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Mentor With a Mission

Feb 09, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

Goaltending development coach Roope Koistinen is dedicated to helping players achieve their dreams.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Roope Koistinen started playing goalie when he was 4 years old. By the time of his teens, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Although hockey had been his passion, he put an end to any thoughts that his future might lie in donning goalie gear between the pipes. Which is not to say that he was abandoning the position.

"For me, the goaltender is the one position where it's possible to play a big part in how the game ends," he said. "You can be the hero or you can be something else and that's something which has always been fascinating. It's about stopping the puck. For me, that's the coolest thing."

A native of Kiiminki, Finland, Koistinen had long recognized the importance of the goalie position, and he decided earlier than most that he could make more of a difference as a teacher than as a student.

"I had great goalie coaches when I was younger but when I turned 15, we didn't have a goalie coach. I thought, 'Okay, I'm all by myself now. I'm not getting help from anybody.' I was feeling a little bit lost. So after that season, I told my parents, I want to quit playing. I want to start coaching so I can help the younger guys get better."

Ultimately, Koistinen decided to keep playing a couple of years more, but in terms of coaching, the die had already been cast.

"I started to coach at the same time that I was playing," he said. "Every kid who has a dream should have the opportunity to accomplish it, so that's something I've been trying to do ever since. I'm trying to help goalies reach their dreams."

Koistinen, 31, was hired by the Detroit Red Wings last July to be the goaltending development coach of the Griffins, after serving in various roles with Karpat's youth programs in Oulu, Finland, since the 2014-15 campaign. The AHL job was a dream-come-true for Koistinen, whose journey began several years before joining the Karpat organization.

He started studies at the Verumaki Sport Institute of Finland while he was still living at home. He applied for a bachelor's degree while coaching full time but eventually dropped out of the program to focus on coaching exclusively.

The school taught him coaching basics, but even more beneficial were the networking opportunities that came from pursuing an education with individuals of a similar mind. His time at Verumaki was time well-spent because it would lead to his involvement with Finland's national hockey program.

At Karpat, Koistinen learned under the tutelage of Ari Hilli, one of the most respected coaches in Finnish hockey who played a significant role in developing a number of NHL goalies, including Pekka Rinne, Niklas Backstrom, and Tim Thomas.

More recently – and perhaps more significantly from the Red Wings' perspective – Karpat helped mold the talents of several high-caliber NHL prospects who were early round draft picks: Justus Annunen (Colorado, 3rd round), Joel Blomqvist (Pittsburgh, 2nd round), Niklas Kokko (Seattle, 2nd round), and Leevi Merilainen (Ottawa, 3rd round).

From Hilli, Koistinen has learned things that will help guide his work with Red Wings' first-rounder Sebastian Cossa as well as coming goaltending prospects who hope to develop into future NHL netminders for Detroit.

"He's a great experienced coach who gives the last word on whatever happens with the goalies in Karpat," Koistinen said. "He's absolutely been important in my career so far. I'm still talking with him. I've already called him several times this season."

Working with young goalies – whether they're U16, U18, U20 or novice pros – Koistinen said a coach has to learn to roll with the punches. "That's the biggest thing I've gotten from him. Whether it's good or bad, he always knows how to respond and deal with things. Like a goalie, you learn to stay calm, whatever is happening."

Koistinen said Hilli's door "has always been open," which has meant that he's been able him to learn from a master. "If I have something to ask, he's ready to talk," he said. "He's helped me a lot, giving me different tips."

From 2018 to 2023, Karpat saw five goalies drafted from its organization, the most for any team during the time period.

"What I learned from those prospects is that everybody's different," he said. "There is no one way to be a great athlete or a great goalie. Obviously there are some similarities, but everyone has a different personality and they get to show their personality through their game."

According to Koistinen, working with a young goaltender like Cossa, a 21-year-old prospect in his first full AHL season, is different than coaching a veteran like Griffins goalie Michael Hutchinson, a 33-year-old netminder who has appeared in 150-plus NHL games with six different teams.

