Despite failing to medal at the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship, host team Finland was received well by the hometown fans in Lappeenranta and Imatra. Many of Finland’s players stood out positively in their five games, with blueliners Sami Niku and Jarkko Parikka having been very noticeable on the blueline.
Underage defenseman Sami Niku was one of the more visible Finnish players overall at the 2014 U18 tournament, lining up on the first unit despite being a young 17 years of age. Hailing from the JYP program, he spent this past season not only playing a number of junior games for his club, but also playing 30 games for his club’s men’s team, which played in the second-highest league in Finland where he collected three assists, 16 penalty minutes, and a +2 rating. Considered a hot commodity for the 2015 NHL Draft, Niku is already garnering first-pairing minutes in this tournament.
Hockey's Future spoke with Niku early in the U18 tournament, a conversation that is transcribed below.
Hockey’s Future: Two games, two victories. Everything going according to plan for Team Finland here as the host of the tournament?
Sami Niku: Yes, well we are simply better than Denmark, our first opponent. That was a game you just do not lose. We had to win it and we did. It got the tournament here started on the right note.
HF: And how about Switzerland? They played you guys real tight and hard the whole time.
SN: They were good, but we know coming in that the Swiss play a hard-working game and are willing to skate a lot. We had no illusions that this game would be easy, especially after they beat the USA. Suddenly, they are contending for first place.
HF: You also played on this team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last summer. What does it mean to you to be part of this Finnish program?
SN: There’s really no better feeling and nothing for a player my age that could be better than being part of this program. This is a great honor for me.
HF: You spent a good part of this last season playing with men in Mestis. What was that like for you, having only just turned 17 this past winter?
SN: At the beginning it was really difficult. Alone practices really demanded everything of me. I had to change and get used to a lot of new things. Once I did, I found my pace and rhythm. Then I got used to that style of play and could feel myself getting better.
HF: Do you have a favorite player you look up to?
HF: You’re an underager and it’s a long ways away, but do you already have some thoughts about possibly being drafted in 2015?
SN: Honestly, it’s too far away. I know next winter will be very important for me, because it’s my draft year, but I haven’t thought it about it seriously yet.
HF: Then what do you think you need to improve on the most next winter to prepare for your draft summer?
SN: I have a very direct answer to that question. I have to get bigger, skate more, and keep my feet moving more. I need to improve on my defensive game and be better in my own zone.
Unlike Niku, who has spent his whole young career to date in Finland, 18-year-old Jarkko Parikka spent this past season playing for the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL. He managed just eight points and a -18 rating for Des Moines, but was the second pairing defensive defenseman at the U18 tournament, where he gathered one assist in five games.
Hockey's Future spoke with Parikka early in the U18 for this Q&A.
Hockey’s Future: Jarkko, I’m talking to you after a very tough, but successful game against Switzerland, where you guys pulled out a 2-1 victory. What are your thoughts on it?
Jarkko Parikka: It was a good game for us. We shot the puck as much as possible and skated real hard. It’s what we wanted to do coming in.
HF: There was a lot of shooting today, even coming from you. Were you happy with your play today?
JP: Yes, I am. I feel I played really well and am quite happy with my performance today.
HF: How special is this tournament for you being right here in your native country?
JP: It’s unbelievable. Honestly, this is everything for me. It’s such an honor and I didn’t always know if I’d be here, so this mean’s the world to me.
HF: Do you have friends and family in attendance?
JP: Yes, some of each. I am from around this area, about 40 km away. This is my part of the country and here we are playing an international tournament right on our doorstep.
HF: You spent this past season in the USHL, not a common spot for Finnish players. Can you tell me about it?
JP: It was a good year for me. I played with the Buccaneers and we had a rough time of it. We played some games really well, but also had some pretty bad games. The team had a lot of ups and downs.
HF: Was the venture to North America good for you personally?
JP: Tough to say. My English has certainly gotten better, so it helped me in at least that department.
HF: Where will you be playing next fall? Any thoughts of returning to Finland?
JP: I don’t know that yet. I really can’t say if I’ll be here at home again next season.
HF: And what are your ambitions for the future?
JP: I’d like to make it to the NHL. The goal is simple.
HF: Any players you look up to or model your game after?
JP: No, not really. Sorry, just no real answer to that. I just do my thing and go with it.