photo courtesy of Doug Love/Tri-City Americans
This last calendar year has been an extremely busy one for Tri-City Americans’ defenceman Juuso Välimäki. He has twice represented his home country of Finland and participated in the CHL Top Prospect’s Game. These events have taken him from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Plymouth, Michigan and then on to Montreal, Quebec and Toronto, Ontario. Lastly he went to Quebec City, Quebec. All of this travel happened over a nine-month span and occurred around the arduous WHL travel schedule. The 1998-born rearguard had a lifetime worth of experiences crammed into those nine months.
First, last April he helped lead the Finnish U-18 team to a gold medal in Grand Forks at the U-18 World Championships. Välimäki relished the opportunity to represent his home country.
“It was an awesome experience. That was the first time that I really got to win something big. Winning gold at the U-18 with the Finnish jersey on was unbelievable. We had a great team with a lot of my friends there. Overall it was a great feeling to win something like that.”
It was a successful year for his homeland and he was glad to be a part of the Finnish dominance at the international level. He was proud to say that “last year we got gold at U-18, U-20 and Men’s.”
After competing at the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Plymouth, he was chosen to be a part of the blue line for the Finnish U-20 squad. That tournament did not go as well for the Finns as they dropped into the relegation round for the very first time in their history at the championship.
“Yeah I mean I try to be leader on every team I play. We just decided with the guys that well if that (relegation round) happens we would have to play in the relegation round. There’s nothing you can do about it anymore and we just have to make sure that we win these last games and just play as hard as we can and show the world that we will not give up. I think that’s what we did. We got three wins in the last three games so that was a good ending.”
In January, Välimäki was chosen to play at the Sherwin-Williams Top Prospect’s game for Team Orr. He knows that this was a great opportunity to play with the very best players in his age group.
“It was a great experience for sure. It was pretty good to get to play with some of the guys you play against all the time and get to play with great players on the ice. Looking back it was a nice city and the rink was unreal with lots of fans at the game. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.”
The fun had to pause though as the prospects got word, while having supper in Quebec City before the game, that there was a tragedy taking place minutes away.
“We were actually having dinner as a team about 10 minutes away from where it happened. One of the hosts had a friend call him and say that it just happened and so we drove to our hotel which was about a 10-15 minutes drive away so we went to the hotel and we were fine there. There was some guys from the CHL that came to check on the hotel while we were sleeping and they really took care of us. It was a little scary.”
These events are enough to keep a player busy, but Välimäki has also put up 58 points in 54 games with the Tri-City Americans, leading them to a playoff birth after missing out last season. One bonus this season has been his native countrymen Eetu Tuulola (Everett) Henrik Jokiharju (Portland), Sami Moilanen (Seattle) and Aleksi Heponiemi (Swift Current) joining him in the WHL.
“Last year I was here in the Dub by myself as the only Finnish guy and this year it has been great to have some friends come over here in the states. Most of them are in the U.S. Division, so it’s been fun to talk to them after the game and maybe say something on the ice to them in Finnish. It’s been cool.”
Having other Finns around is definitely not the only thing that has made this year more comfortable though.
“It’s been easier this year for sure. Last year at the start it was kind of like getting to know the guys and how everything works. Also the culture and style of play and stuff. So now in the second year you kind of know how everything works and you’re not a rookie anymore. I know the travel and schedule and I know the guys and the coaches and everything so it’s been easier.”
He has had the benefit of playing on a strong top four defence group this year with Dalton Yorke, Parker Wotherspoon and Dylan Coghlan. The four of them play off of each other well.
“I think that I can learn something every day from what I’ve done in a game or what they have because they’ve been in the league a lot longer than me. Sometimes they give me a little advice and stuff. Our d-corps is really good and it’s been very successful for us and we have brought some offence to the table and still most importantly we are winning games now.”
A big part of that offence has come from playing on the power play. Välimäki and crew are operating at a 25.8 percent clip which is good for third in the WHL. He has five of his goals and 21 of his assists on the man advantage. That assist mark is good for 13th among all skaters in the league.
“I have really talented and skilled guys that have played power play at all the levels they’ve played at, including here last year. At the start of the season we played well on the power play and one goal led to another goal and
we still keep working on it in practice and watching clips and stuff and it’s just a combination of all of that work.”
While the power play has been excellent, Välimäki knows that his team can do better when they are skating five-on-five.
“We can still be better at five-on-five. Especially at giving up goals at five-on-five. We need to play together as five guys and make sure that our d-zone coverage is good and we are focusing on that and moving back in time. We have gotten better lately and are winning more games. We are not allowing as many goals at the start of the game and that is helping as well.”
The blue liner, who has been ranked as high as 10th by ISS Hockey and 13th by Future Considerations for the upcoming NHL draft, still sees a lot to improve at in his game.
“I’ve been trying to work on my skating and pivots and my starts and turns and stuff. Also, I’ve been trying to focus on my gaps by myself and with coaches and defending the rush closer. I need to stop making turnovers in the neutral zone and I think I can shoot the puck and find the lanes and get the puck to the net more.”
With the playoffs on their way, he will have time to work on this as his year continues to be busy and his personal odometer keeps racking up the miles.