The Finnish defenceman and 10-year NHL veteran knows how tough Montreal fans can be on the Canadiens when they’re struggling, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s better that way than nobody caring,” Ninimaa said before the regular-season opener against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. “When people care, you feel that whatever you do out there, good or bad, you’re accountable for it.
“I like that. When things don’t go well, you’ll hear about it. When things go well, you get recognized, too. It’s a good trade-off. You have to enjoy that situation and pressure.”
Fortunately for him, he makes his home debut with Montreal having taken five of a possible six points.
The 31-year-old was acquired near the end of training camp from the Dallas Stars for centre Mike Ribeiro, plus an exchange of middle-round draft picks.
Niinimaa was happy in Dallas, especially after a bit more than two dreary seasons with the New York Islanders. Other than a lament for leaving the mild Western Conference weather behind, he didn’t balk at the move.
His best years were with the Edmonton Oilers from 1998 to 2003 and he knew what to expect north of the border.
“It’s good to be on Canadian soil again,” he said. “I love Canada. I just like the Canadian mentality. It’s great. No ego.”
The Stars had eight NHL-calibre defencemen in camp and could afford to move one, while the Canadiens were thin on the blue-line with Francis Bouillon out likely until December after knee surgery.
Niinimaa arrived in Dallas via a trade last January from the Islanders, after Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey and head coach Guy Carbonneau had left that club.
Gainey said he based his assessment on games Niinimaa played for thea Oilers when Dallas and Edmonton were rivals and he felt the mobile rearguard could regain that level of play.
So far, Niinimaa has been all Gainey could ask for, logging nearly 20 minutes a game and going plus-1 in Montreal’s first three games.
Niinimaa missed much of last season with torn ligaments in an ankle. He had surgery after the 2005-06 campaign.
“The main thing for me is that I got my ankle healed now and I feel like a young horse out there,” he said. “I’m able to skate again.
“I can play again and enjoy the game of hockey.”
He only had a few practices with the Canadiens before the season, but looks to be adjusting nicely. After NHL stops in Philadelphia, Edmonton, Long Island and Dallas, he’s done it before.
“That’s an advantage, being in this situation before where you have to adapt quickly,” he said. “The key is you don’t try to rush things.
“Pay attention. Be sharp. Learn your teammates and defence partner and learn the system. It’s been good. There haven’t been any big breakdowns.”
It helps that Saku Koivu, his friend and Finnish national squad teammate, is captain in Montreal. The two first played together when they were 15 on the Finnish junior team and have since played together in world championships, the 1998 Olympics (beating Canada to win the bronze medal) and World Cups.
Niinimaa would like to dispel the notion that he is a hothead, based on two well-publicized run-ins with coaches.
The first was at the 2004 World Cup, when he walked out on the team a day before a quarter-final game against Germany after a disagreement with coach Raimo Summanen, his teammate in Finland’s 1995 world championship victory.
Niinimaa said later Summanen was screaming at team staff and he took a stand for the squad, which went on to win the silver medal.
“I’m not a rebel,” Niinimaa said Saturday.
He was also sent off the ice during a practice by former Islanders coach Steve Stirling, but he said that dispute was patched up right away.
In Montreal, he just wants to get back to playing good hockey.
“That’s my sole goal,” he said. “That’s what I said when I had (the ankle) done in the spring. I’m going to get back to where I should be.”
Note – Right winger Alex Kovalev, who missed two days of practice with a charley horse, skated Saturday morning and said he’s ready to return. “That’s why I stayed late (on the ice) – to get my body going, I haven’t skated for two days. Otherwise, it’s good.”