Title image credit: Panthers Images
Miika Wiikman is in his second season with the GMB Nottingham Panthers and is arguably one of the best net-minders in the Elite Ice Hockey League. This season he has won silverware for the club along with the rest of the team and secured the Continental Cup for the Panthers, making them one of the first British clubs to ever do so as well as qualifying for the Champions Hockey League for next season. Though as always, this interview seeks to take you Behind the Mask and into the mind somewhat of the man who wears it.
Wiikman was born in Sweden to Finnish parents. He actually has dual citizenship, but it was in Sweden that he grew up. He went to school there but once he’d finished with school he went to Finland to play hockey back in 2003 . I asked him what made him leave Sweden and move to Finland in order to pursue his career.
“This was back in 2003, the goalie coaching in Sweden wasn’t really at the same level as it is today. I knew Finland was the leading country for goalie coaching and I pretty much get a better offer from a better league in Finland, Mestis. It’s their second league and I didn’t really have any good offers after Juniors in Sweden so I thought I might as well try it and it’s also my Mum’s hometown actually, so we spent a lot of summers there so it was a place that I knew and it was pretty easy to go there. I knew they had a really good goalie coach with a really good reputation so there was really nothing to think about. Just sign and go there. I only stayed one season there, I had a really good season and then I got a contract with a really good league, with the SM-liiga. I played three seasons there for HPK.”
I asked if he had a favourite team from the Liiga. “Not right now, though of course the first team I played for HPK, great memories. I won the championship there and everything, It’s a smaller club, they don’t have the same money as those big teams like IFK or Helsinki. So yeah, HPK is probably the closest to my heart. I was also with Saipa for a couple of months and that was a really, really nice club, good club, great people around the team and it was fun to play there for a few months.” Miika explained.
Next we move on the the Panthers and talking about the Elite League. Claire Bentley wanted to know if he would he want to play again next season with the Panthers? “Yeah, absolutely.” No hesitation in his answer. “I mean if I don’t have any really good offers from like KHL or the Swedish Elite League or Finnish League then I don’t really see any reason to go anywhere else. I mean, I like it here, my family loves it here too.”
The move to Nottingham, how was that for him in comparison to where he was before? “Well I played in Slovakia and Slovenia the year before and it was a horrible experience.” He still hasn’t been paid for his time there and this doesn’t sound like he’s an isolated case in that repect, as Desbiens of the Steelers has also played there and didn’t get paid both with the Olimpija Ljubljana. “I’m close to giving up on that too.” He comments when I mention that it might take a while and possibly won’t ever come his way.
Back to Nottingham; and we talk a bit about his family life here, thank you for Audrey Davis for the question. “My son he goes to school here and he’s there for more than half of the day.” I asked him about if there were any places he liked to go with the family in Nottingham.”He loves to go out and search for Pokemons, but he’s so tired when he comes back from school that we don’t go out much. When we do that’s pretty much what we do. It gets us outside and walking everyday and we go to parks and do stuff, like play football. Actually we just came back from the rink just now since he’s got half term so we went skating for an hour and a half. He’s a really active boy and there is a lot of stuff to do here in Nottingham so that’s good, but we don’t have any particular places we like to go or anything.”
How does he enjoy the crowd in Nottingham? It’s one of the biggest arenas in the league. Does it have an effect on his game? asked Panther’s fan Pippa Morley. “Oh yeah of course. Especially when we’re winning. When we’re losing it’s pretty quiet in the arena.” He begins and it’s interesting when he begins to compare to places he has played around Europe. “It reminds me of Finland a little bit, it’s pretty quiet in the rinks. In Sweden it’s completely different. People are happy and cheering for their team and it doesn’t matter what the score is, it’s always nice and loud. Here sometimes it gets so quiet, I mean we got a big arena and a big crowd and it’s so quiet, it’s just weird sometimes but these are probably some of the best fans I’ve played in front of but then again I’ve played in Finland and North America and in Slovenia we had like 50 people at the game, so here it’s a little bit different.”
And now for the obligatory, did you always want to be a goalie question. I always like to hear the different stories on how they moved from wanting to play hockey in general to wanting to play goalie. “Ah, not really. I did a lot of different sports when I was a kid, football, wrestling everything. I started as a player in hockey and I think I was nine or ten when I started playing goalie. Every guy on the team got a chance to try it and I guess I was the best at it, I got stuck there pretty much.”
“I always wanted to make glove saves and catch the puck, the was the big thing. I remember when I was a kid, every practice I counted how many glove saves I made. It was my favourite way when I was a child, now it doesn’t really matter so much.”
