Olkinuora’s journeys have led to glory and beyond

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

📝 by Andrew Streitel | AHL On The Beat

Many pro athletes, no matter the sport, had intriguing journeys that took them from their local athletic facilities to the bright lights of playing in front of thousands of screaming fans.

It’s certainly true for Grand Rapids Griffins netminder Jussi Olkinuora, who has played professionally in five countries, in five leagues, and for 10 teams — and has three gold medals to his name.

Growing up in Finland, Olkinuora was in love with two sports: soccer and hockey. Hockey is considered the number one sport in his home country and kids dream of becoming hockey players. With the support of his parents, Olkinuora did just that. After participating in both soccer and hockey until the age of 13, the young prospect had to make a choice.

“I choose hockey because I thought I had a better shot at making it in that sport,” said Olkinuora. “I was not serious about hockey until maybe college even. I did not think I would do it for a living until I was 20.”

Olkinuora got his first taste of the North American culture when he came to the United States at the age of 16 with the idea of studying abroad. He was lucky enough to combine hockey with his schooling and ended up playing in 38 games with the Chadders 18U AAA club in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We played a lot of showcases with Chadders and I learned about this thing called college hockey, which I didn’t know about before. Times were different,” said Olkinuora. “I actually thought I would get drafted into the USHL and stay here. That never happened, so I went back home to Finland and played juniors for a couple years.”

After speaking with some scouts and coaches, the idea of getting a higher education while having the opportunity to play hockey stuck with Olkinuora when he traveled back to Finland.

“While I was [home], I was emailing all the coaches and made my own highlight videos. I emailed about 60 [college] coaches for teams and most of them never responded,” explained Olkinuora. “That really kept me motivated to come back but no colleges wanted to take me from the junior league in Finland. So, I had to come over and play in the USHL.”

That stint in the United States Hockey League was much needed for the young goaltender, as he became a lot more comfortable with the language and culture in America. He spent one season with Sioux Falls and earned a spot on the University of Denver hockey team for the fall of 2011. Olkinuora logged two seasons at Denver, showing a combined 22-14-8 ledger and a 2.27 GAA. He was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team in 2011-12 and followed that by earning a spot on the NCAA Second All-American Team in 2012-13.

“College was the best time of my life. It was bittersweet to leave after two years, and I wish I could have [stayed]. I felt like I had to leave, though,” said Olkinuora. “I was undrafted and was presented with an entry-level offer [from the Winnipeg Jets], and I had some student loans and stuff and had to be realistic. If I would have stayed in Denver and got hurt or played poorly, I would have really regretted not taking the offer.”

Olkinuora signed on the dotted line with Winnipeg but struggled to stick with its American Hockey League affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps, citing timing and not playing enough as reasons for his rough start as a rookie in 2013-14. The youngster ended up playing much of his early career in the ECHL with Ontario (2013-15) and Tulsa (2015-16), appearing in 96 ECHL games compared to only 21 appearances over four seasons in the AHL between St. John’s and Manitoba.

However, after not sticking with a team in the AHL or NHL, it was time for a change. Olkinuora returned to his home country to play in the top professional league in Finland, the Liiga, for three seasons, followed by two years in the Kontinental Hockey League, the top Russian league.

“It’s been a lot the past six years,” explained Olkinuora. “I have seen a lot of places and gone to a lot of cities. I have had some good seasons, good games, but also some not so good games. I’ve gotten older and learned a lot about myself. I don’t really take hockey as seriously as I used to and that has translated to playing better, which is ironic.”

His more easy-going approach to the game did not go unnoticed, as Olkinuora earned a spot on Team Finland for both the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and the 2022 IIHF World Championship. Competing in the Olympics is a goal for any athlete no matter what stage they are in their career.

Jussi Olkinuora (l.) won gold with Finland at the Olympics and the World Championships in 2022. (Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

“It was a great year last year, for me and the Finnish national team,” said Olkinuora. “It was really unfortunate that the NHL guys could not go to the Olympics, which gave me an opportunity to come. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of the Olympics. It’s my only Olympics and of course we win it. It was awesome, and I will remember that forever.”

Olkinuora served as the backup netminder to former Griffin Harri Sateri for much of the Olympics. He won his only game in the tournament, as Finland rallied from a 3-0 deficit after two periods to shock Sweden 4-3 in overtime during group play. But the World Championship this past spring was where Olkinuora really shined.

Fortunate that the tournament was held in his hometown of Helsinki, Olkinuora was able to enjoy the perks of playing in front of family and friends. In fact, even the scenery on his walk from the team hotel to the rink brought back plenty of flashbacks from his childhood.

“Between our hotel and the rink was my school I went to growing up. So, every day it was weird walking past because of all the memories I had there growing up,” he said.

Finland went on to win the World Championship, 4-3 in overtime over Canada, and Olkinuora had a tournament for the ages. He was named the tournament’s MVP after finishing with an 8-0-0 record, a 1.11 GAA, four shutouts and a .948 save percentage. The performance gave him another shot at returning to North America to achieve his dream of competing in the NHL, after signing as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings.

“Honestly, I thought I needed a really good tournament to even get a chance of coming back. I was a product of our team; we rarely gave up penalties and were very disciplined,” said Olkinuora. “It was not a given that I’d start but it went just as planned. The MVP was kind of a surprise.”

That might be so, but nothing can change the fact that the netminder collected two gold medals in a span of four months. Now in his 10th pro season and first as a Griffin, the veteran knows that his time is running out to make it to the NHL.

“For me the goal is not to just get a stint or a game, it is to stay in the league. Not just stay but make an impact and be valuable to them,” explained Olkinuora. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel. More of my career is behind me than in front. This is my 10th pro season and that motivates me to really push and know that this is not forever.”

Given the immense time reserved for pro athletes to craft their skills, some of them want to stay away from the sport after their playing careers are over with. Olkinuora knows that family and friends often are put on the back burner in the midst of a career, so after he hangs up his skates, he plans to finally take a step back and enjoy this little thing called life.

“I will for sure not work in hockey. You will not see me at the rink. We will see what’s in the future for me,” said Olkinuora. “I do not have any kids, but I would love to be a stay-at-home dad. That would be a privilege.”

Regardless of what his future holds, Olkinuora still has quite the journey ahead of him.