SOCHI, RUSSIA – Andy Kent was raised from birth in Lake- ville, played hockey for Augsburg College and coaches goalies for the Gophers women’s hockey team. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotan.
Now, he’s at the Winter Olympics trying to win a medal with … Finland. Yep, Finland.
He’s the goalie coach for the women’s team, even though the only Finnish words he knows how to say are hi and thank you.
Weird, right? Not to him.
“I really feel part of this team,” he said.
Well, he should. Kent likely could play an integral role in helping Finland accomplish its goal of earning a medal. The Finns play Sweden on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
Kent’s association stems from one person: Finland goaltender Noora Raty, the former Gophers star and one of the top female goalies in the world.
Raty is competing in her third Olympics after finishing her marvelous career in Dinkytown. Finland’s women’s team didn’t have a goalie coach so Raty took the initiative.
“I told my coach, ‘I know one who’s a pretty good guy,’ ” Raty said.
Kent first had to get accredited by the International Olympic Committee. Then Finland’s hockey federation had to sign off. If there was any internal grumbling or hesitation, Kent didn’t hear about it.
“I think Noora pushed pretty hard to get me out here,” he said.
Kent found out right before Christmas that he had a new title — Finnish assistant coach — in addition to serving as volunteer goalie coach for the Gophers women and Augsburg men.
Kent joined the team in Finland for a quick pre-Olympics training camp. He never felt out of place until Finland played Team USA in the Olympic opener. He looked on the ice and saw familiar faces wearing the other uniform, including a few ex-Gophers.
“That’s when it really kind of felt weird,” he said.
That feeling vanished in the heat of competition. Kent seems so comfortable with his new team that he uses “we” and “us” in conversation. The only real obstacle is the language barrier. The coaches and players generally communicate in Finnish, though they speak in English if a conversation involves a specific question or detail meant for Kent.
“There are some meetings where I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “At the end, I’ll grab Noora and say, ‘Hey, do I need to know anything?’ She’ll be like, ‘Yeah, we have practice at 11.’ ”
It’s obvious those two have a special bond. He calls her the best women’s goalie in the world. She refers to him as her “therapist.” Her faith in Kent’s insight is reflected in how hard she pushed to have him hired as her personal Olympic coach.
“He knows me so well,” Raty said. “Any problems I have, I know where to go.”
Their partnership won’t end after the Olympics. Both help coach youth goalies at a specialized program called MEGA, which was founded by Justin Johnson, goalie coach for the Gophers men’s team.
Raty primarily works with young girls who aspire to play her position.
“A lot of parents have come to me and say, ‘It’s so great that they finally have a female coach here,’ ” she said. “They have someone they can look up to. It’s different for girls to have a female coach than a male coach. They can relate to a female coach better.”
Raty hopes to permanently remain in the United States, and she’s in the process of obtaining a work visa to replace her student visa. Kent believes his pupil can have a profound impact on her sport as a coach.
“Every time girls get on the ice, they light up,” he said. “It’s very good for the sport of hockey, especially goaltending in Minnesota, that she’s helping coach those little girls and going to help maybe create a little goalie factory.”
For now, Raty’s sole focus is on helping Finland earn a medal. It would qualify as a significant upset if Canada and Team USA don’t advance to the gold medal game. Raty will need to be close to perfect for Finland to have a chance to derail those two teams.
And if Finland somehow draws Team USA again, Kent knows where his allegiance lies. But what about his family?
“They cheer for whatever team I’m coaching,” he said. “I hope.”
He smiled. OK, so this is sort of unusual.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com