bobrovsky FLA feature

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Hannu Nykvist pulls out his iPad. Within seconds, he has located the clip.

“I have one picture here, I have to show,” Nykvist muses as he scrolls, looking for the date when his path first crossed with Sergei Bobrovsky.

Suddenly, on-screen, there is Bobrovsky, eight years younger, sweeping through a set of warmups on the ice, not all that different from the ones he’s in the middle of at Baptist Health IcePlex on a late March morning, where he, as always, arrived 20 minutes before practice begins.

The differences between then and now are clear, the crispness of the movements, the understanding of his body, the hundreds of NHL games and thousands of NHL saves, the maturation and experience and the growth.

“He’s still developing,” longtime goaltending coach Nykvist says of the video, before turning to the Bobrovsky on the ice in front of him. “It’s more accurate. It’s more better usage of the body. It’s better balance. The whole quality is so much higher. I think for common people it’s maybe difficult to see the difference, but I can see the difference. The whole presence is so different.”

Sami Karjalainen cuts in, “And more power.”

At 35, Bobrovsky is as good as he’s ever been for the Florida Panthers, a work in progress and an amalgamation of everything he’s done and everything he’s learned, smarter and better and, yes, still learning. Bobrovsky has added knowledge wherever he could, from goalie coaches and martial artists, from teammates and from his deep Russian Orthodox faith.

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But before he incorporated the tenets of Han Mu Do martial arts, before the impact of Nykvist and Karjalainen, his movement coach, would change the trajectory of his career, Bobrovsky was just an extremely talented but oft-injured player coming off a nightmare of a season.

In 2015-16, Bobrovsky played 37 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets, battered by a series of groin injuries. He was three seasons removed from winning the Vezina Trophy for the first time in 2012-13 as the NHL’s best goalie, but that triumph felt like a distant memory.

“I was really down with my mental and with my physical too,” Bobrovsky said.

That summer, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, in which he was set to play for Team Russia, was just weeks away. He met with Nykvist, who called in Karjalainen.

“He was getting year after year more and more injuries,” Nykvist said. “I think I was sensing maybe a little bit of frustration: Where is my body, my whole career going at this point? Can my body take the load?”

Bobrovsky was 27 years old.

It was a low point -- not the last of his career -- but one Bobrovsky views as a turning point, a time that set him up for winning the Vezina again in 2016-17, and ultimately for the successes of this past year-plus, a torrid run that helped the Panthers reach the Stanley Cup Final last season.

That run continues still, as the Panthers are set for their final game of the regular season, against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Amerant Bank Arena (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPN, TSN4) in what could be a Eastern Conference First Round preview.

“It was huge, definitely,” Bobrovsky said of the impact of Nykvist and Karjalainen on his career. “They are the people actually who start to talk about the balance in the life and how important it is, not only hockey, but also life outside of the hockey, how important that is.”

It’s something he values now, even as he has had to temper his workaholic tendencies since the birth of his daughter two years ago, even as he has had to contend with being among the elder statesmen of the NHL, even as he climbs the ranks of the all-time greats.

“You meet these different people and you talk to them,” Bobrovsky said. “I feel like every person you meet you can learn from, you can learn how to do or what better not to do.”

He laughed.

“And every day you learn,” he continued. “You live, you learn. It’s the endless process. That’s what makes it so much fun. It doesn’t matter what level you reach with your physics or your mental, you get to the certain point, and it opens up completely new world where you begin again. It never ends.”


Eight years into their collaboration, Karjalainen and Nykvist are mostly hands-off with Bobrovsky now, acting as mentors. They haven’t seen him in a long time before this trip takes them from still-frosty Finland to the much more temperate climate of South Florida.

But starting in 2016, the two coaches were major forces in helping Bobrovsky reshape his philosophy and his body, and to overcome his penchant for getting hurt.

“The biggest thing is we went really back to the basics, really start to slow down everything and not having too much load in the practices,” Nykvist said. “We started to do the things more a healthy way.”

