Juuse Saros was getting a hard time about his haircut. It’s not like the 19-year-old was sporting long locks or a colourful coif. No, a team official was teasing the Finnish goaltender about his short spikes, his hair still in the growing-back-in-phase.
In June Saros started six months of mandatory military service back home in Finland. After spending the summer learning how to throw a grenade and shoot a gun, Saros is back – temporarily, at least – defending the crease for the defending IIHF World Junior Championship gold medallists at USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Last year in Malmö, Sweden, Saros backstopped Finland to its third World Juniors gold. In the gold medal game, he made 35 saves as his team defeated the home side 3-2 in overtime.
“There’s always something special about playing against Sweden,” he says, “especially on their home ice.”
When the team returned to Helsinki, more than 3,000 people turned out for a welcome home rally. “It’s the kind of feeling you never feel before,” he says, still grinning at the memory.
Saros being named to the tournament all-star team would be the first of a trifecta of individual recognitions that the 2013-14 season would bring.
Playing for his hometown team, HPK Hämeenlinna, in the SM-liiga, Saros sported a 1.76 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 44 games and was named the league’s rookie of the year. Representing Hämeenlinna (population: 68,000) was just as memorable as representing his country. “It’s a big deal when you get to play with your hometown team in the men’s league in Finland,” he says, proudly.
Then in April Saros was called to wear his country’s colours again. As the third goalie for the Finns at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Saros played a handful of pre-tournament games.
The big-game experience from Malmö helped settle any nerves he may have felt playing against senior teams from Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “You get some confidence so you can bring that to the game,” he says. “It’s a new thing when it’s for the men’s national team. It’s nice to know what it’s like.”
Clearly up to the challenge of facing faster and stronger players in those exhibitions, Saros shut out the Slovakians and stood tall in a shoot-out win over the Czechs.
He never dressed once the tournament began, but the experience was invaluable nonetheless.
“You get to see how the older players and players from NHL, so it was a great learning process for me.”
At the world championships, Saros, a fourth-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2013, was able to learn from the NHL team’s current crease incumbent, Pekka Rinne. In Lake Placid, he has goalie coach Miikka Kiprusoff’s brain to pick. “It’s nice to be able to work with one of my idols.”
Saros has come a long way in a short time. He was nine before taking up the sport and played primarily as a defenceman for his first few years. But by the time he was 13 the net was calling. In hindsight, it seems inevitable that he would take to such a solitary spot. After all, the first time he found the ice he had to go it alone. “There was a practice and nobody wanted to go so I just [went by myself] it and it felt good [being on the ice].”
The road to World Juniors glory in 2015 will have to go through Finland, and perhaps, more dauntingly, the puck will have to get behind Saros.
While Finland may have surprised some teams last year, it’s in everyone’s field of vision this time around.
Saros says that won’t affect his team’s mindset, but he knows the players need to be ready.
“Other teams want to beat us more than other years.”