The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Sports Columns

November 27, 2012

Frederick: A little personality can go a long way

— In a postgame conversation with Denver coach George Gwozdecky a few weeks ago at the Verizon Wireless Center, the subject of goaltenders came up, and Gwozdecky said he was going to start Sinuhe Wallinheimo in the next game of the series against Minnesota State.

The coach quickly corrected himself and was almost perplexed by his mistake. He had the right nationality but the wrong player.

In fact, Finnish-born Juho Olkinuora would be the starter, not the player whom Gwozdecky coached nearly 20 years ago.

But Wallinheimo — who is now a member of Finland’s parliament, Gwozdecky said — was hardly forgettable. When it came to goaltending, he went beyond the usual quirks associated with people who play the position.

Wallinheimo’s Wikipedia entry describes him “becoming a league-wide fan favorite” at Denver “for his unusual fan interactions during stoppages of play.”

I recall a game at Mariucci Arena in the mid-1990s when Wallinheimo made an impressive glove save and, after the whistle, turned around and showed the puck to the Minnesota student section, which had had been taunting him relentlessly throughout the game.

I was reminded of Wallinheimo again over the weekend as I watched Minnesota State rookie Stephon Williams win a pair of games at Wisconsin.

It’s still very early in Williams’ college career, of course, and those were just his first two wins as a Maverick. But the Fairbanks, Alaska, native played with personality that was, at best, free-spirited and, at worst, perhaps a bit cocky.

Williams came to Minnesota State with some viral fame after making a bare-handed save last season while playing for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the United States Hockey League.

In his limited action early this season, you could see him lift his mask and stroll back and forth along the goal line full of caffinated energy during stoppages.

Some mocking by the students at St. Cloud State last month didn’t seem to bother him too much.

But against the Badgers, he ramped it up, his confidence growing with every sliding, diving, sprawled-out save he made in the series sweep.

Since the Mavericks were on the road, Williams again didn’t get much love.

The Wisconsin student section may have been a fraction full, but amid their usual chants, the fans booed the goalie when he flung the puck down the rink following a brilliant glove save in the third period Saturday.

And they sure didn’t appreciate him staying on the ice for a minute or so after getting interferred with behind the net, only to dance his way back to the net as the Badgers penalty was being announced. (I can only imagine what how the jeering would have sounded had the arena been packed.)

Mavericks coach Mike Hastings didn’t seem too crazy about Williams’ antics, but he’ll sure take the peformance between the pipes (65 saves on 69 shots, a .942 save percentage).

“Let’s just put it this way: He’s young,” Hastings said.

People remember Wallinheimo because of his personality but also because he was pretty good. And that’s why he played.

Wallinheimo won 40 games in three seasons at Denver and was a second-team All-WCHA in 1995.

I think Minnesota State would take that.

Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @puckato.

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