"With younger players, it's more about teaching the demands of being a good athlete," he said. "They have to learn what it takes to be good on the ice, off the ice, the time spent outside of the rink, what they are eating, how they are sleeping.

"Older guys obviously are more mature. They already know how to do stuff, so I feel like it's more about the mental focus with them. It's about controlling their emotions, staying focused on doing their job and stopping the puck.

"I feel like the less a goalie thinks, the better. If your thoughts start to roll around inside your head, you start to think too much and your actions get slow. Stay calm. Just enjoy that you're stopping the puck."

While Koistinen says he is a stickler for details, he is fairly loose when it comes to giving goalies space to express their individual traits.

"The biggest thing is that we work hard every day," he said. "We come ready for practice. We are getting ourselves ready to play whenever the game is. My job is to help them keep their level of play at the highest level at all times."

Karpat's success with developing goalies convinced Koistinen that he could follow his dream of coaching in North America.

He decided to start contacting NHL organizations in the hopes of landing a job. Last spring, he reached out to Phil Osaer, who is the head of goaltending scouting and development in the Red Wings organization, expressing his interest in a job.

"At the beginning of June, I got a call that they would like to interview me because they had a spot open in Grand Rapids, and that was basically how my story here started," Koistinen said.

To prepare for his move to North America, Koistinen reached out to fellow Finn goaltending guru Marko Torenius, who became the goaltending coach for the AHL's Abbotsford Canucks last season from SKA Saint Petersburg, and Juha Lehtola, who was similarly hired last season by the AHL's Hershey Bears after several seasons at HPK Hameenlinna in Finland.

"I started talking with those guys during the last season, trying to gather information about their experience so that if I could get myself over here someday, I would be as prepared as possible," he said.

Koistinen said he has not fundamentally changed his approach since coming to North America. "I feel like the game is the same. The net is in the same spot on the rink, the puck is the same," he said.

"What I've had to learn is the culture and the language because everything else is different from Europe, and that's something I have needed to learn fast – how to live life here. I feel like I've been adjusting pretty well. I feel pretty comfortable with everything."

His transition at the rink has been aided by the sense of shared responsibility that permeates the Red Wings organization from top to bottom. He talks regularly with not only Osaer but also Alex Westlund, who is the goaltending coach for the Red Wings in Detroit.

"We are overseeing every goalie in the organization together, and sharing what we see and sharing our thoughts," Koistinen said. "As a goalie department, I feel like we are in a good spot because we are constantly communicating with each other."

Communication is key with the goaltenders as well.

"I feel like it's a two-way conversation every time," he said. "We talk about different situations and how to play them. We share our thoughts on what is the best for them to play different situations. But at the end of the day, the goalie is the one who's in the net. He's the one making the decisions."

Koistinen reviews video clips with the goalies to help them spot their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve. "We take a deep look at different things, like how to play the penalty kill or how to improve their post play. We try to pick apart different areas of the game."

If Koistinen has learned anything, it's that incremental changes work best.

"Guys today have taken thousands of reps, so it's extremely hard to change something during the season, obviously. You might do it during the summer or over a long stretch, but it takes a lot of patience, a lot of reps, and a lot of time," he explained. "So when we work on something, it's usually small things."

In the end, coaching in North America is no different than in Finland, at least in one respect. "I feel like at the end of the day, it's still the same things: Keep it simple and stop the puck."

This season has already presented Koistinen and his goaltenders with a number of challenges, but he feels like they are learning together.

"Every season has ups and downs, and now I feel like we are trending in the right direction," he said. "We are learning together how to be as good as possible with this team. We look at clips after every game. We talk about what's happening – what we did, what we saw, what things we could do better."

Koistinen acknowledges that he is living his dream while doing everything in his power to guide his goalies to championship-caliber play in the net. His ultimate ambition is to bring out their very best.

"One of my biggest dreams is that I can help somebody to become the best goalie in the world," he said. "That's one of the main reasons I'm here. I'm really grateful that I've gotten this opportunity and I'm trying to seize it every day."