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Kiprusoff set to join legendary Flames with jersey retirement

Miikka Kiprusoff Miikka Kiprusoff - Getty Images

An intense stretching regimen. A legendarily dry sense of humour. A devotion to his craft that propelled him from third-string goalie to franchise icon.

Those are the memories stirred when former Flames are asked about Miikka Kiprusoff, whose No. 34 will rise to the Saddledome rafters on Saturday ahead of Calgary hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kiprusoff came to the Flames from the San Jose Sharks in a trade on Nov. 16, 2003, for a 2005 second-round pick that turned into defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who is still with the Sharks. Kiprusoff would play nine of his 12 NHL seasons in Calgary, retiring in 2013.

Former Flames general manager and head coach Darryl Sutter had worked with the Sharks as their head coach from 1997 to 2002 and believed a goalie buried on San Jose’s depth chart could thrive as a starter.

No one could have predicted that the Finn would eventually eclipse Mike Vernon and become the franchise leader in wins (305), shutouts (41), save percentage (0.913), and goals-against average (2.46). He won the Vezina Trophy in 2006 and was nominated two other times. Kiprusoff was also a key part in the team’s run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, just seven months after arriving in Calgary.

“He beat Chicago, Toronto, and Montreal in that first week with a shutout, one-goal game, and two-goal game,” former Flames goalie coach David Marcoux said of his first impression. “I just saw this tremendous Finnish goalie that would catch everything, even across his body…he showed me another side of goaltending where rebound control and catching pucks was a huge skill that helped us control the pace of play.”

Kiprusoff’s value to the team during the memorable 2004 run cannot be overstated.

In the 26 games, he posted five shutouts and a .928 save percentage. He also pushed the team to make a key tactical adjustment during their second-round series versus the Detroit Red Wings.

“We kept on fronting pucks when [Nicklas] Lidstrom would wrist them in,” Marcoux explained. “That meant we had two men in front of the goalie.”

Because of that traffic, Kiprusoff couldn’t track the puck and allowed five goals in Game 2. The coaches then held a video meeting with the players to look at adjusting their defensive zone coverage. 

Former Flames defenceman Rhett Warrener suggested the notoriously quiet Kiprusoff voice his opinion during the meeting.

“‘We have the best damn goalie in the world right now. Why don’t we ask him what he wants?’” Marcoux recalled Warrener saying.

“Kipper says, ‘I’d like to see pucks. I would like you guys to box out.’…we ended up leaving [Red Wings forward] Tomas Holmstrom alone in front for Kiprusoff.” 

Marcoux still views that meeting as a pivotal moment in the playoff run. Days later, Kiprusoff would post two back-to-back 1-0 shutouts to clinch the series. 

“He was willing to think outside the box and that definitely helped him to have Vezina-type performances,” Marcoux said.

TSN analyst and former Kiprusoff backup Jamie McLennan summarised the secret to his success with one word.

“Stretching,” said McLennan, who played parts of two seasons with Kiprusoff and was his goalie coach for two seasons. 

“We’d watch a movie and he’d be in the splits for two hours, stretching. Morning skate, he’d come off the ice and he’d be in the gym stretching. I’d stay out extra because I was his backup…I’d walk through the gym…he’d be stretching. He knew exactly what his body needed that night.”

Kiprusoff’s dry sense of humour is still the stuff of legend around Stampede park. 

Long-time Flames equipment manager Mark DePasquale bought his kids a hamster they named Lightning that only had one eye. Kiprusoff would relentlessly tease DePasquale for “being too cheap to buy his kids a hamster that had two eyes.”

“He’d come to the bench during a TV timeout, a tense time during the game, and he’d be looking over at [DePasquale] and he’d purposely have one eye closed and staring at him,” McLennan said, laughing at the memory.

“He always used to call me cheap,” DePasquale said. “He said I got the hamster at a discount store because it had only one eye.”

Another time, the Flames were in Carolina and former head coach Brent Sutter was irate that there were no pucks on the ice ahead of practice. What happened? 

“The coach is screaming at me like I’ve never worked a practice in my life,” DePasquale said. “Kipper had waffled all of the pucks into the stands. Every puck. There had to be a hundred. He waffled every one of them into the seats before we even started.”

Kiprusoff could be relentless. Once during a game, he waited until the very end of a TV timeout to quietly tell DePasquale that his pads needed fixed. The game was briefly paused and there was even talk of pulling Kiprusoff temporarily while DePasquale worked on his equipment. 

“[Kiprusoff] is laughing at me,” DePasquale said. “He starts going, ‘There’s 20,000 people watching. You’d better hurry up.’…I go, ‘Are you freaking kidding me right now? I’m trying to help you and you’re making me nervous.’ He just kept belly laughing.”

Not surprisingly, DePasquale was one of the first people to greet Kiprusoff when he arrived in Calgary this week. 

“We all loved him,” he said.

Kiprusoff, now 47, is known as a man of very few words, rarely talking much with media or publicly. That’s what makes Saturday night even more intriguing. It’ll be a chance for the Flames faithful to salute a franchise great and perhaps, if they’re lucky, even hear a few words from the man himself. Kiprusoff will join Lanny McDonald (No. 9), Jarome Iginla (No. 12), and Vernon (No. 30) as the only Flames to have their jerseys retired.

“I’m hoping four minutes,” McLennan said when asked for a prediction on how long Kiprusoff’s speech will be. “But I think the over-under is two minutes.”