Valimaki was part of the group last year, which won just one game during the preliminary round and needed to defeat Latvia in the relegation series to remain in the top group. On top of the on-ice failures, Finland fired its coaching staff and tasked Jussi Ahokas with completing the tournament as head coach.
Finland’s misfortunes at the 2017 tournament came just one year after it had won gold on home ice in Helsinki in 2016.
“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, but maybe a little extra boost for every single guy in the room and for the team overall to succeed, play well and show the whole world that we are a really good country and we can compete for the championship,” said Valimaki. “I think we’ll have a really good team this year and I think we’ll for sure compete for the championship.”
It’s been a hectic time in summer for Valimaki. In June he was selected 16th overall by the Calgary Flames, then in July he attended his first development camp and signed his first pro contract.
The 187-cm (6’2″), 93-kg (205 lbs) native of Nokia then joined the national junior team in Plymouth for the World Junior Summer Showcase where it was announced he’d captain the Finns at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo.
“It’s been pretty crazy to be honest with you,” Valimaki said. “Obviously I’m really happy and these past couple of months have just been a roller-coaster travelling all over the world, but all of these have been really good experiences and obviously I’m really happy.
“It’s a huge honour, for sure. Something special. It’s always been an honour to play for this team and wearing the ‘C’ is something special.”
Fellow returnee Aapeli Rasanen was not surprised to learn his close friend has been chosen to lead the Fins at the World Juniors.
“He’s a natural leader,” said Rasanen. “He’s a great player, a great defenceman. He can lead on the ice by example and then off the ice he’s a leader, he shows guys how to do things.”
Valimaki registered two goals in six games at last year’s tournament in Montreal and Toronto one year after captaining the Under-18 team to a gold medal in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Will going back to the U.S. be a good omen?
“It didn’t really go the way that we wanted and obviously it’s a big disappointment, for sure, (especially after) winning the championship the year before,” he said. “I really try to forget it now and take all the learning experiences out of it and just focusing on 2018.”
With his club team, Valimaki registered 19 goals and 61 points in 60 regular season games with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League last season. This season he had 5 goals and 7 points in 16 games and a team-leading +5 rating.
Regarded as a two-way defenceman who likes to handle the puck and jump into the rush, Valimaki admitted it was difficult leaving home as a 16-year-old to play in the WHL. Until 2015 he had played top-level junior hockey in Finland for Ilves Tampere not far from his hometown.
“It was a little bit tough at the start leaving friends and family at home and going far away, but my teammates and all the guys there really helped me a lot,” said Valimaki. “After all that, playing hockey is what I love to do so it wasn’t that hard.
“I just heard overall good things about the CHL and I saw a couple guys before me went like Olli Maatta and those guys went high and Julius Honka – guys like that went really high in the draft so I just heard a lot of good things about it.”
A veteran of 878 NHL games, Sami Salo, now an assistant coach with Finland’s U20 team, understands why the Flames are so high on Valimaki.
“He’s a leader obviously on the back end, does the little things right, keeps everybody in check, he’s a true leader and obviously a very good defenceman,” Salo said. “(He) plays hard in our end and joins the rush and makes really good offensive plays as well. He’s been a really big surprise to me to see him play.
“Training is a big part. To jump to the NHL is going to be big, but he has a good attitude and wants to improve every day, so I don’t see any hurdles for him to not to make the jump to the NHL.”
The 18-year-old, who tries to model his game after Tampa Bay Lightning blue liner Victor Hedman, knows where he needs to improve his game in order to take the next step and one day suit up for the Calgary Flames.
“I think my defensive side of the game, for sure,” he said. “Battling in front of the net and in the corners – boxing out players (in front of the net) and my gaps can be better.”
–Courtesy of IIHF