Fins Backstrom, Raty at home in Minnesota
The weather, the abundance of lakes, the landscape and the people of Scandinavian descent … Minnesota and Finland have many things in common.
They also share a love for hockey, and the sport has brought two of Finland's finest goalies to the land of 10,000 lakes: Niklas Backstrom and Noora Raty.
Since singing with the Wild on July 1, 2006, Backstrom has made a home in net for the Minnesota Wild, racking up a career record of 160-109 with a 2.42 GAA.
Across the river in Minneapolis, the 23-year-old Raty has been dominant for the University of Minnesota women's hockey team since joining the Gophers in 2009. She led the nation with a 1.35 GAA last season, posting 10 shutouts in 40 games started for the national champions. Raty is a main component in the Gophers' 30-game win streak that has spanned the past two seasons.
The two goalies grew up about 13 miles from each other in their native Finland. Backstrom was born on February 13, 1978, in Helsinki; eleven years later, Raty was born in Espoo. The two may be separated by 11 years, but they share a love of goaltending.
"I didn't know exactly the age, but every time I used to play I went into net," Backstrom said. "I don't know why, but I wanted to be in the net. My father was a goalie, my grandfather was a goalie, so maybe I have to blame them. I don't think they told me or wanted to be a goalie. It's something that just happened."
Raty, like Backstrom never wanted to play any other position. She played forward or defense only if her coaches made her. By the time she was 5, Raty had a goalie coach.
"I knew it when I was 3 or 4," she said. "I remember telling my mom I wanted to skate and I want you to give me a blocker and glove. I always had a blocker and glove, even if I skated out. I always wanted to be a goalie in my heart."
Like most goalies, both enjoy the pressure of their position.
"For goalies, you grow up with it," Backstrom said. "In a certain way, you have to like it – it's probably the thing that is going to push you. You pretty much decide the outcome of every game, but I think every goalie likes it. I don't know why, but you enjoy that everything you do out there it is something that is going to have a difference."
Raty has enjoyed the pressure on the international stage since a very young age. At 15, she was the starting goaltender for the Finnish women's Olympic team. She has played in more than 65 international games and led the Finnish women's team to a bronze medal in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
"I like to play under pressure, and I know if I let in a couple goals we probably won't win," Raty said. "I enjoy having a lot of pressure."
Though both goalies are successful, their styles are slightly different. Backstrom employs the Finnish style, which emphasizes strong techniques and being in the correct position.
"It is not stand up, it is not butterfly," he said. "It is try to catch the puck. Be in the right place so you don't have to make too many desperate saves. It's trying to be in the right place at the right time."
Raty has a strong technical base but is a little more daring.
"I have heard many people say I play like Tim Thomas when I play," she said of the longtime Boston Bruins goalie. "I am pretty aggressive. I come out for it. I do all different kind of diving saves."
Growing up, Raty had more access to the NHL and was able to pick up on many different styles of goaltending.
Dominik Hasek whose NHL career spanned of 16 seasons, is one of Raty's favorite goalies. Hasek won six Vezina Trophies from 1993-2001. Like Thomas, Hasek was known for an unorthodox style and unconventional saves.
The 34-year-old Backstrom didn't have the same access to NHL games as a child and mostly was influenced by Finnish goalies. While Raty has followed many goalies, she does say with a smile that "Finnish goalies are the best."
Backstrom and Raty have met several times, first at the 2006 Olympics, and the respect is mutual. While residing in Minnesota, the two have found it easy to follow each other's careers.
"I am a huge fan of his and his style of play, and I think I can learn a lot from him by just watching him play," Raty said.
Backstrom can't help but be impressed by Raty's accomplishments.
"You read the papers and follow how well she has been doing the last few years here," Backstrom said. "I don't want to go too far about women's hockey, but she is probably the best goalie in the world right now."
Hearing those words come for Backstrom was flattering for Raty.
"He has been one of the best Finnish goalies for many years, and he is a top goalie in the NHL," she said. "He knows how to play this position, and it is just a huge honor and big words."
Minnesota has become a second home for both Backstrom and Raty, but both to plan to return to Finland after their careers end. For now, though, Minnesotans will be able to continue to watch two of Finland's finest.