Finland’s Harri Sateri and Slovakia’s Patrik Rybar have proven to be a perfect pair between the posts for the Griffins this season.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Harri Sateri and Patrik Rybar are uniquely qualified goaltending options for Ben Simon and the Griffins’ coaching staff. Together, they represent the first all-European netminding pair in the 23-year history of the Griffins organization.
At the still-young age of 29, the Finnish-born Sateri came to Grand Rapids as a 10-year veteran with experience in both Europe and North America at both the AHL and NHL levels. Rybar, 25, joined the Griffins with a goaltending pedigree and considerable potential, but this marks his first season far from his native Slovakia.
Griffins head coach Ben Simon admits that he wasn’t initially sure what it would mean for his team’s prospects this season, Grand Rapids’ first since 2002-03 without at least one returning goaltender on its roster.
“Both were relative unknowns at the start of the year,” he said. “Harri obviously had more experience at this level and had played some NHL games, while Patrik had only played on the bigger ice in Europe, which usually requires more time to become acclimated to the smaller surface here.”
Simon learned they had one thing in common.
“Both of them stop the puck,” he said. “The only difference is the manner in which they do it. They have different styles and our goalie coach, Brian Mahoney-Wilson, has done a phenomenal job in getting to know them, learning their quirks and their personalities, so he can help them improve on a daily basis.”
Indeed, Mahoney-Wilson has worked closely with the pair to bring out the best of both, building on their strengths while helping them to tackle their weaknesses with methods designed to improve their overall effectiveness in the net.
There is plenty to like about both Sateri and Rybar.
“Harri’s strengths are his hands, his reflexes and his quick feet,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “Like most Finns, he has really good puck handling skills. He also has good hockey sense and good overall awareness in the crease. He’s able to have good reads of the play.
“Patrik, meanwhile, uses his height to his advantage. He’s 6-3, so he’s more of a blocking type goalie. He positions himself well on screens, and he’s very good in low play when there’s net-front rebounds or low-jam situations. He’s very consistent.”
Each came to his line of work quite differently.
Sateri was born in southern Finland, a country well-known for its ability to produce goaltending talent. Miikka Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne, Kari Lehtonen, Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi are a few of the names that hockey fans may recognize from Sateri’s homeland.
“As a boy, I watched hockey on TV and I always liked the goalies,” said Sateri, whose favorite was Lehtonen. “I think I started playing the position when I was five. It was clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to be a goalie.”
He continued to develop his skills and began playing as a teen for Tappara Tampere in the Finnish Elite League. He was chosen by the San Jose Sharks in the fourth round (106th overall pick) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. “It’s every hockey player’s dream to get drafted, so it was a big day for me,” Sateri said.
Following two full seasons in Finland he came to North America, finishing the 2010-11 campaign with the Sharks’ AHL affiliate in Worcester. He would play the next three full seasons in the AHL with the team but never saw any action in the NHL despite posting solid stats.
“I felt like my game was stuck,” Sateri said, looking back at his first stint in the AHL. “It seemed like I wasn’t going anywhere and I felt like I wasn’t getting better. I thought I needed a change, so I decided to go back to Europe for a few years.”
From 2014 to 2017, Sateri played for Podolsk Vityaz in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The hockey club operates about 40 kilometers (25 miles) outside of Moscow.
“It was a different world, but I actually liked it there,” he said. “The organization was good, the team was decent and they took care of me. Plus, it was close to home (about an hour’s flight back to Finland), so there were a lot of good things about it.”
His third year with Podolsk Vityaz was the organization’s first winning season in nine years. “The team made the playoffs for the first time, so we made a little history,” he said. Even so, Sateri decided to leave while the going was good.
“I always had it in my mind that I wanted to come back and play in the NHL,” he said. “When the opportunity came last year, I came over.” He signed with the Florida Panthers, who assigned him to the Springfield Thunderbirds in the AHL. “I eventually played a few games in the NHL, and I was really happy about it.”
Most significantly, Sateri’s return to North America marked his maturation as a goaltender. “I think the biggest thing is that I have grown as a person,” he said. “I think I can handle things better now than when I was younger. I don’t get upset when I give up a bad goal and things like that.”
The Panthers wasted little time in helping Sateri become reacclimated to North America. “The first time I was called up was pretty early in the season. I was there a week or two and then they sent me back down,” he said. “I had kind of a rough start that year, but when I went back to the minors, I was able to pick up my game and get my confidence back.”
When Panthers starting goaltender Roberto Luongo and backup James Reimer were injured, he got a second chance. He finally made his NHL debut in a 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 2, 2018, allowing one goal on 14 shots in a no-decision. Nearly a decade after being drafted, he earned the first NHL win of his career on Jan. 30, stopping 32 of 33 shots in a 4-1 road victory over the New York Islanders.
His patience had paid off.
“It was a bit of a relief,” Sateri said. “I didn’t feel any pressure because I was now there. I felt like I had finally made it. I was playing in the best league and it was just a great feeling. It’s where I wanted to be.”
Panthers coach Bob Boughner credited Sateri with saving the franchise’s season. He was eventually sent back to the minors when both Luongo and Reimer became healthy. Sateri has a four-game winning streak in the NHL that he still carries to this day.
“Obviously, it wasn’t just me – it was the whole team, but it’s good to hear that he said it,” he said. “They gave me a good opportunity and I think I took advantage of it. Now I’m here, with a great team in a great city, and I hope that I get another one.”
Rybar, meanwhile, was seemingly born to be a goalie, although he didn’t start playing the position until he was a bit older.
