Q&A with goalie coach Jukka Ropponen
"In today's hockey, it's almost impossible to win without great goaltending"
In this interview, eurohockey.net has exchanged opinions with Finnish goalkeepers coach Jukka Ropponen. He’s a very successful coach who have worked with many top-level goaltenders in Finland, Switzerland, Russia and North America since the early 80s.
Q: Can you tell something us to our readers who know little about you?
I have been working with hockey goalies for the past 25+ years while coaching in Finland, U.S., Canada, Russia and Switzerland. My passion has been, and still is, to develop new innovative coaching methods that will help talented goalies to advance their careers and reach their goals. I also run goalie coaching business via my company goaliepro.com.
Q: You worked many years with many great goalkeepers, what is the hardest thing to do for a person that covers your role?
It must be learning to read your goalies. If goalie coach can’t read the individuals and analyze their game, you can’t develop top level professionals that are all individuals. Individuals need all to be taught different and coach must find the right methods for each goalie.
Q: What are the biggest satisfactions of your work?
For me personally it is really a good feeling when any of the goalies that I work with achieves something great. Seeing Ari Sulander continuing his career at very high level in Switzerland and winning Swiss title last season and Niklas Bäckström signing 2-year multimillion dollar deal as clear # 1 goalie for Minnesota Wild are good examples of the satisfying moments for me as a coach.
Q: What is usually your working schedule? Do you have always the same way to work or do you change it according to the pros and the cons of the single goalkeeper?
I will NEVER put two different goalies through the same program. I try to always tailor all my teaching and programs to suit the needs of the individual and his skill level, conditioning, style of play etc.
Q: It’s often said that the goalkeeper is the most important role in a hockey team. Do you agree?
Absolutely, in today’s hockey it’s almost impossible to win titles without great goaltending.
Q: Does a goalie coach give any tips to the other skaters?
It depends on the way the coaching staff of a particular team works. Most of the head coaches I have worked with do ask me to help them with analyzing opponents goalies and how to play/score against them. Also the more experienced players often come to me to ask for tips on scoring against a particular goalie. Naturally the goalie coach also gets involved in the design of teams’ defensive systems and cooperation between defence and goalie.
Q: What is worse for a goalkeeper, a powerful blueline slapshot by a defender or a close range wristshot coming from a sniper?
There is no reason that goalie should be scored from blueline ever, if the goalie can see the shot and it is not deflected, so I have to say that a wristshot from close distance is much more dangerous.
Q: How has the role of the goalkeeper evolved in the last years, with the changes in the equipment and the rules in North America (i.e. the trapezoid)?
There has been a lot of changes to the way goalies have to play today’s game. Every year the requirements change and we also have to adjust and coach goalies differently. If a coach does not update his teachings, he will be left behind in a couple of years easily. With new rules, less tolerance for defensive plays, smaller equipment, better composite forward sticks and bigger, faster and stronger players goalies have to play smarter, move more efficiently (always in position to make a save), read the game better and be even better skaters than in the past.
Q: You have worked in Finland, America, Switzerland and Russia, which was the best place out of these?
Hockey is hockey, I have enjoyed working in all different countries. They all have pros and cons so it is really tough to say one place is better than the other. I guess I just love hockey and working with goalies.
Q: What are the biggest difference in goalkeeping schools in these countries?
Let’s see, all countries have their own unique characteristics. let me elaborate this a bit more on a country by country basis:
• Finland has the most systematic approach to coaching goalies and most probably more goalie coaches than in any country compared to the number of team and players. This means that most Finnish coaches do get systematic training at young age and this has really benefitted Finnish goalies as we can all see from the results. I still see that we have a problem at the high-end of the hockey in Finland and too few really knowledgeable goalie coaches.
• America is quite different. There are very few teams with any qualified goalie coaches other than eager parents or other volunteers that don’t have a lot of experience. Naturally the situation is getting better, but I don’t see focused effort to drive the quality and quantity of coaching up in there the same way Finnish ice hockey association has done. Most of the kids who need goalie coaching go to various camps or private lessons from goalie coaching companies. In Canada there’s more goalie coaching, but clearly not enough. Private companies provide a lot of the training there as well. Both countries have a problem with the attitude as teams often just choose new and better goalies through annual tryout’s rather than develop their own players. Smaller countries don’t have this luxury so they have to produce better results with less players.
• Switzerland has produced a few NHL goalies by now and there are some good young prospects, but with only about 30.000 registered players there is not enough competition to drive the talented young players. Too many are just happy when they make NLA or NLB league as pro’s. Goalie coaching is not very good there and too few players are willing to put in the needed work to achieve the next level. Thankfully there are exceptions and these individuals show that Switzerland has potential and very talented athletes.
