International Ice Hockey Federation

“It’s more the mental side”

“It’s more the mental side”

Finnish U18 goalie coach shares insights

Published 14.09.2016 00:06 GMT+11 | Author Sabrina Rutz
“It’s more the mental side”
GRAND FORKS, NORTH DAKOTA - APRIL 19: Finland assistant coach Aki Naykki answers questions from writer Lukas Akroyd following a 3-1 preliminary round loss to Canada at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/HHOF-IIHF Images)
When you think of Finnish hockey’s trademarks, great goaltending is at the top of the list. So goalie coach Aki Naykki has a key role with Finland’s U18 squad.

The 34-year-old played in net himself before becoming a goalie coach back in 2002. Since May 2015, Naykki has occupied that position with Sport Vaasa of the Finnish Liiga. He’s worn a lot of hats as a head, assistant, and goalie coach with various Finnish junior teams since 2010.

Here in Grand Forks, he’s hoping to add a U18 gold medal to his collection after earning bronze in Sochi, Russia in 2013 and silver in Zug, Switzerland last year. In the latter tournament, goalie Veini Vehvilainen had a spectacular 60-save performance in the 2-1 final loss in overtime to the United States.

Naykki previously developed his coaching acumen with a great organization in Karpat Oulu, a perennial contender for the Finnish championship and the spawning ground for star NHL netminders like Pekka Rinne and Niklas Backstrom.

We chatted with Naykki after Finland’s 3-1 loss to Canada to close out the round-robin.

What kind of impact did Karpat Oulu have on your career?

For sure, it’s one of the biggest factors in my career. I had a great mentor there in Ari Hilli, our elite team’s coach. He always helped me. He’s coached Rinne and Backstrom, so I learned so much from him, as well as other coaches, like Lauri Marjamaki. I spent six years in Oulu and got so much from there.

How does the work you do with the U18 national team differ from what, say, a goalie coach at the IIHF World Championship or Olympic level would do?

The guys are younger, so we have to try to teach them new things. We must teach them about international-level hockey, about the tempo and about the game. But in the end, it’s more the mental side at this level.

In our tournaments, we don’t have so much time to teach them. Our goalies and their goalie coaches on their club teams, they do the big work. My job is just to give feedback to the goalie and his coach on his team so they can work every day on those things.

Actually, now Leevi Laakso is a goalie on my team in Vaasa, so I coach him every day. But mainly it’s more like helping out the goalie to get the best out of him in every game at the World Championship.

Is it fair to say mental toughness and calmness is a particularly strong feature of Finnish goalies?

For sure. I found myself that you don’t need to watch the scoreboard. Just try to enjoy the game and enjoy stopping the shots. Get the best out of yourself no matter what the score is at the end of the game. You can watch the scoreboard after 60 minutes.

What the goalie has to think about is his performance. We have to evaluate that after the game. It kind of doesn’t matter about the score. The goalie can take the pressure off his head throughout the game. He has to think about his performance, not the goals he allows or the saves he makes. We want to get the best out of him.

At this tournament, Leevi Laakso has played all the games so far for Finland. What are his strengths?

He’s a competitive guy. I think he gets his best out of himself when it’s necesssary. Today against Canada, there were maybe two easy goals in the beginning. It was a good lesson for him.

I think his strength is that he reads the game well. He can move well. He remains standing as long as possible. He’s not going down in the butterfly too early. On the passes, he tries to read the play so he can move while standing, not going down too early. He can read the game and move quickly so he’s always behind the puck when the shot comes. It gives him a chance to make the easy saves, so he doesn’t have to do the splits and highlight-reel saves too often.

He’s also good with his stick. He can help our D to make good breakouts.

The art of goaltending evolves every year. How does your work at IIHF tournaments help you to stay on top of the latest developments?

It’s a big thing. I find it’s a privilege that with these national teams, I can be here and always see what is going on at the top world level. I can see things from different goalies around the world, the best of the best. If you’re just in Finland, you don’t see those things. Here, you see those things first.

Who are some of the other people who have had a big influence on your career?

I must mention coaches Jukka Lamminaho and Mika Marttila. Without those two, I’d never have gotten the chance to coach with the national team. Some other guys like Kari Lehtonen [not the Dallas Stars netminder], who was with our World Junior team [as a goalie coach in 2016], and Hannu Nykvist, who was the head of Finnish goalie coaching, have been big for me too. Olli-Pekka Aijala is helping us all the time. But I think overall Ari Hilli has been the biggest help and mentor for me.

When you’re not working with goalies, what do you like to do to relax?

Just hang out with my fiancee and relax with her. She is my biggest supporter for sure. I’m looking forward to getting home from here, because she lives in Oulu and I live in Vaasa and we have to stay separate for months. Now it’s kind of a holiday season coming, so I get to spend time with her.

What would it mean to you to leave this tournament with another medal, possibly a gold?

It would mean everything. It’s such a big privilege and honor to represent your country in these events. I can’t imagine anything as big in ice hockey as to represent my country. I’m lucky I’ve been here twice before and we won the bronze first and we got the silver last year. It’s more than I ever imagined to happen. I hope I can help my team and we can get better and better. We have a really good chance to win this tournament.


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