It is home to the reigning IIHF World Junior Championship gold medalists, and three natives find themselves amongst ISS Hockey’s Top 10 prospects for the upcoming NHL Draft. And for London Knights’ defenseman Olli Juolevi, the reason is because his country, Finland, has put a focus on winning – and it is paying off.
“Maybe there’s more like individual coaching now. It’s not like any more where everyone plays as much as everybody else,” he said. “It’s more competition from a young age and you always have to try your best if you want to play.
“It isn’t that ‘fun’ hockey anymore at a young age. There are some good individuals coming up now, and it’s great for Finnish hockey.”
Let’s be clear that Juolevi doesn’t mean that the game isn’t enjoyable. Rather, there is a premium on encouraging competition and providing venues for talented players to progress – just like you see in other countries that offer house leagues and elite programs. And the proof is in the results. Currently ranked fourth in the IIHF, the Finns are two-time defending bronze medalists at the Olympic level and have won gold in two of the past three World Junior Championships.
Something is working – Juolevi is currently ranked fifth in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings of North American skaters, and he is ranked 10th by ISS. He is joined in the Top 10 by countrymen Jesse Puljujarvi (2) and Patrik Laine (4).
But don’t expect Juolevi to pay too much attention to the rankings.
“Sure, I’m happy for that [ranking], but you can’t watch those too much because then it impacts your game. You just have to work hard and be better every day,” he said. “I think NHL teams and their scouting staffs know who’s good and who’s not. I just want to make my best [impression] and let’s see where it goes.”
It’s been a solid impression so far. In addition to scoring five goals and adding 23 assists in 39 OHL games, Juolevi announced his arrival on the international stage with nine points at the WJC — surpassing Ryan Ellis’ seven-point record for a 17-year-old defender in the tournament. This year’s tournament was in Juolevi’s home town, but he insists he felt no added pressure because of it.
“I’m not like that big a name in Finland before the tournament. People didn’t know me and I was like that young guy there and I was just trying to do my best,” he said. “But I knew that I could do great things there and I could play good hockey. I was pretty confident that I could go there and play well because the season has gone so well here [in London.]”
Knights’ assistant coach Dylan Hunter explained that Juolevi’s success comes from not just his physical talents, but also from his mental ability.
“He’s very heady. His hockey sense is up there probably in the 99 percentile. He’s smart; he’s got a good frame on him,” Hunter said. “He’s still got some filling out to do, but I can see why the NHL scouts are drooling over him – 6’2, big guy, his skating’s very good, his passing’s very good. If there’s one thing I think he can work on a little bit more is his shot, but that will come with the weight and the muscle.”
London has benefited from talented Finnish defenders in the past. And while he has since had a chance to connect with Pittsburgh’s Olli Maata, Juolevi said he didn’t have any contact with Finnish players prior to his decision to come to Canada.
“I didn’t really speak to anyone before. My agent said that this was a good place. If you see all the players who have left from [London] to play in the NHL, I was pretty happy to come here,” he said, adding that the available league in his home town helped sway his decision to come to North America. “I could have stayed in Finland, but my home team, Jokerit, is playing in the KHL, so it would be pretty hard for me to go play in a pro team there, so I decided to come play in the OHL here and play North American hockey instead of playing for a different team in Finland. It was a pretty easy decision for me.”
Hunter said that the fact that Maata was a regular presence in London helped to make the transition fairly smooth, even if the Finns hadn’t spoken before they met in the Forest City.
“We were lucky. Obviously we try to get them as comfortable as we can with the billets, try to get their parents or someone who speaks the language to come over. We were lucky with Olli Maata living in London for the summer. He was great with him,” he said. “As soon as [Juolevi] came over, they went for dinner a couple of times and Olli kind of gave him the tour.
“Right away he was out with the older guys. It’s always easier when they can speak English and Olli could. It’s harder to get them assimilated if they can’t speak English and he could.”
The transition, obviously, has been smooth. Juolevi credits the coaching staff and his teammates for helping pave the way.
“It’s so much different here, but I’m pretty happy here – all the coaches here and the players are helping me adjust to the North American game. I’m happy now,” he said. “It’s more rough to speak a different language all the time other than Finnish, but my English is pretty good, so it’s a good thing for me.”
Hunter said that the team thought Juolevi would do well, but they had no idea he would take to North American hockey this quickly.
“We had high expectations coming in. We knew he was a good player. But the way he’s been rocketing up the [draft] charts, he’s been exceeding what we figured,” he said. “We knew we were going to get good D; we knew he was going to be a top-four and a power play guy, but we didn’t expect him to make that leap before Christmas like he did.”
That leap has helped to propel Juolevi up the draft charts. And with that rise, Hunter explained, comes added expectations that Juolevi will have to keep working to meet throughout the remainder of the 2015-16 season in order to maintain his lofty standing.
“I think he’s got to prepare to always be consistent in his game. Especially when you’re looking at Top-10 picks, [NHL teams] don’t want to see up-and-down,” Hunter said. “It’s tough, he’s played a lot of hockey this year in a new country. I know it’s tough when you’re 17 to keep that peak performance up.
“Keep it going, keep that defensive work going, and keep doing what he’s doing.”
Juolevi said he just wants to keep working on improving all aspects of his game – the practice of which, he admitted, is a bit different considering the North American game schedule.
“I want to keep working hard and show my best every night and be on top of my play. Just help my team win,” he said. “I need to be stronger if I want to be a good player in the NHL, but it’s pretty hard to practice hard when you’re playing three or four games in a week. But that’s what I’m trying to do – work hard and get stronger.”
Juolevi said there wasn’t really a player that he grew up idolizing or emulating, but admits that a couple of familiar names have made an impact.
“Of course Teemu Selanne is a big idol for everybody in Finland and he was great. Of course, he’s a forward, but he was a great idol to see what he was doing here,” he said. “Right now I like to watch Oliver Ekman-Larsson from Arizona – I like his game, but not really any old school players – not that much.”
London isn’t exactly a bastion of people of Finnish descent, and Juolevi admitted to being surprised when he was addressed in his mother tongue recently.
“I’ve seen a couple of Finnish people here and I don’t know what they’re doing here,” he said, laughing. “They came to me and spoke Finnish and I was like, ‘Oh, OK… what’s going on now?’”
While he misses some things from home, he said he has adjusted well to life in North America.
“My girlfriend is there, but nothing else really,” he said. “I mean, Finnish food is good, but everything’s been fine here, so it’s good.”
So what would be the Finnish delicacy he misses most?
“Meatballs and mashed potatoes,” he said. “It’s kind of Finnish – it’s like Swedish, but…”
And considering Finland’s recent on-ice dominance, should there really be any doubt when he is asked whether Finnish meatballs are better than Swedish meatballs?
“Yeah,” he said emphatically, and with a grin. “For sure.”
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