• Russia is a country that really surprised me when I got a chance to work with some of their teams and goalies. First of all I was very surprised on the quality of coaching forwards and defence. The speed at Super league practices was amazing and players’ skill level very high. Now at the same time goalies were getting almost nothing in coaching, extra advice, specialty training etc. Even when teams were doing their high speed warmup drill goalies were just stretching in the corners like Finnish goalies used to do fifteen years ago. I also did run some goalie specialty dryland drills for Russian goalies and it was almost impossible for them to go through the same drills as I run my Finnish netminders every week. I have 39 years old goalies that I coach that are physically in a lot better shape than 20 years old Russian Super league goalies.
Q: Who is the best goalkeeper that you ever worked with?
I have to say that it is Ari Sulander as I have a very long history of working with him and we have won several titles together. He will turn 40 during next season and still plays at very high level. Right after him come goalies like Niklas Bäckström, Kari Lehtonen and Pasi Nurminen.
Q: In the last season you worked in Russia, for Salavat Yulajev Ufa. What can you tell us about the goalkeepers you worked with and about that experience as an overall?
Ufa goalies were great to work with. All the four were willing to learn and communications worked also better than I expected. Both Vadim Tarasov and Aleksandr Eremenko can play very high level hockey, although they are very different individuals as goalies. Tarasov has more sound technique and Eremenko is more self taught goalie with a very personal style of play. We also had young Nikita Davydov at the camp as well as Sergei Belov. For me it was enjoyable to work with all four of them and I believe they did benefit from our cooperation as well. I am looking forward to get another opportunity to work with Salavat again.
Jukka working with Aleksandr Eremenko
Q: Goaltending was often a problem for the Russians, do you think that they are reverting the trend?
I have seen efforts to change things, but since the current situation is not so good and the country is big it will take some time before we can see the results. I have to say that it was very encouraging to see a large group of enthusiastic coaches in Tyumen learning about coaching goalies in spring 2006 when I was invited to run a clinic to them. Educating coaches is the key to improving the situation.
Q: What should Russia do to start producing good goalkeeper with some consistency?
Build a very good systematic approach to educate coaches and goalie coaches. I would also recommend that clubs should hire foreign experts to work with their top Russian goalies and at the same time pass their knowledge to local goalie coaches. This will expedite the process a great deal. These experts can work as consultants and come in as needed or like once a month.
Q: Have you followed the recent paths of Semen Varlamov? He seemed to really gain from the experience of being trained by a Finn trainer.
I was invited to work with Varlamov and other 2 goalies at Loko’s camp last summer, so I am very familiar with Varlamov’s path. We actually had discussions about additional consulting during the season, but that dried out once the club did let coach Gardner go. In my opinion Semen Varlamov is the most talented young goalie I have seen in many years. He has potential to be a real NHL star in the future. He is also technically amazingly sound and some of the difficult moves are just natural for him. I am sure that it was very beneficial for Semen to have Jussi Parkkila coaching him during the last season. Parkkila is a good coach and he has done wonders with several young Finnish prospects.
Q: What do you think about the new Kontinental Hockey League?
Kontinentalnaya Hokkeynaya Liga is a definite step to the right direction and it seems to me that the design is very familiar when I look at NHL. If this setup is successful it will keep more players at this side of the ocean and start competing against NHL. I sure wish that this new setup will be successful and expect the league to expand more to other countries in the coming years.
Q: Can you tell us who are you preparing now?
I am working right now with ZSC Lions goalies Ari Sulander and Lukas Flüeler, Minnesota’s Niklas Bäckström as well as starting to help Fredrik Norrena from Columbus. Then I have several other goalies that do come to my workouts as well as my older son (Jan Ropponen, eh.n note) who plays college hockey in the States.
Q: Finland lately is producing very good goaltenders. What is the secret?
It’s very simply the number of trained goalie coaches at even the youngest level. Finnish ice hockey association has done years of systematic work and it has paid off. Then we have some very good coaches at higher level and for example cities like Turku have been producing very good goalies due to coaches like Urpo Ylönen who has been training their goalies for years producing guys like Miikka Kiprusoff, Antero Niittymäki, Fredrik Norrena etc.
Thanks to Jukka Ropponen for his time. We wish him the best of luck for all his works!
Story added on 8th June 2008 at 18:33 GMT
Story submitted by: Alessandro Seren Rosso.