His father, Pavol Rybar, represented Slovakia at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano and the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City (his 2002 teammates included former Griffins Robert Petrovicky and the late Pavol Demitra). His father is currently a goaltending coach in the Slovak Extraliga for HC Slovan Bratislava, for whom Petrovicky is an assistant coach.
“I was a goalie from a young age,” Rybar said. “I saw my father play and I tried to model my game like him. I wanted to be just like him and I hope I am like him.”
Rybar admits that it wasn’t easy following in his father’s footsteps. His father played a little in Russia as well as in the top Czech league during an extended career that saw him star in the Slovak league for several seasons.
“He tried to help me so much that sometimes it was hard for me,” he said. “But I think he has really helped my career and I appreciate that he has been there to help coach me. We still talk. Our goalie coach here sends him video and we talk about it.”
The younger Rybar developed his own style – he’s four inches taller than his father – first in the Slovak league before playing two seasons for Hradec Kralove in the Czech league, where he continued to excel. Last season, Rybar posted a 23-13-0 record with a sparkling 1.73 goals against average and a .931 save percentage.
“The game there was only a little faster [than the Slovak league], but the guys were smarter – they knew when to shoot and when to pass,” he said. “My two years in the Czech league helped me so much. I think I’m better because of my time there.”
Like his father, Rybar has represented his country at the Olympics. He was the third goalie at the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea. “It felt more like I was there on holiday because I was the third goalie, but it was nice to see the opening ceremonies, experience the Olympics and see what it was all about.”
Rybar was thrilled to sign a one-year contract with the Red Wings organization this past summer, although he admits that the adjustment to North America has been more challenging than he anticipated.
“Everything is so different,” he said. “The lifestyle is different, the food is different, the travel is different, but I try not to think too much about it. I try to think about the Griffins and hockey and nothing else. I’m focused on my job here and what I need to do better.”
Although he talks with them by phone, Rybar admits that he misses his parents and his girlfriend the most. “I am not used to being alone for so long,” he said. “When I played in the Czech league, I could see my parents and my girlfriend every couple of weeks. Now everyone is so far away.”
Despite the English classes he took in high school, language continues to be a challenge for Rybar. “I don’t have a problem understanding, but speaking is harder,” he said. Mahoney-Wilson, who gave Rybar a six-month subscription to Rosetta Stone, said Rybar is eager to learn.
“Patrik’s English is getting better and I love that he’s trying to learn,” he said. “If I went to Slovakia, I would have no clue as to what was going on.”
Mahoney-Wilson overcomes the language barrier by visually demonstrating his tips and ideas for Rybar (English is not an issue for Sateri). For his part, Rybar welcomes any and all instruction.
“I appreciate that I have a good coach here like Brian. He has helped me so much,” Rybar said. “I feel like I am a better goalie than I was last season because I feel faster and stronger. I know how to play better in different situations.”
All goalies, whether they’re rookies or 10-year veterans, have room for improvement.
“I think both of them can improve their skating, which will help their post play, whether it’s trying to find a lane through a screen or move off a screen to find the puck or even holding their feet on a passing play,” Mahoney-Wilson said.
“It’s what I call acclimated skating. When goalies start sliding, they can lose their crease or lose their net. Any goalie in any league will begin to struggle if they don’t keep up with their skating. We try to nip it in the bud by building a consistent theme.”
Instruction is typically straight-forward. “For both of them, it’s a matter of being clear and to the point,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “They know I’m very open and if they want to try something new, they can always come to me to take the pressure off them. If they make mistakes, I’ll take the blame.”
He has been impressed at how well the two goalies have played this season.
“If you look at their stats for bouncing back with a quality start after a poor game, they’ve been outstanding,” he said.
"Both of them have the asset of having a cool and calm demeanor, plus they’re both very humble.
“Both come to the rink with a smile on their face. When either of them has a bad game, we address it in video and they’re willing to learn from the mistakes they made. I think the team has benefitted from their ability to bounce back from bad games.”
Sateri and Rybar have split playing time for the first half of the season.
“I think healthy competition is a great thing,” Simon said. “We’re not set in stone with one guy playing over the other. Both of them have been playing solid, and playing well with confidence is great not only for themselves in terms of pushing each other but also for the team in general.”
Friendly competition makes both goalies better.
“As a goalie, you always want to be the one playing in the crease, but they’re very supportive of each other and I’ve never seen a bad interaction between them,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “To have that kind of mellow tandem is terrific. Whoever is in the net, they just want to win, and if the backup is supportive of the team, then that’s all you can ask for.”
Neither Sateri or Rybar has a complaint about competing for playing time. “It’s always great to have a competition,” Sateri said. “It helps both of us because it pushes us to become better. I’m trying to help Patrik as much as I can. Whatever he needs, I’m there.”
“I want to push Harri and he wants to push me, so together we will be better,” Rybar said. “We are doing everything we can to win games and help the team, so it’s all good.”
Both agree that winning a Calder Cup is the goal.
“I know the NHL is a long way, so I appreciate that I can have the chance to be here,” Rybar said. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure that the people who made the decision to bring me here can be satisfied with my play.”
Sateri’s teams have finished out of the playoffs more often than not, so he would like nothing better than a long postseason run. “Obviously I want to help the team here as much as I can, but at the same time, I want to be ready if I get another opportunity in the NHL. Having said that, this is the best team I’ve played with. I would love to compete for the Calder Cup.”
And that’s just fine with the Griffins’ coaching staff.
“Both guys have done a really good job of never getting too disappointed or discouraged,” Simon said. “They’ve hunkered down and put in the time and the work, both on and off the ice, to improve on a daily basis.
“When both guys are contributing, it’s fantastic. At the end of the day, both of them have done a good job of stopping the puck.”