A helping hand from Finland
Big moments in sports can do different things to different athletes.
The best ones at any level can find ways to slow things down in the moment. To focus on the task at hand as it comes and not worry about the final outcome.
Alexandria Blizzard head coach Jeff Crouse wasn't completely sure how his young goalie would respond to being put in net for two straight must-win games against one of the better teams in the NA3HL last weekend, but he could look back to 2018 to get an idea.
Ville Hyttinen was a first-year foreign exchange student from Duenos, Finland last year who was ready for a new cultural and hockey experience. He was a sophomore who had to prove himself in the hockey-crazed region of the Iron Range at Greenway High School.
The Raiders were 20-8 last winter, and Hyttinen, who played at the junior levels in Finland, quickly established himself as the No. 1 goalie on that team. He was 17-7 with a 2.46 goals-against average during the regular season. Then in the postseason, he bettered those numbers to 1.72 and a .941 save percentage, helping Greenway to the section title game.
Once there, they ran into Class A power Hermantown. Hyttinen and the Raiders almost beat the Hawks, falling 5-4 in two overtimes as Hyttinen faced 44 shots against a potent offense.
"I know Ville's mentality," Crouse said. "Playing in the section final against Hermantown last year definitely helped."
Big moments have often brought out the best in Hyttinen. He was 9-6 with a 3.02 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage in the regular season for the Blizzard this winter. In helping Alexandria to a best-of-three series win over top-seeded Granite City last weekend, Hyttinen had a .920 save percentage and a 2.92 goals-against average through games two and three.
"I was calm. We didn't have anything to lose," Hyttinen said. "Granite had the pressure. They were the No. 1 seed and we just made it in the playoffs. We were the underdogs in that series, so maybe that was the biggest thing. We didn't have any pressure."
The road to Alexandria
The fact that Hyttinen is in a Blizzard uniform has been the product of a winding road.
Hyttinen just turned 18-years-old in February and is one of the youngest regulars on an NA3HL roster that features mostly post-high-school aged athletes.
He would be a junior in high school right now, but a Minnesota State High School League rule limits a foreign exchange student's athletic eligibility to just one year.
Hyttinen takes online classes through Finland's education system, but that MSHSL rule forced him to look at the junior levels if he wanted to stay and continue playing hockey. His first stop was in Bismarck with a Bobcats team that churns out Division I college players almost every year from the NAHL. Hyttinen tried out there in August but was let go.
Hyttinen's next step was practicing with the Minnesota Wilderness in Cloquet. At that time, Crouse only knew Hyttinen through how he had performed with Greenway as a sophomore. He wasn't recruiting him, but Wilderness head coach Dave Boitz and Crouse coached together in the past. Without an opening on his own team, Boitz gave Crouse a call to ask him if the Blizzard needed a goalie.
"It was a pretty natural transition," Crouse said. "The big thing is he'd been over here for a year. He wanted to stay close to home from his billet family up in Greenway. It was a great situation and worked out well."
For Hyttinen, it was a fresh start and a chance to show he could play against guys who are often a couple years older than him.
"I was kind of disappointed (getting dropped by Bismarck) because I believe I can play in that league," he said. "I hope I can make it there next year, but I'm still young. I still have a couple years in juniors, so this was a good stepping stone for me to come here and play."
Fitting right in
Those around him say Hyttinen's adjustment to life in the U.S. both on and off the ice seemed natural to them.
Hyttinen is grateful for how his teammates welcomed him into the locker room, and they see a confident goalie who fits in seamlessly with the team.
"Ville has been really good about everything," Blizzard second-year goalie Kyle Hayden said. "It's just kind of giving him rides here and there when he needs it with him not having a car over here. That's about it. There's not been much he's needed help with."
The biggest adjustment off the ice for Hyttinen was gaining confidence with his English.
"When I came here last year, I had to use Google translate with some words," he said with a smile. "Last year helped me a lot being in school and hanging out with the guys and being with my billet family. They are like a second family to me."
Being comfortable off the ice helped Hyttinen focus on his duties on the ice.
It wasn't always a seamless transition. There have been growing pains as a young player in this league against what he says is a little bit bigger and faster competition.
Hyttinen is not the biggest goalie at only 5-feet, 7-inches and 150 pounds. He uses skill and speed to make up for that, saying he knows he has to play smarter than an average goalie.
"I've been doing this for 16 years now," Crouse said. "I've coached a goalie, Scott Darling is in the NHL right now who is 6-feet, 6-inches. I coached him down in North Iowa. I've had multiple Division I goalies that I've coached and Ville is by far the quickest goalie I've ever coached. When you are that small, that's what you have to be. He's quick enough to recover and get out of his net, and he's aggressive. Then his competitiveness. He hates getting scored on in practice, and it's the same with Kyle."
A friendly competition
Hayden and Hyttinen have developed a relationship like many goalies do while vying for playing time at one spot—close but competitive.
Crouse said the arrival of Hyttinen pushed Hayden to be better after a slow start to the season, and Hayden's improved play has done the same for Hyttinen.
Hayden is a big reason why Alexandria even made the playoffs as the fourth and final seed in the West Division. He was named the NA3HL Goaltender of the Month in January after saving 130 of the 135 shots faced and posting a .963 save percentage with a 5-0 record in five starts.
His play down the stretch earned him the game-one start against Granite City in the playoffs. Things did not go how he wanted in that one as the Lumberjacks took a 6-1 game.
"Obviously, a tough one," Hayden said. "Everyone wants to play, so I would have loved to get a second shot at it, but I knew we had confidence in Ville. He came in and played really well, and I don't want to say stole us two games, but got us two big wins that helped us advance and do something that's never been done before here."
Hayden watched as Hyttinen got the starts in games two and three and posted a combined 69 saves in back-to-back 4-3 wins for Alexandria.
"I knew Ville was going to start game two after losing 6-1," Hayden said. "He came in and played really well, so I figured he was going to get three. It just came down to being a good teammate. I came in and helped as much as I could from the bench and couldn't have been happier after we won."
For Hyttinen, he wasn't aware that the playoff-series win was the first for this franchise since its move from the NAHL to the NA3HL years ago. He was just happy to be a part of it.
"Playoffs are always a mental game," he said. "There's a lot of pressure, but you just have to do your best and hope for the best."
Looking into the future
That positive outlook is how Hyttinen will approach his future.
He knows he has to continue his improvement and develop consistency every night. Crouse likes Hyttinen's aggressiveness, but says there are times where he gets too aggressive and has to be reined in.
"The big thing is to keep doing what he's doing, and then I've been teaching him to just calm down a little bit and be just a little more under control in the net," Crouse said. "The flip side is, there's kids across the whole world who are out there working every day. He's got to keep doing that too. He can't let up."
Hyttinen might grow some, but he'll never be the biggest guy in net. That means his ticket to the next level likely hinges on his ability to be better in the finest details that make a good goalie.
Like every player in juniors, Hyttinen wants to keep climbing the ladder. There is no college hockey in Finland, which is ultimately why Hyttinen was so eager to stay in the U.S. This stop with the Blizzard is a step in what he hopes is an opportunity to get an education and continue playing the game he loves.
"I think the biggest thing why I'm still here is college hockey," Hyttinen said. "In Finland, we just have juniors and pros, and when you're 18, 20, you have to decide if you're going to be a pro hockey player or just going to quit. I hope for Division I hockey. I still have a couple years of time to do that, so that would be my ultimate goal."