Nykvist had a long hockey history, having worked as a goaltending coach with Jokerit and HPK of the Finnish Elite League and with the U18 and U20 Finnish teams, including Bobrovsky’s Blue Jackets teammate Joonas Korpisalo, before heading to Austria as the goalie coach at Red Bull Salzburg. But Karjalainen’s was thinner, coming from Han Mu Do, a Korean martial art focused on strength, agility and balance, which he has studied for 25 years.

Karjalainen sent his resume, they talked on the phone, and then he was off to Saint Petersburg for a four-day tryout with Bobrovsky. They tried to figure out how and why he had been injured for three consecutive seasons, with the injuries coming at similar times each year.

“And then we broke the pattern,” Karjalainen said.

The next season, Bobrovsky would start 63 games en route to winning the Vezina Trophy a second time.

Asked how he did that, how he married Han Mu Do and goaltending, how he figured out the one could help the other, Karjalainen laughed.

“My university was Bob,” he said. “The case of Bob.”

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He used static holds for strength, the foundation of explosiveness and speed and power. He focused on slow and soft movements, where the goalie could feel his body in order to make it work better.

“If you just push, push, push, you have only one way to do it, the way you do it,” Karjalainen said. “But when you slow it down, take power out of there, then you can try new things, and also adjust your movements.

They talked every day, adjusting here and there, talking again. Karjalainen said, at the time, he counted the points of contacts between him and the goalie during a single month: 2,280.

“There were videos and messages flying back and forth,” he said. “That was a pretty hectic month.”

Without wanting to get too deep into specifics, Karjalainen said that they were particularly concerned with working on Bobrovsky’s core, on shoring up his physical center. He was already one of the fastest goalies at the time, something that Karjalainen challenged him to improve even more, making his lateral movements more efficient, which required better edgework, the last left to Nykvist’s skills.

“The whole movement skills, they needed to be better,” Karjalainen said. “The whole world of physics needed to be better, from toes to the neck, everything needed to be stronger. Of course, he’s very, very flexible. Then it needs more support, so it needs a certain type of power.

“For example, when you are stretching a lot, if you don’t have power, you are going to break yourself. So, the practices are more from the martial arts, we need to also be very flexible, but we need to be very strong also in the range of motion.”

That was just the beginning.

More and more, the parallels between martial arts and goaltending revealed themselves.

“The elements are so close,” Karjalainen said. “Because the speed of the game, the reaction, the game itself, there’s multiple opponents, they never do what you were thinking that they are doing, they are trying to trick you always. Something happens always that you are not expecting. And also the movement area, it is pretty small.

“The elements are more or less the same.”

It’s not just the physical where Karjalainen saw parallels. He saw it in the mental game, too, in the pressure that goalies face, that martial arts practitioners face. It all made sense to him.

Very quickly, it made sense to Bobrovsky too. All that was left was to put it into practice.


When Korpisalo was called up to the Blue Jackets in 2015-16, he was 21 years old. His introduction to the League was Bobrovsky.

“I remember getting a glimpse of what he does daily, that just blew me right off right there,” said Korpisalo, now with the Ottawa Senators. “Just, you thought you were a pro, but seeing him? It’s a completely different level.

“I got really early to the rink, always, and he was there every time before me.”

Bobrovsky used to work out relentlessly, with an extreme focus on cardio.

“I just used to train as hard as possible and as long as possible, but you have to understand that it’s not the way, it’s not the optimal way,” Bobrovsky said. “You can’t sustain that for a long time.”

To stay healthy and reach his goals, he needed to vary the way he trained, and strengthen different areas of his body and his game.

“Our sport is so complex,” he said. “You have to have good coordination, movement ability, biomechanics, cardio, the ice technique on the skates … it’s completely different, the body movements.”

Nykvist and Karjalainen were instrumental in his coming to that conclusion, but another person helped bring changes to the mental side, to how Bobrovsky looked at the game and his career: Carolina, his first child, born two years ago.

