Two years ago, Juho Olkinuora was an unknown. After going 14-13 with a 2.78 goals-against average in 2011 for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL, the Helsinki native returned home to Finland empty-handed with no scholarship offers to play college hockey in the United States.
However, an unexpected injury to Denver University goaltender Sam Brittain in June of 2011 changed everything for both Olkinuora and the Pioneers.
Once an unknown, Olkinuora has risen from emergency back-up goalie to full-time starter atop the Pioneers’ depth chart and expectations that were once non-existent are now growing every day.
“We had no expectations for him when he came here as a freshman because none of us knew him,” said now former DU coach, George Gwozdecky. “He was the kind of goaltender no other schools knew him, either, because he wasn’t going to college. His plan was to go back to Finland and play minor-pro hockey there.”
When Olkinuora arrived at DU he was expected to backup Adam Murray after Brittain suffered a knee injury that required off-season surgery. But Murray then went down with a serious groin injury and Olkinuora was thrust into a starting role.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound goaltender has since gone 22-13-8 with over 1,200 saves and 97 goals against in 45 games and has become one of DU’s best goalies.
“There was no expectations because we didn’t know what he could do,” Gwozdecky said. “Certainly when we ran into that jam early in his freshman year when all of a sudden Adam Murray has gotten injured he has just gotten better and better ever since then.”
When the opportunity arose to return to the United States, Olkinuora’s excitement began to build.
“It was awesome. I was talking to a couple of different schools and the offers were pretty bad,” Olkinuora said. “When (DU) called I got really excited and I knew they had a good history of goaltenders. It was a dream come true looking back at it.”
When Olkinuora arrived at DU last year he knew he would get a chance to compete for the starting job after the Pioneers offered him a roster spot as Brittain’s injury left them scrambling to find another goaltender.
This year many believed Brittain, a 2010 fourth-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers, would rise to the top of the DU depth charts and carry the load like he did prior to his injury. However, Olkinuora proved otherwise.
“This year they told us everyone gets a shot and we would go from there,” Olkinuora said. “I trust myself enough to know that if I compete hard and leave nothing on the table I can have a chance. I’m glad they stuck with the decision of playing who has the hot hand.”
Olkinuora posted a 13-5-5 record with a 2.28 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Teammate Nolan Zajac says the Pioneers’ Finnish goaltender has been a focal point of DU’s strong success this year.
“He’s been unbelievable for us,” Zajac said. “He’s been the reason we have won so many games. He just works hard every day and that’s the difference. He’s always on the ice early and the last guy off. It’s just the work ethic. Not giving up on anything, especially in practice.”
Olkinuora’s work ethic partially comes from fellow Scandinavian goaltender, Niklas Backstrom. Olkinuora worked out with Backstrom in Finland with a series of other professional Finnish players prior to this season, as well as before his freshman campaign.
“He is always the first one at the rink and the last one out,” Olkinuora said. “It really motivates you. The technique he has, it is unbelievable how he can play that way.”
When Olkinuora first arrived in the U.S. in 2007 as a midget player in Salt Lake City he was known more for relying on his physical ability instead of technique. He would often be seen scrambling in the net and flopping around. It is a habit that Olkinuora has worked on over the last five years and he believes the game is starting to slow down for him on the ice.
“I try to be a little calmer in net and rely on my technique more,” Olkinuora said. “In juniors I was just kind of scrambling around and didn’t really know what to trust on. I was over-coaching myself, maybe.”
Gwozdecky said his goaltender, who had an amazing highlight reel stick save (see below) on North Dakota’s Corban Knight in February, has been able to grow as a player.
“He has continuously showed he can give us a spark and make some great saves,” said the Pioneers' former head coach. “He is playing with great confidence. He has been our most consistent player without a doubt.”
Zajac said he sees a little bit of New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur in Olkinuora. Brodeur is known for his ability to play the puck and it is a skill Gwozdecky has witnessed Olkinuora gain confidence in.
“He continues to get more and more confident even to the point where you see him on occasion wander away from the puck and make some plays to be the leader and relay it up the ice or just ice it.”
In the NCAA Tournament this past weekend, Olkinuora and his DU teammates dropped a 5-2 loss to the University of New Hampshire, thereby ending the Pioneers' 2012-13 season. Olkinuora stopped 36 of 41 shots he faced in this game, but Denver was no match for a more determined UNH squad.
Olkinuora admits National Hockey League scouts and teams have been in contact with him in regards to his future. However at the moment he is not ready to make a further commitment than the one he already has with the Pioneers.
“There has been some talk,” Olkinuora said. “That would be a great experience to do, but we'll see. I told everyone that I am going to stand by and I don’t want to lock into anything. I don’t know my dates yet. I just want to focus on this year.”
Even though Olkinuora is focused on the present, Gwozdecky believes there will be plenty of professional opportunities for the once unknown goaltender.
“I don’t think he has to worry a whole lot, at least in the near future, about going back to Finland and playing some minor-pro hockey,” Gwozdecky said. “He has a damn good future here and a damn good future I think after college hockey.”
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