There and back again, a goaltender’s tale

Brendan McCarthy
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Well-traveled Olkinuora set to make pro debut with IceCaps tonight

Finnish goaltender Jussi Olkinuora will make his pro debut with the St. John’s IceCaps tonight when the team takes on the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Winnipeg Jets signed the 22-year-old Olkinuora, a former NCAA Western Collegiate Hockey Association second-team all-star, to a two-year contract last week. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

You might think there’s a clue to what Jussi Olkinuora is all about in the single word — “Workaholic” — on the back of his goaltender’s helmet. And you’d be right, but perhaps not in the way you thought.

“It actually comes from my favourite TV show, Workaholics,” said the St. John’s IceCaps’ newest netminder.

“It gives a lot of misunderstanding. Sometimes, I think it makes me look like a big douche, but that’s not the point.”

And he then he laughs and you begin to get some understanding of the 22-year-old from Finland, described by his University of Denver goaltending coach as someone with “a wonderful personality, very happy-go-lucky.”

This is not to suggest the native of Helsinki isn’t a go-getter.

“It’s not up to me to say,” he answers when asked if there he is a workaholic when it comes to his chosen profession

But you have to believe that someone who has advanced from a non-scholarship spare goalie on a university team to someone with an NHL entry-level deal in less than two years hasn’t done so on skill alone.

One thing is for sure, there is also a bit of an adventurer in Olkinuora, who is set to make his first pro start tonight in Hamilton as the IceCaps take on the Bulldogs (9 p.m. NT). Assigned to St. John’s last week after being signed as a free agent by the Winnipeg Jets, Olkinuora has taken what, for European goalies at least, is an unorthodox route to the North American pro ranks.

It began when he was 17. With his parents’ encouragement, he participated in an school exchange program that saw him spend a year in Salt Lake City.

“It was more of a life experience thing and less about hockey,” said Olkinuora.

But he did play for a Utah-based midget AAA program and also became interested in playing for an American university team. So after returning to Finland, where he would spend two years playing for the HIFK club’s top junior team, he began contacting U.S. schools, trying to drum up interest.

Most advised him to return to the States and the USHL, the junior A league that’s a primary springboard to the colleges. That he did in 2010, but his year with the Sioux Falls Stampede wasn’t as satisfying as he had hoped. So it was back to Finland, with his North American hopes just about dashed, left only with the expectation of trying to find a spot in elite league of his native country.

But in the summer of 2011, the University of Denver found itself in a bind after one of the Pioneers’ two scholarship netminders underwent major knee surgery. Olkinuora was contacted and even though DU’s offer only promised a temporary position and no scholarship (he could have attended university for free in Finland), he packed his bags, arranged for a $45,000 student loan and for a third time, headed back across the Atlantic, this time to Colorado.

If it was gamble, it paid off... for everyone involved. Olkinuora turned into what then-Denver head coach George Gwozdecky called his best mid-season recruit in his 19 years at the head of the Pioneers’ program. By the end of the 2011-12 season, the six-foot-two, 195-pound Finn was the team’s No. 1 goalie and had been named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) all-rookie team. This past season, he posted a 13-6-5 record, 2.35 goals-against average and .927 save percentage and was named a WCHA second-team all-star.

He also became known for enthusiastic play that matched his personality.

“Sometimes that translated into the way he played," DU goaltending coach David Lassonde told the Denver Post’s Mike Chambers in early February. "We tried to get him to calm down a little bit and not have so much 'wow' to his game.”

There was enough ‘wow’ left to attract pro scouts, and even though Olkinuora endeavoured to keep his focus on the Pioneers, by the time this past season ended, he was “50-50” about turning pro.

“I was waiting for a good fit,” he said.

He found it with the Jets, who offered him a two-year deal and a chance for an immediate, albeit brief, acclimation with St. John’s on an amateur tryout (his new contract kicks in this fall).

“The shots,” Olkinuora quickly answered when asked what a few workouts with the IceCaps had taught him about what he saw as the biggest difference between the university and pro games. “Quicker releases More accurate. These guys have more patience. In college, you can rely on not having to deal with backdoor passes, but not here.

“It’s a faster game, that’s for sure.”

And that’s just the practices. He’ll find out what real action is like tonight at Copps Coliseum. With both the IceCaps and Bulldogs out of the AHL playoff picture, St. John’s head coach Keith McCambridge figured this was a good opportunity to get a look at his team’s new goalie

“I’m glad to get the nod,” said Olkinuora. “I wasn’t counting on it, but I was wanting it. I was hoping for it.”

Notes

Olkinuora’s given first name is Juho, but he prefers Jussi. “It’s like the difference between Richard and Dick or William and Bill,” he explained. “When I was five, I told my parents I hated the name Juho and I wanted to be called Jussi, and I have ever since” ... No matter what he does, it’s highly unlikely Olkinuora will be the IceCap who draws the most attention from those taking in tonight’s contest. That will almost certainly be defenceman Zach Redmond if, as expected, he plays what will be his first game since suffering a severed femoral artery when his thigh was cut by a skate blade in a practice eight weeks ago. Redmond was sent by the Jets to the IceCaps on a conditioning assignment to make a final step back to the NHL as he finishes what has been described as a miraculous recovery ... The AHL has approved the relocation of the Houston Aeros franchise to Des Moines, Iowa, beginning next season. The team is owned by and affiliated with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild ... The league has also approved the sale of the Peoria Rivermen to the Vancouver Canucks. The Rivermen had been the farm team of the St. Louis Blues. No immediate word on whether the Canucks will move the team, although some sort of relocation is expected ... Swedish netminder Niklas Svedberg of the Providence Bruins has been named winner of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender for the 2012-13 ...

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: IceCaps, NHL, University of Denver Winnipeg Jets North American Western Collegiate Hockey Association AHL Sioux Falls Stampede Denver Post Vancouver Canucks Houston Aeros Minnesota Wild St. Louis Blues Providence Bruins

Geographic location: Finland, Helsinki, Hamilton Salt Lake City U.S. Atlantic Des Moines, Iowa

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