After finishing last in the SM-Liiga in three of the past four seasons, Ilves got off to a fast start this season and is challenging for a spot in the re-christened Liiga's 10-team playoffs. While the Tampere-based club has cooled off a bit recently, a big part of the team's turnaround can be attributed to the play of 21-year-old goalie, Ville Kolppanen.
The seeds for Kolpannen's big season were set at the end of last season when he appeared in 30 games and Ilves played some of its best hockey. In 25 games this season, he is 10-10-4 with one shutout. His 1.86 goals-against average is third-best in the league while his .938 save percentage is second only to former Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, Jussi Rynnas (.946), who now plays for first-place Karpat.
Hockey's Future recently caught up with the Kolppanen following the team's 1-0 loss to cross-town rival Tappara in the Open Air Classic played in Ratinen Stadion.
Hockey's Future: To start with, obviously both you and the team have had a good start after a couple of tough seasons for Ilves. What's different about this year's team?
Ville Kolppanen: We started summer practices in April and we started practicing smarter. Every player needed to practice different things and got better at their own little things.
HF: In terms of your own game, why have things gone so well?
VK: Pretty much it's the same thing as that first question. I had a very good summer behind me and started practicing smartly and getting better at little things and trying to focus on things that I can control.
HF: Many people in North America know about the rivalry between HIFK and Jokerit but not a lot are familiar with Tampere and the rivalry between Ilves and Tappara. Obviously you played in the Tappara junior program before playing for Ilves. What can you tell people about the two clubs?
VK: Tampere is a hockey town and everybody pretty much watches hockey here. But about the two teams, I don't know. That's kind of a hard question. But the thing is everybody waits for the hometown games — Ilves against Tappara. The whole city stops when we are playing against each other.
HF: Speaking of Tappara, they have played well the past two seasons after being down for awhile. How did they manage to turn things around?
VK: I don't know very much about Tappara but I guess they started to do things right.
HF: Overall, this is a different year in Liiga. Some of the teams that were low in the standings the past few years – Karpat, SaiPa, and Espoo Blues for example, – are strong while others like Assat and KalPa may miss the playoffs. What can you tell us about the Liiga this season?
VK: It's too early to say who is in the playoffs and who's not but Liiga right now is pretty tight. Every game is different and you never know what's going to happen. For example, Karpat is leading Liiga now but we won twice against them.
HF: Getting back to your own game, you spent time in the WHL with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2009-10. What do you remember about that experience?
VK: That year in Lethbridge was awesome! I learned a lot about myself and how to work hard. I had a bad concussion there so i missed two months. I played only 14 games but I'll never forget that year. My billet family was awesome! They were such a good family and lovely people. I miss them. Good food. Nice arena. Nice teammates. Everything that I expected.
HF: Along those lines, the Finnish junior program is known for producing top goalies and coaches like Urpo Ylonen of TPS and Espoo's Marko Torenius are well-known throughout the hockey world. Who are some of the coaches that have helped you growing up and what did they teach you?
VK: When I started being a goalie, Rami Hietaharju and Ville Siirommaa helped me to start my career in Nokian Pyry. Arttu Lipsanen was my first goalie coach in Tappara's juniors and helped me to go to the U-16 national team. But the most important people are my dad and my coach right now in Ilves, Markus Korhonen.
HF: Staying on your junior hockey days, you are one of the few goalies that has played in North America and Finland and also in Russian junior hockey. What was it like playing in the MHL and how would you compare the three junior leagues?
VK: North American hockey is faster and more of a straight game, lot of tackles and hits, and smaller rinks, too. Russian junior hockey has a lot more skills and it's harder to read what players might do because rink's are bigger and slower. For example I played against Nikita Filatov there. The Finnish junior league is between those leagues. Sometimes fast and sometimes slow. It depends upon the team here. But those experiences helped me grow a lot.
HF: As far as this season in the Liiga, young goalies like yourself, HPK's Juuse Saros, and Ville Husso have all been having success this year. What is the reason for that success?
VK: That's a simple question. Just work hard enough. Everyday is a new day to be better goalie.
HF: Obviously Tuukka Rask is one of the more famous goalies to play for Ilves while the San Jose Sharks' Antti Niemi was signed by Chicago as a free agent after playing well in Lahti and won a Stanley Cup. Do you have any thoughts about playing in the NHL?
VK: When I started this goalie stuff I start dreaming about playing in the NHL and it's still my dream but I have to work hard everyday and hope I can make it to the NHL some beautiful day. Rask is one of my idols, like Vesa Toskala, too.
HF: On the other side of things, guys like Niko Hovinen, Riku Helenius and Hannu Toivonen and even the Calgary Flames' Karri Ramo have had a lot of success in Finland or in the KHL but have not fared as well at the NHL level. Why do you think that is?
VK: Goalies grow later. Some goalies are ready to go to the NHL younger and some goalies older. The most important thing is to stay healthy and play lot of games and believe in yourself. That's what I think.
HF: Finally, what can you tell me about your goaltending partner Juha Jarvenpaa? Obviously, he was with Assat Pori along with Antti Raanta when they won the championship last season. Has that helped the both of you this season?
VK: Jarvenpaa is the funniest guy I've ever met! He is a very good teammate and a very good goalie. We have a good competition going on everyday. Juha is one of best partners I've ever had with me. I love to practice with him. Everyday is different jokes and a different day totally. It's so much fun.