The Niche: Teaching young hockey players in Finland how to be goaltenders.
The Man: He’s called the High Priest, the Yoda, the Obi-Wan-Kenobi, The Oracle, The Zenmaster of goalie coaches.
His name is Urpo Ylönen. People call him Upi. He lives on the southwest coast of Finland in the city of Turku. He’s an unassuming 70-year-old. His office is a sheet of ice.
He uses unconventional methods to teach a unique style of goaltending. (Who knew there was a different way to stop a puck?) And his work over the past 20 years is yielding the finest goaltenders in the world. Consider:
• Before 2002, no Finnish goaltender had ever held a starting role in the National Hockey League. But suddenly a country with a population of 5.4 million people was producing one-sixth of the NHL’s starting goalies.
• In the last five Olympics, Finland has won more medals (4) in mens hockey than any other country.
• In January Finland won the World Junior Championships, an annual tournament for players who are under 20 years old.
Last week one of the Finnish goalies, Tuukka Rask, stoned Team USA in the bronze-medal game at the Olympics, as Finland routed the Americans, 5-0. A few days earlier, Rask and the Finns defeated Russia.
If you connect the dots…one man’s work has changed the balance of power in international hockey. How about that?
Upi’s knowledge came from careful study of the world’s best goaltenders. Beginning in 1963 and continuing for 14 years, he was Finland’s goalie for international competitions. As The Atlantic observes, during the 14 years he spent playing for Finland in international competition, Upi was exposed to every goaltending style of the era.
He melded the styles and in the process developed a philosophy of goaltending that’s uniquely his.
The hockey world now travels to Turku, trying to divine how Upi does it. A few hockey programs, including next-door-neighbor Sweden, are trying to duplicate the organizational training system that Upi has built in Finland. But the man is cagey. He’s not giving away his secrets. He says he teaches fundamentals. He says he teaches a mind-set.
Note that he considers himself a teacher, not a coach. Maybe that’s his secret.