On the day Antti Raanta got everybody killed, deep in the woods of the Finnish town of Sakyla, near the shore of Lake Pyhajarvi, he had two rifles and a massive rocket launcher strapped to his back as he desperately clung to a motorcyclist driving upwards of 60 mph on dirt roads while trying to properly follow a GPS signal.
Raanta had one job as the leader of his RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) company: Check for mines so the tank following a few hundred meters behind wouldn’t explode.
“It was kind of a fiasco,” Raanta said. “Everybody blew up — all the leaders in our army. We saw the tank blow up first, and I was like, ‘Oh, [expletive]. We came over as fast as we could. But then we drove over another mine, so we died, also.”
It’s important to note that the Blackhawks goaltender was laughing as he said this.
Oh, and alive, too.
While the rocket launcher and the rifles on his back were all very much real, the mission was merely a training exercise during Raanta’s mandatory six months in the Finnish army as an 18-year-old. Nearly six years later, Raanta’s old “war” stories have made him a hit in the Hawks dressing room, as the affable rookie has regaled Patrick Sharp, Sheldon Brookbank and Niklas Hjalmarsson, among others, with his harrowing — and often hilarious — tales from the not-so-front lines.
“He spent a lot time out in the woods — in the bush — out there,” Brookbank said. “Sounds like he had a good time.”
Sure, it’s all funny now. But as Raanta looked around that day and saw the tank was still on the main road while he had navigated his minesweeper team into the middle of nowhere — “I was reading the map, but I had no idea where to go,” he said — it wasn’t quite so funny.
Or the next day, when the entire unit sat in a room and watched the mission on a monitor — the blue GPS marker that was Raanta inexplicably zig-zagging away from the yellow GPS marker that was the tank he was ordered to protect — as Raanta sunk deeper into his chair, embarrassed and amused and petrified all at the same time.
It’s a lot for an 18-year-old to handle mentally. But it offers some insight into why the rookie netminder has been so level-headed and confident since being thrown into the Hawks’ No. 1 goaltending job as a rookie, while Corey Crawford recovers from a groin injury. Tuesday’s game at Nashville likely will be Raanta’s seventh straight game. He’s 6-1-1 so far in his young career.
Because frankly, playing — and failing — in Toronto on Hockey Night In Canada isn’t quite the same as watching your junior-league teammates in your army unit theoretically blow up on your watch. The same could be said for breaking down the video of those two events the next day. So it’s little wonder Raanta had no trouble standing up in front of the hordes of media in Toronto after the loss. Or that he bounced back from less than 24 hours later with a near-shutout of the red-hot Los Angeles Kings.
He’s been through worse.
“It shows a lot that a young rookie goaltender like himself can come back and play with confidence like he did,” Jonathan Toews said.
Raanta has plenty more army stories to share, and the way he’s playing, he should be sticking around long enough to tell them all.
Turns out, he was a dead-eye with the RPG, hitting the target tanks every time — good thing, too, because he said each shot of live ammunition cost Finland about 2,500 Euro. There was the time one of his teammates — Raanta and about a half-dozen other members of the Rauma Lukko junior team would commute the 40 minutes to the rink each day after waking up at 5 a.m., making their beds, dressing according to military code and performing that day’s exercises — fired a rocket at a tank 300 meters away, only to hit the ground barely halfway there, nearly blowing up his unit for real and sending his sergeant into a fit of rage.
There were long nights in tents and long days in the forest, and the whole time, all Raanta could think about was getting through the six months and finally going back to his life.
Now? Well, now he’s proud of his military training. It got him in better shape. It allowed him to meet all sorts of new people. It taught him to be a sharpshooter. And maybe it really did toughen him up mentally.
Hey, at the very least, it gave him plenty of good stories for the boys in the room.
“When I look back on it, it was really great,” he said. “Except for when everyone died, I guess.”