Juuso Välimäki has big plans, but for now he’s in little Richland, Washington.
A Finnish hockey player for the Tri-City Americans, the Calgary Flames selected Välimäki with the sixteenth pick in the 2017 NHL draft. He didn’t make the roster this season, so he’s back with the Tri-City Americans. He hopes next year will be different, but right now he’s happy to hone his craft in the Tri Cities.
“Next year when the season starts again, I’ll be (at the Flames camp), and next year obviously it’s my goal again to make that team,” he said. “For now I need to focus on being here.”
So far, so good—Välimäki is a defenseman but in the first twelve games had already recorded four goals and eight assists.
This is Välimäki’s third season with the Tri-City Americans. He started playing hockey when he was 5 years old, and other than a brief dabble in soccer, it’s been his only experience in team sports.
“I’ve always been kind of athletic, and I play other sports with friends,” he said. “I loved downhill skiing when I was younger, but I’ve never played other team sports.”
On practice days, Välimäki loads up with oatmeal and fruit before heading to the rink at 10 a.m. for a couple hours of working out, whether that’s stretching, lifting weights, or putting in time on the ice. After lunch, he comes back to the rink for a two-hour session on the ice. Välimäki usually drinks a protein shake or has a banana or small meal to get through the afternoon. In the evenings he usually stretches or rolls out sore muscles at home before starting over the next day.
He likes hockey because it’s challenging. “It’s pretty complicated when you think about it,” he said. “You’ve got skates on. You’re on the ice, you have a stick and a lot of guys are trying to hit you. They’re going to do all kinds of stuff to not let you score.”
It’s those hits, though, that can derail a player’s career. The constant abuse to a hockey player’s body is no laughing matter, and Välimäki is careful to take care of issues before they get worse.
“I make sure I always do warmups before I go on the ice, and I do cooldowns when I get off the ice,” he said. “If I have soreness, I make sure the trainers take care of that stuff, and I use ice bags a lot.”
Because hockey can be so dangerous, he also ensures he’s primed when he’s on the ice.
“It’s a sport where accidents can happen on the ice and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “My mindset has always been that if there is something I can do to stay healthy, I always do that stuff. … On the ice obviously I always have to be aware of what’s going on. I need to stay alert.”
In season, practice and games take up much of his time. Games run from September to March—more than seventy in all. And that means a lot of travel throughout the West, from Portland to British Columbia.
“I realized lately that it is important, when it’s not time for hockey, to not really think about hockey,” he said. “Your mind needs the rest from the sport. … When you have a day off, it’s important to think about other stuff. I try to hang out with the guys and just do something totally different. That’s important, and it keeps your mind fresh.”