Photo courtesy Darwin Knelsen/Swift Current Broncos.
A common story line for rookie import players in the WHL, is how much time it takes to adjust to the WHL game before finally getting comfortable and making an impact. Finnish, 1999-born forward Aleksi Heponiemi bucked that trend in a big way. He led all WHL players in preseason points with 15 in just six games, showing the league he was ready to have an immediate impact. Heponiemi still felt like there was a lot to adjust to, despite the points he put up.
“It’s a lot different of a game. The style and how the game is played here is different
. We play on a smaller rink (small ice) and the game is really fast. I think this was good for me. Of course, how Manny (head coach Emmanuel Viveiros) likes to play it helps me a lot. It’s a lot of the same things as Europe so that’s the big thing that helps me.”
Viveiros bringing a run-and-gun style to the Broncos had to be one of the reasons, Heponiemi was able to fit right in, right away. Another was his immediate chemistry with some of the other Bronco forwards.
“I played a lot with Lane (Pederson), but also (Tyler) Steenbergen and (Glenn) Gawdin. It doesn’t really matter who you play with, they are all good players and it’s really good to play with each of them.”
Despite fitting in pretty quickly, Heponiemi had actually not heard of Swift Current before he was drafted by them. He grew up in the, much larger, Tempere, Finland, but still finds a lot of similarities with the smaller town of Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
“They are not that different. Obviously, Swift Current is quite a bit smaller but I don’t think it makes any difference. A little bit more quiet and not as much traffic. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same.”
If Tempere sounds familiar to people who have followed recent NHL drafts, it should. That is also the hometown of the Florida Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov and the Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine. Like those two, he got to play for the Finnish national team at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Though the 2016 Finnish team finished sixth, he still appreciated the experience.
“It was an awesome experience for us. We didn’t do that well so I had a little bit of bad taste but otherwise it was a really good experience to get to play with Team Finland.”
Heponiemi won the rookie scoring title with 28 goals and 58 assists for 86 points and he seems to be a big favourite win win the “rookie of the year” award. Having more assists than goals is not surprising for a guy who loves to set up his teammates.
“I like to pass a lot and make good plays for my teammates. That’s the thing I love to do.”
More important to him than the points though is the fact that the Broncos got to the playoffs and are in a good position to make a deep run.
“Yeah it’s been a good year. We have a good team and that’s a part of that so I can be at the level I’m at. When I came here I didn’t have a goal in mind for points. I just wanted to come here and win that was the goal.”
His Broncos are set for a first-round match up with Moose Jaw and he looks forward to what should be a long series. “I think we match up really we with them, They are a good team and fast, but we are very capable of beating them.”
Whenever the season does end for Swift Current, Heponiemi has three specific things in mind to work on. “Obviously because of my size I need to get bigger. On the ice my shot has to get better and so does my work in the defensive zone.”
With most WHL players notching far more points in their second year, a second season in the WHL for Heponiemi could be one filled with even more points and awards. His creativity has fit right in with the Broncos new style and the two have been key to each others’ success.