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How a DVD Sold the NHL on Antti Niemi

May 21, 2010 – 11:08 AM
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Christopher Botta

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CHICAGO -- As the legend of Antti Niemi grows, so do the tall tales of his recruitment into the National Hockey League. Contrary to the commonly-told story of teams heavily scouting the goaltender three years ago in the Finnish League, that's not how the word was spread about Niemi.

Truth be told, Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, proactively promoted the talents of his client using a little creativity.

"Bill sent around DVDs of my games," Niemi told FanHouse on an off-day in the Western Conference Final, where his Blackhawks lead San Jose, 2-0.

Unlike Fabian Brunnstrom, Niemi was not a hot property during the 2007-08 season. To hear the humble starting goaltender of the Chicago Blackhawks speak of his unlikely rise, the NHL didn't initially come after him. Niemi was pitched to potential suitors.

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While Niemi was in his third season in the Finnish League. Zito started to distribute videos of his client. His hope was that an NHL general manager, scout or goalie consultant might pop it in his DVD player while on a plane, train or taxi during a scouting mission. The plan worked.

"The first call from an NHL team came in January 2008," said Niemi, remembering the big moment like it was yesterday. "I was very surprised. That was my first really good season in Finland, but it was only half-over. It still made me feel good."

"All goalies are weird, but this guy is special. Nothing fazes him. He is cool in every situation. ... He has this quiet confidence, and he makes us a better team because of it."
-- Adam Burish
By the end of the season, Niemi attracted interest from five NHL teams -- some still based entirely on his performances as seen on Zito's videos. Neither the goaltender or his representative would reveal the other four teams, but Zito was happy to explain how the Blackhawks won the Niemi sweepstakes.

"For starters, if you've ever spent time with Dale Tallon, you know how convincing he can be," Zito said of Chicago's former general manager, earlier this week named GM of the Florida Panthers. "There's something about Dale's passion and sincerity that makes players feel like they'd love to play on one of his teams.

"The other deciding factor, as it always is with a free agent coming over from Europe, was opportunity. The Blackhawks had Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin, and Khabibulin was almost definitely going to leave as a free agent. In the minors they only had Corey Crawford, a good prospect who hadn't played much at the time. Of all the teams, Antti and I thought Chicago gave him the best chance to develop properly. We also thought that if he did his part, Chicago might give him the quickest path to the NHL."

Somewhat improbably, two years later Niemi is the starting goaltender on a team that's two wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals. In the regular season, he was 26-7-4 with a 2.25 GAA. So far, he's 10-4 with a 2.40 GAA in the playoffs.

"I don't think it could have worked out better," said Niemi. "Everything Bill and I could have hoped for has come true. I'm in the best city for me, with the best coaching staff and teammates. I worked for a lot of this, but I also feel like I am very lucky."

On a team of big stars and big personalities, Niemi is neither. For the Blackhawks, he is merely the rock.

"The guy is amazing in so many ways," said Blackhawks forward Adam Burish. "You look around this room and you have the big names like (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane and (Marian) Hossa. Then you have a whole bunch of characters, guys who love to yap. Antti is completely unflappable. All goalies are weird, but this guy is special. Nothing fazes him. He is cool in every situation. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to find a way to get to the guy. He has this quiet confidence, and he makes us a better team because of it."

In a time long, long ago -- October 2009 -- the Blackhawks opened this season in Helsinki, Finland. For a game against the Florida Panthers, Niemi was the obvious starter for Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. Back on home ice, in front of his family, friends -- and some Finnish coaches and executives who told him he would be better served by another season or two in their league -- Niemi shut out the Panthers.

With hindsight, it's easy to see now how that first regular season win set the course for the next eight months, possibly nine.

"At the time," Niemi said, clearly still moved thinking about the moment, "the shutout in Helsinki was the best thing that ever happened to me in hockey. It gave me a lot of confidence. Now I feel like I can have some bigger moments."

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