Routine is something that I’ve found to be crucial for goalies specifically, as it helps them get into the zone or head space they need to be in to be able to play their absolute best. Miika is one who takes his routine incredibly seriously as he describes. “Obviously it’s a bit different between home and away games as you have to take a seat on a bus for a couple of hours. It takes a lot of time and energy to prepare for a game for me at least. I know a couple of goalies and they don’t care, like they can do whatever they want, do grocery shopping or whatever but I can’t do that. I can’t leave the house pretty much. I try to stay in and do the same thing every time, it’s kind of like an OCD, it was way worse when I was younger though. I’m a bit different now I got the kids and stuff, I can do more stuff with them, be a little bit more relaxed and it doesn’t have to be that strict but I still have to eat the same breakfast, try and do the same things in the morning. Like if I have a morning skate I do the same things. If I don’t have a morning skate I still try to do some of the things. It’s almost overdoing it and a bit OCD. I try not to let it stress me out though if things don’t go to plan.”
His main example of this was in Italy during the Continental Cup campaign and the fact that the breakfast wasn’t even close to what he would normally eat. He had it anyway and then got a shut out in the first game. It seems to take the pressure off if he can break his routine and still be okay in games. “Oh yeah.” He continues. “Exactly, when I was younger it was a disaster, if even one thing went wrong it threw me off completely, now stuff like that doesn’t really affect me anymore.”
So does he have a favourite NHL team? “Not anymore really, when I was younger I was a Vancouver fan.” Why Vancouver? I ask, with a small grin. I wonder what it is about the team that drew him in. “Oh, the jerseys.” He says with a small laugh. “And the logo, I just loved it and Kirk McClean was my favourite goalie when I was a kid.”
“Of course I watch the NHL goalies, there is always something you can try and I’m always open for new stuff and I’m a pretty quick learner too so it’s pretty easy for me to put that into my game. One guy I’ve been watching recently is [Sergei] Bobrovsky in Columbus. Obviously Holtby.” That makes me chuckle, Holtby is my favourite goalie and when I mention it, Miika makes a comment about seeing my twitter. Consider me busted! “I actually played against him in the East Coast, I beat him 7-0. I’ve played against a lot of those guys who are in the NHL right now. Halak, Rask. I played against Rask a lot in the Finnish league. Quick, all those guys and it’s just crazy how I have actually been when I start thinking about it. You just have to be in the right place at the right time and making good choices I guess.”
So what advice would Miika give to an aspiring netminder? “Learn how to skate, without gear and then try the gear on. That’s where everyone starts.” He says, like it’s the most obvious answer in the world. I ask him about the weight of the gear and if it’s really as heavy as I’ve heard. “Well it’s getting lighter every year, those Bauer pads are real light, CCM’s are a little bit heavier. Some guys like that a little bit more, like me. I’ve just had CCM all my career and I tried the Bauer stuff and I just didn’t like it. It’s really just individual. How you like it, working out what gear you want. I feel comfortable in mine. I’ve been thinking about trying some other brand but I don’t know if there’s any point because I really feel comfortable in what I’m wearing now.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
I had to ask him about the inspiration behind his mask design as it has become quite the talking piece this season, I wanted to know why he chose to make it the way he did.
Thank you to Juha Peltonen of Paint It Black in Finland for the images of Miika’s mask.
“I kind of forgot about the whole Pokemon thing, coz I played it when I was a kid, with my brother and then Pokemon GO came up and me and my son started playing it, then we started talking about maybe putting it on my mask and he was all ‘Yeah, we should do Pikachu on mask’ So I said let’s do it then, so it was pretty much my son’s idea. On the other side I have Megaman, remember that? From the old Nintendo? I’m just a huge fan and I love those games, I still play them on the Wii back home. The back plate is the logo and I think there is a smaller logo in the front somewhere too.”
This is not all that we spoke about in the hour, but I wanted to break it down into more manageable chunks for those of you reading it. The other topics we spoke about are:
- His time with the New York Rangers organisation
- Continental Cup experience and the CHL
- Junior Hockey in the UK
- Moving to the Elite League.
- Team that taught you the most about yourself.
- Best goalie in the league besides yourself.
- Who do you not like taking shots from?
- Movies, Books, Podcasts and other on the road trip entertainment.
- Discussing the league and how the goalies should be used according to Miika.
If you want to me to post more of this interview with Miika, leave me a comment on my Facebook page @chasingthepuck or tweet me @hazelrayson with which one you’d particularly like to read about next.
I want to take a moment to say thank you to all those who have helped me in providing images and also permissions to do this interview and to the Panther’s organisation as well. Thank you so much to Adam Gouldson and Karl Denham of Panthers Images for the images of Miika Wiikman that have been used in this article.