For Jesse Niinimaki the 2002 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships will be a platform to showcase his raw talent and to prove that the Edmonton Oilers made the right choice when they drafted him in the first round, earlier this year.
Edmonton took the Finnish phenom 15th overall in the 2002 NHL entry draft, much to the surprise of the rest of the league. Entering the draft Niinimaki was ranked number 50 amongst European players by NHL central scouting, but the Oilers felt they could not pass on his potential. A proven playmaker, Niinimaki’s stick handling ability has proven to be his ticket to one day playing in the National Hockey League.
Niinimaki speaks very fluent English and is very personable. After Finland’s 6-3 exhibition loss to Canada in Halifax he was very quick to respond to questions. "I like Canada," Niinimaki said when asked about the prospects of playing here in the near future, "It’s very nice, very pretty, a lot like my home country Finland. I like to get to play here."
He looks forward to making the jump to North America, and thinks that the transition will be easy because he has a handful of friends who are already playing here for various major junior teams. Niinimaki admitted that a few of his Finnish friends who play in Canada offered him advice for the tournament, specifically on certain Canadian players. "I heard that [Tootoo] is a very physical player, I heard how strong he is,… he hits, and tonight I saw it," he said in reference to Canada’s sparkplug forward Jordin Tootoo.
Niinimaki also added that a move to Edmonton could be softened if fellow Finn Janne Niinima were still with the club, "It’s nice to have someone there who speaks my language, in case there might be something I don’t understand."
Though Niinimaki alludes to a future with Edmonton, he readily admits that the opportunity is, at very least, a year or two away. "I can’t look to that right now; I need to play first in this tournament and then play for my team at home.
This tournament is a great opportunity for me, the speed is higher here so I can get a bit used to it. The speed here is the main difference." The pace of the play might be faster but it should not inhibit Niinimaki, who is a very skilful finesse player.
Niinimaki knows that his playmaking ability is what brought him to Halifax, and that he needs to continue his skilled play once the tournament begins. "I will need to [adjust] to the small ice here because I won’t have as much room to move. I need to make good plays."
Niinimaki showed his knack for making the nice pass in his team’s loss to Canada, as he set up their first goal with a heads-up cross-ice pass to Jussi Timonen. "I just waited, I had the puck and everyone came to me, so I passed it across. I’m glad he scored it in."
The Finnish team is very optimistic about their chances here in Halifax, exemplified by star goaltender Kari Lehtonen’s bold prediction that they would make the tournament finals. Niinimaki was not aware of his team-mates prediction, and when asked if he would like to make one of his own he quickly replied, "No," before coyly adding, "we win," as he walked away with a playful smile.
Finland may or may not make the final, that remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, Jesse Niinimaki will excite the crowd and showcase his talent amongst the best young players in the world. He has the passion the skill and the desire to excel, and he hopes to deliver the gift of a gold medal to his nation this Christmas