It was confirmed this morning that former MK Lightning player Francis Verreault-Paul has signed for Milan in the Alps Hockey League.
With KHL, USHL, QMJHL and international experience under his 22 year old belt, new signing Georgs Golovkovs looks like a solid signing for Milton Keynes.
They say Lightning doesn’t always strike twice, but for former NHLer Tim Wallace, it does, as he joins the EIHL’s MK Lightning
This evening at the annual MK Lightning supporters AGM, the announcement was made that the team had signed former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin Patrick Killeen.
November 5th, Skydome Arena and I’m back in block 7. It’s my old stomping ground here, where I started out, cheering for the Steelers in 2015. Only this time I’m cheering on one of my favourites, Miika Wiikman and the rest of the MK Lightning.
Now, let me tell you. In the three seasons that I have been an EIHL fan I have cheered for most of the teams. I love the Elite League, there are no underdogs here. Any team can win on any given night
From the first game I was drawn to the netminders. Firstly, it was Tyler Plante of the Sheffield Steelers and then Brian Stewart, formerly of the Coventry Blaze and now playing for the Guildford Flames.
Last season, while playing for the Nottingham Panthers I found myself drawn to our starting goalie Miika. It was only after watching a good few games and with the rise of my own blog Chasing The Puck, I decided I wanted to interview as many of the Elite League goalies as I could. I wanted to try and break down some of the long held beliefs about them. Namely, that goalies are a bit weird and get to know the men behind the metal cages. Those guys who defend our pipes.
I find watching a goalies play fascinating. They have a way about them that no other outfield player has. Be it the pre-game preparation of Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby or the steely concentration caught on camera by the most talented of the league photographers or the slide – side to side across the goal line – to gauge the distance and the range of movement they’ll need or even the tap of the stick off each post before play begins. There is something I find truly mesmerising.
From Coventry to Cardiff, Belfast to Braehead I have yet to find a goalie who wasn’t open and honest about the pressures they feel when on or off the ice. Whether that be Wiikman discussing the importance of good coaching in his youth or Brython Preece discussing the scary move away from home aged 15 to go and join the Ontario Hockey Academy.
I have interviewed players of all nationalities and each have their own unique style of play that I believe it differs depending on the place they got their training.
I have spoken to eight different goalies in the EIHL, although Mike Clemente, Stewart and Wiikman all come to mind, especially when ‘knocking off the nets’ comes up on a fan forum on the web.
I asked Miika about it after a particularly heated debate on facebook. He sends me a laughing emoji and tells me that only twice in his career has he knocked the net off on purpose. Later the same evening, after the game he played (in which the net came off it’s moorings a couple of times) he tells me I must have jinxed it!
My own personal feeling is this; I believe it depends on the style of play. If a goalie has trained in North America and Canada, their style of play is such that they can lean more on the posts as they are deeper into the ice there than they are in our own league. It’s the nature of the way they are brought up and this possibly could explain why the American Clemente and Canadian Stewart, are considered to be the worst offenders. Though a recent incident with Clemente and a dive at his own goal could definitely be considered deliberate!
Away from the ice, these guys are family orientated. Clemente for example comes from a large family of six boys so he says family time is so precious. He’s also the goalie that spends much of his travelling time napping, reading or eating. Learning to sleep in noisy places is a valuable skill, probably learned while trying to sleep back home in a busy house.
Cardiff goalie Ben Bowns talks about his dog Stitch, who comes to the arena and is fussed by staff and players alike. Stitch loves nothing more than his time in the dressing room. He’ll even get grumpy if Ben walks the long way around so as to avoid the dressing room!
Gary Russell, told me how as a youngster he had a serious Irn Bru problem and likes his tea, Yorkshire style, with milk and two sugars. His celeb man crush is David Beckham and the first thing he picks up after an away game? A piece of pizza! If you meet Moose in a bar, don’t buy him a beer. He doesn’t like how it tastes. Instead buy him an apple juice and ask about his cats.
You learn really interesting things about each player if you ask the right questions. Nothing is too silly or too obvious. I have laughed and joked with a fair few of them. To say that interviewing them has brought me confidence as a journalist would be an understatement. Goalies are some of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and it’s why they will always be my absolute favourite.
This article was originally published in the December issue of MK Lightning’s matchnight program and has been republished here, with permission, now the magazine is no longer in print. All images are my own other than the photo of Ben Bowns, which belongs to its rightful owner and has not been used here for profit in any way.
Recently, I came across the a photo of Miika playing for the New York Rangers. It peaked my interest and I couldn’t find anything about his time with the Rangers. At the time I shared it on my social media, wondering if anyone who followed me had known he’d been signed to the team.
A couple of people guessed it was Miika as I just played a game of “Guess the Goalie” with them. If I couldn’t find anything online about his time with the team, then who better to ask that the man himself.
As a goalie with an awful lot of experience playing all over the world I wanted to ask more about his time in the NHL and playing for various AHL teams.
Considering Wiikman was never drafted; which is how most goalies come to play in the National Hockey league of course the question cam in regards to playing there, curiousity with these things, always gets the better of me.
“How did that come about?” I ask. “Playing for the New York Rangers, I mean.”
“Well I won a championship in Finland. They wanted to sign an AHL contract with me but the team wouldn’t let me go in Finland so I had to play one more year to sign a contract with them.” It all sounds a little familiar. European leagues not allowing some of the best players to go right away.
“So I played the extra year and then I signed an AHL contract and played really well in my first year and then they offered me a two year NHL, two way deal.” Sounds easy enough doesn’t it?
“I played there for three years total, played a couple of exhibition games, never got a chance in the NHL because Lundqvist was never sick or injured. Henrik was playing really well back then so there was no reason to bring up a goalie from the AHL. You have to be in the right place at the right time, that’s all it is really.”
“And Lundqvist?” I asked, leaning in with interest. Henrik is one of my favourites, you hear stories of him but he seems so untouchable at times.
“He’s been a bit up and down the last season but he’s still probably the best goalie I’ve ever seen in practise and yeah, I’ve practised with him a bit.”
I of course wondered if he’d got the meet the King himself, perhaps learn from him or have a share in his wisdom on the game.
“He’s a different kind of guy, he does his own stuff. He’s special for sure. He doesn’t interact with other people a lot. He’s got so much stuff going on off the ice too. I mean he’s got his modelling thing, his foundation, he plays tennis with McEnroe, he plays guitar in a band and stuff like that so yeah, he’s really nice guy for sure, but it’s hard to get a grip on him.”
Somehow that doesn’t really surprise me. I move on to his days with their affiliate instead. Wondering if he got to play with any of the goalies I liked in the NHL or if he still watched them to encorporate anything they do into his game.
“I do my own thing mostly, but of course I watch the NHL goalies too, there’s always something you can try. I’m always open for new stuff and I’ma pretty quick learner too so it’s pretty easy for me to put that into my game and try it.”
“One guy I’ve been watching a lot lately is Bobrovsky in Columbus and obviously Holtby.”
I chuckle nervously. “My favourite.” I say quietly and Mikka laughs. “I know, I’ve seen your twitter.”
“I actually played against him in the East Coast, I beat him 7-0. He was in South Carolina and I was with Charlotte but I remember playing against him.
I have 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 close to the NHL I’ve actually been.
When I start thinking about it but like I said you have to be in the right place at the right time and make good choices of course.”
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.