For baseball aficionados, American League pitching match-ups are said to be compelling, although the principals are never likely to face each other. With the National Football League in full swing, quarterback match-ups are often analyzed. But again the principals do not face each other on the field.
In the Western Hockey League, the same can be said for goaltending match-ups, although a recent duel at Prospera Place in Kelowna involved a slight wrinkle. And no, hockey fans assuming fisticuffs may have been the order of the day might be sadly disappointed.
When Torrie Jung of the Kelowna Rockets and Riku Helenius of the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds started in goal for their respective clubs, the Tampa Bay Lightning prospects knew full well the nature of their competition is likely to change in the coming years.
Jung takes notice
"Obviously you notice him down there, maybe a little more," explained Jung, the Bolts seventh round selection at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. "We became pretty good friends when we roomed together at Traverse City this summer. We had a great time.
"I wish him all the best, but at the same time we’re competing hard because one day it might come down to one of us taking the other guy’s job."
Jung came off the bench in Kelowna last season and started 20 straight games in relief of veteran Kris Westblom, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in early February. That stretch of inspired play, where Jung gave the listless Rockets a genuine opportunity to garner a playoff berth, earned the 18-year-old native of Nanaimo, B.C. a call to the podium from the Lightning.
"Come draft time, I felt like I was probably kind of a bubble guy," Jung smiled. "But luckily for me, early in the morning I got the call and it was sure the most exciting thing that has happened in my career so far.
"Sure, being drafted, maybe there’s a bit of added pressure, but at the same time it certainly motivates you to be that much better every practice and every game."
"We knew about Torrie before he got to Kelowna, from his days with the Cowichan Valley Capitals (BCHL)," explained Tampa Bay’s Chief Scout, Jake Goertzen. "We saw him play and we liked what we saw. We weren’t really in the market for a goalie, but we watched to see if he would be available late."
Following the draft, Jung embarked on his offseason regimen in preparation for the rookie tournament in Traverse City and the 2007-08 WHL season. He also kept busy lending a helping hand in the community.
"In the summer I trained five days a week and took the weekends off," Jung explained. "And I was working at a special needs sports camp for young guys with disabilities. I think it was as much fun for me as it was for them.
"Traverse City was the exhibition tournament and I felt I played very well. I was told I’d really impressed the coaching staff. It was a very good learning experience. But I didn’t go to the main camp. Actually, there were only 28 guys invited."
The real key for Jung’s development lies in what activity level he’ll assume because Westblom remains in the Rockets’ lineup this season as a 20-year-old. Westblom, now a free agent after being drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2005, is unlikely to be moved by the Rockets early in the current campaign. If it does happen, the door would swing wide open for Jung to assume the starting job.
"This year we have a lot of returning guys, but we’re still a young team," Jung said. "This should be a good year for us all. Personally, I just want to get into as many games as I can and do the things that will help us win a championship here some day."
The competition for starts facing Jung in Kelowna sits just fine with the Bolts.
"We don’t mind that he has to battle," Goertzen confirmed, when asked about Jung playing behind Westblom. "That’s part of having to become a professional goalie. Torrie has to take advantage of his playing opportunities and we look for him to be at his best when he plays."
Helenius’ high expectations
At the other end of the sheet on this night was import Riku Helenius, a young man focused on making an impression this season. Like many first rounders, he will likely be given sufficient latitude to prove himself capable of a job in professional hockey. However, coming off shoulder surgery, the 19-year-old from Palkane, Finland is simply pleased to be back on skates.
"It was about one year ago, during the warm-up before a game back in Europe," Helenius said of the injury. "I was skating and got caught in a rut. When I fell, I landed with my arm behind my back."
The injury kept Helenius off the ice and ultimately cost him a shot at the roster for Team Finland at the 2007 World Junior Championship. It was a trying season for the well-spoken Finn, who suggests he is motivated to return to the form that convinced Tampa Bay to make him the 15th overall selection at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He’s excited about the opportunity to play in Seattle and feels the shoulder will not be a hindrance.
"It is a great chance for me to improve my game and move forward in my career," Helenius said of becoming a member of the T-Birds. "I knew that from the moment I was told I was coming to the WHL.
"I had a very bad season last year, just a couple of games because I was injured. This year is a great chance for me to get lots of games. My shoulder is great now and it doesn’t bother me on the ice at all."
Although he is healthy and ready for play, the 6’3, 205-ponder admits he will be taking it easy at the gym for a while.
"The only thing I don’t do now is a lot of bench pressing with heavy weights," Helenius laughed. "I’m glad that isn’t really necessary as a goalie, but that is just one thing I am careful with. There’s no problem doing things on the ice at all."
