Walleye goalie Hannu Toivonen has already lived out his childhood dreams of playing in the NHL, and he still yearns to make it back to that lofty level.
Toivonen, a native of Finland, signed with the Walleye on Nov. 26. The 2002 first-round draft choice of the Boston Bruins played in 61 NHL games from 2005-08.
Since then the 29-year-old has played in the American Hockey League, the ECHL, and overseas. After taking some time off earlier this season for the birth of his first son, he decided he had enough left in the tank to pursue another run at the ultimate job in hockey.
“It is every kid’s dream to play in the NHL … and it still is,” Toivonen said. “I feel like I have the skills to play at a higher level. But you won’t get to that higher level if you don’t stay in the present. I have to play very well in the ECHL and then I have to play really well in the AHL. You can’t make the jump overnight.
“But once you get a piece of the sweet cake, you want the whole thing.”
Toivonen was just 21 when he made his NHL debut with Boston in October, 2005. Toivonen led the Bruins to an overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins — a moment he calls the highlight of his career.
“I would say it was almost surreal,” Toivonen said. “You're competing against the best in the world. I played against some players that I idolized as a kid. I played against Eddie Belfour when he was in Toronto. When Mario Lemieux is shooting on you, it's stuff that is memorable and I will cherish those the rest of my life.
“The ultimate goal is to make it back. You dream about it and set goals.”
In 2005-06 with the Bruins, Toivonen posted a 9-5-4 record with a 2.63 goals-against average. He was traded to St. Louis in 2007 and played in 23 games for the Blues with a 3.44 goals-against average.
“In the moment, you have a job to do. You play for your job each and every day,” Toivonen said. “I think I was a little younger and wasn't consistent enough. You learn from your mistakes and you hope you get another crack at it.”
Toivonen started in 11 straight games for the Walleye from Dec. 11 to Jan. 3. He’s posted a 5-8-0 record and a 3.92 GAA and .891 saves percentage. Those numbers are more of a reflection of Toledo's defensive struggles, according to Walleye coach Nick Vitucci.
“Someone on the outside looking at his numbers might not be that impressed,” Vitucci said. “But if someone is watching his body of work, you can be nothing but impressed. Somebody should take notice because he shouldn't be in our league.”
Vitucci, an ECHL hall of fame goalie, said oftentimes his players have not been good in front of Toivonen. Defensive lapses, mental errors, and breakdowns have left the vet goalie on his own too many times.
“I'm not a smart enough guy to come up with enough words to compliment him. He's just great,” Vitucci said.
The Walleye already had a 5-7-2 record when Toivonen joined the team. Toledo is now 10-17-3 and looking up from the basement of the Eastern Conference.
“We are in a learning curve,” Toivonen said. “We have a young team and we're learning from our mistakes. We dug ourselves into this hole and the only way to get out of it is to start winning some games. We haven't played the way we can play but everyone is buying in and doing their job.”
Toivonen said he learned long ago that he can only control certain things.
“The best thing you can do as a goalie is to give your team the best chance to win,” Toivonen said. “I just try to stop pucks.”
A brief break
Toivonen split last season stopping pucks for a pro team in Finland and with the ECHL's Orlando Solar Bears.
He decided to delay the start of his 11th season of pro hockey to be home for the birth of his first child, Jack.
“I wanted to be there for my wife and I did not want to miss the birth of my son. It's one of the biggest moments in your life,” he said. “After Jack was born in early October, I wanted to find a job because I felt like I was capable of playing at a high level. I still had the desire and the ability to play.”
Injuries to goalies in both of Toledo's AHL affiliates led to the promotions of rookies Mac Carruth and Jared Coreau. It also opened the door for Toivonen.
The new father said he had trouble leaving his wife Ellie and son in Maine where Ellie's family is from.
“It's not the best situation,” he said. “I'm here by myself for the time being. My wife is juggling the day-to-day life. But she is doing a great job handling it. She's pretty amazing.
“He's growing so fast. Thank God for technology. I get to see pictures of him every day.”
Toivonen said he believes he is up to speed after 11 straight starts. He also welcomed a day off on Monday when the team's trip to Evansville, Ind., for a game against the IceMen was postponed because of brutal weather.
“I was fortunate to play in a bunch of games in a row and I got into a groove,” he said. “Every goalie likes to play in every game. I'm no different. I think I've proved to myself that I'm still capable of playing at a high level.”
The 6-foot-2, 208 pound goalie has played in 209 career AHL games and has a career record of 96-82-15 with a 2.50 GAA.
While Toivonen has an eye on the higher level, he said he is determined to stay in the moment.
“I've loved it here so far,” Toivonen said. “The rink is NHL quality. It's a great atmosphere here. The fans are demanding and we take pride in putting on a good show for them.”
Toivonen said he has always wanted to be in the spotlight and that is why he became a goalie as a youngster growing up in Finland.
“Hockey is the biggest sport in my country. Everyone follows it,” he said. “I just always wanted to be in the middle of the action.”
As for the Walleye, Toivonen said he believes the team will get on a roll and make the playoffs, where he said “anything can happen.”
“I feel I have a lot left in the tank,” he said. “I will have time later when I'm sitting in a rocking chair to think about things. I hope the biggest moments are still ahead of me.”
BUSY WEEKEND: Toledo hosts Fort Wayne on Friday night and plays at Wheeling on Saturday before returning home on Sunday to take on the Nailers again.
TRADE MADE: The team acquired ECHL veteran forward Aaron Clarke in a trade on Tuesday.
Clarke was traded from the San Francisco Bulls to Toledo in exchange for forward Ryan Flanigan.
Clarke started the year with the Kalamazoo Wings before being dealt to San Francisco on Sunday. He did not appear in a game for the Bulls. The 31-year-old forward posted four goals and five assists in 25 contests with the K-Wings.
The native of Peterborough, Ont., has skated in 323 games in the ECHL and has 99 goals and 143 assists. Last year, Clarke skated in 72 games with the Wings and led the team in scoring with 56 points (19 goals and 37 assists).
Flanigan appeared in four games with the Walleye since being acquired from Wheeling on Dec. 20.
He had a goal and two assists during his time with Toledo.