Defenseman Juuso Välimäki, who signed a loan agreement with Ilves last week and turned 22 years this week, is excited because his long break from playing is finally over. Välimäki was picked in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft, he has played 24 games with the Calgary Flames so far, and last weekend he played in his first ever Liiga game.
Five seasons ago Välimäki left Ilves’ A-junior team (now called Ilves U20) to pursue his NHL dream in North America, and now he’s joined Ilves’ ranks again. From the first moments with the team, “Juike” has felt like he is in the right place.
– The team has welcomed me really well, and it is a joy to join the group. I have a good feeling about this, and I gladly joined the team because what we have here is a locker room full of great guys and it has felt great to be back in the familiar Hakametsä arena. I have an apartment here and it is amazing to spend time in a familiar environment for the first time in a long time, raves Välimäki.
– I’m already acquainted with Eemeli Suomi and Ville Meskanen, with whom I played a whole season on the junior team here, and additionally I’ve played with at least Joona Ikonen and Jarkko Parikka.
When the topic of discussion turns to Jarkko Parikka, his defense partner from last weekend, Välimäki has nothing but good things to say.
– “Jake” Parikka is a great guy off the ice, a happy and friendly dude. On the ice he is a perfect partner for me because we compliment each other well. He plays a stand-up game and especially his defense is excellent, which creates more opportunities for me to play to my strengths that include supporting the offense and strong playmaking ability, praises Välimäki his defense partner.
Juuso Välimäki’s performance during the opening weekend was downright brilliant, especially if you take account of the long break from playing. Välimäki admits that he was surprised when he heard about the 25-minute total he played against HIFK on Saturday.
– I have been in playing condition for a long time and I have worked hard to stay like that. When you think about the fact that it was a week shy of 18 months since I played last time, it is unequivocally a horribly long time to not be able to play, sighs Välimäki.
– Friday’s game was for getting rid of the rusty feeling. I felt a little antsy with handling the puck, and my legs need to get used to the strain of game play. On Saturday I thought I played clearly better, and I have to be really satisfied with the start as it is since it happened after the long break.
The return to the familiar environment and to Ilves has been very pleasant for Juuso Välimäki. The joy to be with Ilves specifically is emphasized in the man’s speech, as is the fact how it is even possible to play in Liiga in the first place under the unprecedented circumstances.
– It is obvious that a few years ago I could never have believed that I’d make my Liiga debut at this point, but it shows how hard it is to predict life. I believe, however, that at the moment everyone wins in this equation – playing for Ilves greatly helps my career at this point and I believe that I can assist Ilves in gathering points during the time I’m here, however long it may be. It is, of course, great that I am able to play for Ilves specifically and be a part of this group, from which I already know the head coach Jouko Myrrä and the assistant coaches, too.
When we watched Juuso Välimäki play last weekend, it was hard to believe that he was still a little rusty. Is it correct to assume that better things will come in the future?
– I am sure that I can improve myself a lot. After a long break I’m not as bold on the ice as I’d like to be and playing with the puck needs work. Although I play defenseman, I believe that I can contribute to scoring as well. My skating will improve, too, and I believe that I’ll look better next week already, Välimäki hints at the future.
Interview: Vesa Suonsyrjä / Translation: Siru Takala