The Thunderbirds’ coaching staff is excited to have Helenius in the fold after becoming a legitimate contender last season with journeyman free agent Derek Yeomans tending the pipes. With Yeomans graduating from the WHL to Canadian university hockey, Seattle was faced with a potentially glaring hole on goal.
"Derek gave us top-end goaltending last season and looking at the big picture, we’re hoping to achieve that again," said head coach Rob Sumner. "Riku is a guy who is highly touted, obviously, as a first round pick.
"With our goaltending situation, Jacob De Serres is an excellent young goalie but he’s 17 this year and he’ll take on more responsibility as he goes. It was a situation where we knew Jake Goertzen, who is a former Seattle guy, and we asked him about Riku. We had asked about Riku last year, but they were going to keep him in Europe."
"But this year coming up, I think one of the things that enabled us to get him was that shoulder injury. Perhaps some teams viewed him as a bit of a risk, but we felt he was ready to go and after talking with Jake, we felt we would be a good fit."
So far, so good
According to Sumner, Helenius is adjusting well to life in Seattle and has made a favorable impression on the organization.
"He’s jumping into a whole new culture and style of play; the North American style as compared to the European game," Sumner said. "But the first thing he did was come in and wow our guys with his enthusiasm and work ethic. I think he’s going to be a quick adjuster as far as the level of play. He seems to be a guy who just loves to play and those are usually the guys that are successful."
Goaltending coach Paul Fricker agrees. When asked how he sees Helenius developing this season, Fricker was enthusiastic in his praise.
"I was excited and anxious to see a Finnish goalie because they seem to have a style of their own," Fricker said. "I think Tampa was very smart placing Riku in the WHL where he will be getting a lot of games, having to perform back-to-back. These are the things the WHL will give him. We’ve talked about things that all goalies need to experience to get better and it’s maybe something European goalies need to get a bit more of.
"Also, being aware that in North America, players shoot the puck more here. They don’t always play for the pretty goals and that will translate into him having to be much more aware all of the time. His depth off the goal line is something else we’ll work on. With Riku, I think a lot of things will take care of themselves."
Helenius, who is accustomed to operating in a busy goal crease, is enjoying the adjustment to the lifestyle in Seattle.
"It’s been a bit different here, the traffic for sure," Helenius smiled. "Back in little Finland, geez, there are more people living in Washington State than all of Finland. The traffic is pretty bad here sometimes. But there haven’t been any problems at all. My billets are great. A nice Japanese family, very, very nice people."
Onward and upward
The Lightning has good depth in goal among prospects. According to Goertzen, the organization had gone a few years without drafting goalies, so they made a commitment to draft some of the top netminders available in recent years.
"Riku is ahead of Torrie at this point," Goertzen said. "He’s played at a higher level, in European elite leagues and he’ll probably play at the 2008 WJC. We’ve also made a commitment to him. We’ve signed him."
One of the things Helenius is indeed looking to achieve is a starting position at the 2008 World Junior Championship.
"I haven’t talked about it with the coaches in Finland yet, but they do want as many game tapes as I can send to them," Helenius said. "I really feel like I have to fight in practice to make sure I get into games here. Of course it is one of my goals this season to be at the WJC with Team Finland."
Sumner expects Helenius will get a good look from the Finns. However, his focus for now is to help him develop within the T-Birds system.
"I think we just want to develop him the best we can," Sumner said. "The first thing that grabs you is his size and he’s got tremendous natural ability. He really battles, I mean, we go through a few skill sets and any goaltending coaches could really figure out some things he really does well.
"What jumps out at me is how hard he works and how desperate he is to keep the puck out of the net. Those are the things that really help to make your team confident and I think he has shown that to the guys."
The T-Birds are a veteran team with the likes of Scott Jackson (DET), Thomas Hickey (LA), Bud Holloway (LA) and Jim O’Brien (OTT) in the lineup. Helenius did his homework when Seattle came calling and knows this season could really become something special.
"What a great chance for us to have a year where we can win," Helenius said. "I’m lucky that I am playing in Seattle because I love winning. This could be the best place to be playing for a guy who wants to win. There are a bunch of great guys, it has been fun to play behind these guys."
And Sumner agrees.
"Riku is a very well-schooled guy," he said. "He knows the guys on our team and the guys around the league. He knows who the key guys are before we even talk about it. That just shows you he’s a guy who is really into what he’s doing.
"I think he’s very aware of the guys in front of him and that instills some confidence."
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.