“When your daughter is born and you hold that fragile little human, very fragile and she’s not going to survive without you, priorities change, for sure,” Bobrovsky said.

“I feel like you have to understand that you are not only hockey player, you are just human being as well.”

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However, while some things change, not everything does.

On the final Friday of March, Bobrovsky spent nearly an hour and a half on the ice, following it up by a session signing autographs for the fans that greeted him with chants of “Bobby! Bobby!”

“He does the underwater treadmill each day,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “He runs to the rink sometimes. He bikes to the rink. I saw him in his full biking gear leaving the rink not too long ago, like the clip-ins in the bike, going all around Las Olas or over the bridge or down the beach.

“I’m driving the golf cart. I’m not riding the bike around. I haven’t learned that from him yet.”


When Karjalainen was reached last September, at the start of the season, he made a prediction.

He wouldn’t be surprised to see Bobrovsky continue the run that started in the 2023 playoffs, the one that saw him take back the net from Alex Lyon and go on to play 19 postseason games for Florida, with a .915 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against average. Those numbers reached nearly unbeatable proportions in a 12-game run between Game 5 of the first round against the Bruins and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes, when Bobrovsky faced 465 shots and made 438 saves for a .942 save percentage and an 11-1 record.

He was right. Bobrovsky is 36-17-4 this season with a 2.37 GAA, .915 save percentage and six shutouts in 58 games.

When Karjalainen and Nykvist look at Bobrovsky now, they do so with pride. Not just because of the role they played in setting him up for where he’s come, but in how he’s run with what they taught him, in how he has evolved.

“He was one of those guys who was really ready to invest on himself, not just be happy to be an OK NHL goalie or be in the NHL,” Nykvist said. “He wanted to be good, and that’s the driving force. Think about now; let’s say last year was one of his best seasons, and last year he was 34.”

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They all believe that some of his best hockey is ahead, as the Panthers roll into the playoffs, as they go in with all the confidence that comes from having one of the top goalies in the NHL.

“When he’s joking around, but you can tell there’s this swagger and seriousness to him that, when he finds that and he’s locked into that mode, it’s scary,” said former Blue Jackets captain and current Chicago Blackhawks forward Nick Foligno, who played for the Bruins last season. “I’ve seen it where it’s just like, you feel like you’re invincible as a team because you know he’s just going to make these saves. I kind of saw him get into it in the playoffs last year against us in Boston. I was like, ‘Uh oh.’”

Bobrovsky knows he is a smarter player than he was last year, smarter than he was earlier in his career, as his knowledge base expands and his game grows and his experiences -- good and bad -- build on themselves.

“I learned more from those two months of hockey more than like 13 years in my career, especially with what your mind is going through, what’s there, what kind of challenges go in your mind,” he said. “So, it was special.”

But he also understands how close he came to not experiencing it, how one inch here or there, especially against the Bruins, could have ended the run before it started.

He wouldn’t have gotten to demonstrate all the pieces he’s picked up along the way, all the layers that have gotten him here, still as good as he has ever been. He now stands 14th all-time in League history for wins by a goalie, at 396 in 700 games, and could swiftly continue up the rankings with Chris Osgood just five wins ahead of him, and Grant Fuhr two ahead of Osgood.

“Beside that result, there is a deeper process going on with learning your body, your physics, your mind, your spirit, and that makes it so much fun,” Bobrovsky said. “And then at some point, you build that belief and you build that foundation that you rely on.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of weather -- outside, inside -- you’re strong and you rely on those fundamentals that you build over time.”

He has built that foundation, and still adds to it whenever he can.

“He plays a different game now than he played back when we were together and it’s just always evolving, these little things,” Korpisalo said.

“He’s what, 35? And looks like he’s 20. I think he can play easily over 40, just how he looks and how such a pro he is. But that’s what it takes.” staff writer Tracey Myers contributed to this story