“They would send me down to play juniors, which was…well, it wasn't nice,” Kalnins recalled of his time in Dunaújváros, an industrial city south of Budapest. “That team wasn't nice. The guys there, they were not the best team in the league. So I had 40, 50 shots in the junior team pretty often. I think I had one game with 66 shots, if I'm not wrong.”
Battered but undeterred, Kalnins categorized that experience as the heat that molded him into a professional. He returned to Latvia on a try-out basis for Dinamo Riga in 2016, and spent two seasons on home turf before his arrival in Helsinki. Despite three separate quarantines and a slew of scheduling changes due to COVID-19, Jokerit remains in playoff contention, and Kalnins ranks among the league’s best goaltenders by save percentage (92.9%).
I caught up with Kalnins from Helsinki on a range of topics—from his parking woes in the Finnish capital to the best prank he’s ever played in pro hockey.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Jokerit’s schedule for January is not exactly a breeze. I see Avangard, Torpedo, CSKA, Magnitogorsk. How are you preparing for the late-season siege?
Jānis Kalnins (JK): Well, I think we have to focus on one game at a time. For us as a team, it's not worth thinking about who's going to be next after tomorrow. We just focus on the next game, have a good game, and stay consistent through all three periods. That's pretty much it. When we are done with that one, have a good sleep, and then focus on the next game. Just take it one game at a time. I've been trying to play like that since last year, and it has worked out.
GK: Goalies are interesting judges of a team’s defensive core. As a former blue liner yourself, how do you rate the way Jokerit plays in front of you?
JK: Wow…well, I think we can all agree that in some games, defensively, we just haven't been good enough as a team. And it’s the whole team—not just the defensemen or just the forwards. It's the whole team, including me. It starts with the forwards, ends with the goalie. Sometimes we have those days when we're not on top of our game. Like I said, it's for all of us, including me.
We had a few high-scoring games against Barys, when we came back from 0-4 and we won in OT 5-4. Before that, we had a couple of games that were 4-3. In the last month, I think, we've been more consistent. That's really the thing we need because we have good defensemen. The last game against Spartak, they had some chances here and there, but overall I think, especially in the third period, we were really solid in our zone. That was the key—why we won that game.
GK: How much are you feeling the loss of Mikko Lehtonen?
JK: I don't feel that we are really missing him on the ice. He was a great guy in the locker room, and of course, it's nice to have such a good player like him on the team. He can make some great plays and shoot the puck in one touch, looking at the net the whole time, seeing what the other team is doing. He’s a really good player. But I don't think that if one guy is out, there will be big damage to this team. We have a lot of good players. Everyone can step in anyone else's skates and be as good as the player who's injured or whatever.
GK: I know that momentum is a big deal for goaltenders. Were the cancellations, quarantines and scheduling changes a nightmare for you earlier this season?
JK: Oh yeah. It wasn't easy to get into the right rhythm because games were canceled and then we had situations where we had to stay in quarantine for seven to ten days. I think we played 30 games as a team, but after that, it still didn't feel like we had played 30 because we'd been in three quarantines already. Stay home for one week, calm down, and then you start again, getting into the right rhythm, and then stay at home for another week. So that was mentally tough.
GK: What strategies did you have to cope with quarantine?
JK: We were allowed to go out for a walk with the dog, or go for a jog in the forest, in a place where there are no people around. Seeing the puck is way different than anything else you can do at home. Even if you were throwing balls against the wall at home or whatnot, it's still different. That was always a bit of a struggle for the first two practices when I came back, just to see the puck and react to a shot at the right moment. That was one thing that I needed to practice.
GK: You are about to take on Bob Hartley’s Avangard, and he is the head coach of the Latvian National Team. Do you feel an extra layer of excitement or emotion when you face him?
JK: Yeah, of course. You always want to beat someone you know. That's the thing. It doesn't matter if he's a coach, player or just a great friend, whatever. You always want to win. You want to show that you’re in a better place. But yeah, it's always fun. He's a good coach, and he's really been a major change for the National Team. The way he came in and changed things, its been for the better.
GK: I read that you had trouble parking in Helsinki when you first arrived.
JK: Probably during the winter time. When there’s a lot of snow, they shovel the snow into some parking spots! I would say now that driving around the city, one-fifth of parking spaces are taken by snow. It is a bit of luck, whether you can park near your apartment or not. Now that we had two days off, I parked the car in a great spot and I didn’t move the car for two days. I didn’t want to lose it! But I would rather have snow and not so many parking spots than zero degrees and rain. I’m not complaining about it.
GK: Tell me the story of how you first became a goaltender.
JK: Wow, that’s the very, very beginning. I was playing as a defenseman and we had no goalie during summer training camp. We had a bunch of players, but no goalie. I think ours just went to a different team, I don't really remember. The coach asked me if I wanted to try to be a goalie, and I was nine or ten— so of course, I'm going to say yes. So I tried it. My first practice was probably terrible. The gear is a lot different than the skaters’ gear, but I kindof stuck with it. Just practiced, practiced, and got stuck with being a goalie. That's how it happened.
GK: Who were some of your idols growing up?
JK: Oh, for sure, Artūrs Irbe. He was our best goalie, and I would think he still is in modern Latvian hockey history. So yeah, he was the idol. I had his poster in my bedroom and whenever I saw his interviews, I was like—“Yeah, okay, I want to be like him.” Not giving up on any situation, that was his style. He was huge at the time when I was a kid. Then Sandis Ozoliņš, he was a defenseman. He's the only Latvian who has won a Stanley Cup. Even if he wasn't a goalie, I was following him a lot.
