much as much as I wanted. I want to carry on that responsibility to help out your team day in and day out and help them win games. That’s one of the biggest things I can take out of last year.”

He says he’s arrived in Calgary this year a different player now than he was two years ago.

“I’ve matured quite a bit. I played back home last year and played almost 80 games. It taught me how to compete and how to be consistent day in and day out,” Ortio said. “Trying to give the guys a chance to win every night. That’s probably the biggest thing I took with me from back home.”

Despite how it turned out, Ortio says his first camp with the Flames was a valuable experience.

“The time I spent here two years ago really helped me just to know what to expect. Now everything going on is not new for me. I’ve been through it once. I don’t need to focus on it that much anymore and I can focus all my energy on the thing I’m here to do, which is work hard and leave everything on the ice.”

Two Biggest Adjustments in Coming to North America

When European goalies come to North America, they often refer to the challenge of adjusting to new shot angles that comes with the smaller ice surface. However, Ortio says this isn’t as big of a deal for him anymore because for one, he has been over here. Secondly, many of the rinks in Finland aren’t as big now.

“They’re going towards NHL size so they’ve made them smaller,” Ortio explained. “They’re not as small as NHL rink yet but they’re going that way. It used to be 30 metres wide, I think it’s 26 metres over here. In most of Finland, they’ve gone down to 28 metres. It’s not every rink but most of them so it’s not a huge adjustment for me.”

However there are other adjustments with the NHL game and Ortio explained two in particular that he continues to work at.

The first is more of a technique thing and it’s around better rebound control.

“In a game, usually there aren’t a whole lot of plays open other than to shoot the puck at the net and hope for the rebound. If I kick out the rebound and it’s laying right in front, it’s going to cost me and it’s going to cost the team. That’s the biggest thing to consider that you don’t give out easy rebounds.  If you can avoid those easy rebounds, you’re not going to get scored on.”

Ortio says the other is more mental and it’s staying focused the entire time.

“You have to be ready all the time, you can’t take moments off on the ice because anything can happen since the pace is so high, especially compared to the pace in Europe. Over here, the tempo is much higher so you have to be prepared all the time. You can’t even take a second off because it will cost you eventually.”

On the Possibility of Returning to the Minors

This year, if he doesn’t make the Calgary Flames roster out of training camp, Ortio says he’s ready to go to the minors and keep working.

“If that doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world,” Ortio said. “Sure, I’ll be disappointed but I’ll go to Abby, work hard, put that effort in, day in and day out, and who knows what’s going to happen up top in the show. Someone might get injured or they have to make changes. So I’ll be ready if that happens.”

Meanwhile, there are more gigs still to come this month. One more game in the rookie tournament, Sunday night versus San Jose, and then the Flames have seven pre-season games. You can bet Ortio will get a few more chances to further impress.


Related Flames Reading
  • Getting to Know Markus Granlund - His stellar on-ice play so far has spoken volumes. Prior to departing for Penticton, he talked about his breakout season in Finland last year, his strengths as a player and his hopes for 2013-14.
  • Ten Storylines To Follow In Penticton - The battle between Laurent Brossoit and Ortio in net, can Ryan Culkin earn a pro contract, first rounders Emile Poirier and Sean Monahan. So many things to watch and I break it all down.
  • North America, Take One - Recounting Karri Ramo's First Attempt at the NHL - You may have forgotten but Ramo's already spent parts of three seasons in the NHL. Here's an in-depth look at his adventurous first attempt including his scrap in his second game, a suspension and his most unusual initial goaltending tandem.
  • Twelve Neat Things about Reto Berra - After his impressive performance at the World Championships, I investigated who is Reto Berra, anyway?

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