I recently got the chance to sit down with Nottingham Panthers’ goalie Miika Wiikman. In the course of conversation we spoke a lot about his history as a player, his family life and some of his interests away from the ice.
What really caught my attention was the way he discussed the league, from a goalie’s perspective, with such open honesty.
He explained that the sheer amount of shots some goalies have to try and save can make it much more difficult for them, especially the back-ups.
“Often, there is no defense and there are scoring chances everywhere,” said Wiikman.
“It’s a lot of 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s – I’m not used to it, that never happened to me in the Finnish league or the American Hockey League, or very rarely, but here it’s like every game something weird happens.”
Wiikman agreed that the difference in game play would actually be more helpful when moving to other places, as it would give him a different experience and a chance to adapt to the more unpredictable circumstances.
“Absolutely, there are a lot of situations I’ve never been in before but if I was to go to the Finnish league and play now, I would probably be able to read the game even better.
“It is so hard to read all the plays and what is happening on the ice, it’s so unpredictable, but if I was to go to one of the top leagues in Europe I would be more prepared for what might happen.”
The 32-year-old admits the league’s busy schedule is problematic, with starting goalies often asked to play every single game. With some teams appearing to show a lack of trust in their back-ups, fatigue becomes an issue.
“We play so many games, back-to-back every week,” he said. “There are a lot of goalies who play every single game and of course it’s going to get to them because they’re so tired and so worn down.
“Stewart, Owen, Mustokovs, Bowns – they play every single game pretty much for their teams.
“Most of the teams have a British backup don’t they? Except us, we’re the only ones that don’t, right? The level of goaltending in the UK is not at the same level as the players are at this point.
“Murphy, Bowns and Russell, he’s been really good this year, there just aren’t that many goalies who can play at this level and that’s a problem right now. Some games you’re just going to get lit up because you’re just too tired.
“I’ve seen these six, seven or eight goal games and I understand because the goalie is just too tired. I mean I’m tired now, but at least I have a better back-up who has been able to play a couple of games and let me rest every now and again.
“There are a couple of teams who could – Murdy in Cardiff played a couple of good games early in the year I think. Then you have Russell in Braehead and Belfast has two goalies, pretty much splitting it right now.
“I think this is the only league in Europe where it is like this, where the number one goalie really does have to play every single game for a lot of teams.
“But then our team last year, they just got another goalie. We had Madolora here last year when I got injured and he played every single game until I got back.
“I mean look what happened in Edinburgh last year – they lost every single game 12-2, 12-7, 14-1.
“They could have just put the zamboni guy in the net. I don’t want to be mean to that guy – I don’t even know who the back-up is this year. It wasn’t really fair to him either.”
Wiikman believes the league should be doing more to develop its netminders, suggesting that sending them to the EPL to play on a regular basis would be beneficial.
“One thing that I feel is weird, for example in Sheffield,” said Wiikman. “They have Brad Day on the bench – why can’t they loan him to the second league, to the Steeldogs or anything like that? Let him get some ice time there.
“You’ve got Renny Marr in Coventry – he’s a young promising goalie, he needs to play, he can’t sit on the bench. Just give him one game a week, with the lower league team rather than sit him on the bench.
“I remember being his age, if I was to back up every single game they’d send me down to the second league in Finland. I mean it’s easier in Finland, the standard was different back then.
“It’s pretty much the same in the UK as it was twelve years ago back in Finland, so I mean it wouldn’t be bad for any of those young guys especially to just go down and get some ice time.”
With experience in both Europe and North America under his belt, Wiikman has an excellent understanding of how different systems can affect the level and standards of play.
Great Britian’s failure to utilise and adapt to different styles has hindered their progress on the international stage, something that Wiikman believes needs to be addressed.
“That’s the biggest problem. They don’t want to change it, they’re too conservative about everything. You’ve gotta be more open to new stuff and like you said, to change.
“It’s a long process (to change things up) and a learning process, but at some point you have to do it anyway. And why not now? You need the right people in the right places too.”
(This is an extract of a much longer interview which Hazel has broken down into pieces on her Chasing The Puck blog. Please click here to view the first installment and sign up there for email notifications for further updates).
(Image permission: Karl Denham)