GK: Ozoliņš was your coach for a time.
JK: He was my coach when I was in Riga for half a season. That was a cool experience because when I was growing up, he was the biggest Latvian hockey player ever. He still is. He's just a legend, and I liked him as a coach. We didn't have the best team, and then unfortunately he got fired during the season because we had some bad losing streaks. We had some conversations, but it was more about his experience. How was it when he was playing in the NHL at that age, and all of the stuff he went through. He's just a legend. The way he talks, it attracts you. You just want to listen.
GK: Do you think there are any elements that are special or unique to the Latvian school of goaltending? For a small country, you have produced some notables.
JK: Honestly, I wouldn't say so. There isn't anything specific. I would say that the Finnish and Swedish schools are way more advanced in the way goalies are being trained when they're juniors. A lot of professional goalies—in the last, let's say, five to eight years—played outside of Latvia. There are a couple of goalies who actually played really well at the World Championships or World Juniors, and then they got drafted. There have been three goalies if I'm not wrong in the last five years. But I would like the Latvian Hockey Federation to improve goalie training programs and things like that.
GK: Maybe someday you’ll spearhead the change.
JK: Yeah, who knows? I could try to push on that when I'm getting older, when I should retire and think about something else.
GK: What were the steps that brought you to pro hockey in Hungary? That is a unique trajectory.
JK: Well, I played on a Latvian team that competed in the Belarusian League—but long story short, the team went bankrupt. I had to find something else and I didn't want to stay in Latvia, but there weren’t many other options. Hungary was my only option at the time. My first season there wasn't as good as I expected because I wasn't playing much. We had three goalies on the team, and the coach was just rotating all three goalies. There were some stretches when I wouldn't play for a month with the big team.
They would send me down to play Juniors, which was…well, it wasn't nice. That team wasn't nice. The guys there, they were not the best team in the league. So I had 40, 50 shots in the junior team pretty often. I think I had one game with 66 shots, if I'm not wrong.
GK: Sixty-six shots!
JK: But at the same time, it pushed me to become more professional. I was pushing myself to do more because I wanted to play with the big team. I would go to the morning practice with the team, then gym, then went home, had lunch, took a nap and went back to the gym. I was just doing more because I wasn't playing. But at the end of the season, it worked out. I was getting more chances and I was playing quite a lot.
GK: How did you find your way to the KHL?
JK: After my third season in Hungary, I was looking for something else. And then, because I was on the National Team, my goalie coach there was also the goalie coach for Dinamo Riga. He asked me if I would be willing to go to Dinamo Riga, just for tryouts, for the first month and see how it goes. Of course I agreed. That was my only chance, and I would say things worked out. I’ve been in the KHL ever since. It’s maybe a different approach if you compare to the other guys in the KHL, but things fell in the right place at the right time, and I got my opportunity.
GK: What is the most annoying goal you have ever let in, and why did it bother you so much?
JK: I got scored on from center ice in the KHL because my catcher broke. Who was it against? Maybe Salavat, I can't remember. The shot was going wide by like a half meter, maybe. I was just about to catch it, put it on the ice and play it, nothing special. But as soon as I tried to catch the puck, I felt it hit my glove and go in the net. I'm like, "Jesus, that is pretty bad." You can't have these goals from center ice. I looked at the glove and the mesh was open, just torn apart. So I was like, “Okay, it's not my fault—that’s kind of nice to know.” I showed it to my goalie coach and the referee. I had to change the glove. After that period, I think they took the glove upstairs to the intermission commentators. It was a bad goal, but now it's kind of funny to look at it. My goalie coach said that when he saw I let one in from center ice, he was like, "Oh boy." He thought he would get into trouble from the head coach.
Another thing is that I don't like to get scored on by Latvian guys. Those are my friends, and if they score on me, it's like they are better than me at that moment!
GK: You have the exact same name as a famous music composer from Latvia. Any relation?
JK: I’ve had this question before a couple of times. But no—there is nothing. It is pretty common to have Jānis as a first name and Kalniņš as a last name in Latvia. Whenever I have forgotten my discount card at some store, they're like, "Okay, what's your first name and last name?" I would say my name. Then they're like, "Okay. There's too many people like you. Can you tell your phone number or something else?" [Laughs] So yeah, It's pretty common!
GK: On a similar note—no pun intended—what kind of music do you like? Give us a song from your workout playlist.
JK: I'm more of a hip-hop, rap guy. There’s a genre that is getting big in the UK right now, it’s called grime. I’ve been listening to that for the last few years, actually. One song I like is Quest for Coin II, it's Ezra Collective featuring JME and Swindle. I would say that's a fun song to listen to.
GK: What’s the funniest prank you’ve pulled in hockey?
JK: That goes back to my team in Latvia, when I played there. We pulled it as a team. We were going to the gym one day to have a workout, and that was it. No on-ice practice. But there was one guy who didn't know the schedule.
During the workout, he went to one player and asked, "Do we have ice practice after this one?" And he was like, "Yeah, we do—in thirty minutes.” And then he went to another guy, and the second guy was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We have it.” And then he came to me. I was like, “Yeah for sure - in 30 minutes. Let's get ready."
The whole team actually went to the locker room and players were taping their sticks, acting like they are dressing up for ice practice. And we knew that he was going to go out ten minutes early. As soon as he put on his helmet and gloves and took the stick, everyone took out their phones and were filming running behind him. He opened the door and saw that a bunch of kids were still on the ice. He was like, "What's going on?" So that's when we started to laugh really hard. We pulled it as the whole team on one guy.