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A STAR IS BORN

Juuso Valimaki had a rookie season that wasn't without challenges, however it's clear the sky's the limit for young blueliner

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

Some guys are content to play the tank towns, milk the easy applause, aspire to nothing grander than regional venues in half-filled houses.

For others, those with a voracious appetite for achievement, nothing less than Carnegie Hall (or, in this specific case, its local equivalent, the Scotiabank Saddledome) will do.

Jusso Valimaki is one of that number who actively seek the bright lights.

And nowhere, but nowhere, are those lights more intense, more star-making or pitilessly exposing, than in the intense glare of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"The feeling for me," acknowledged the 20-year-old Valimaki of his brief first foray into the NHL post-season, "going into the first game - I'd watched the first couple - was: 'God, I want to play. I want to play. I want to play.'

"When you finally get to play …

"When you're having fun, trusting yourself, you play your best.

"The atmosphere was something I'd never experienced before. Twenty-thousand people yelling as hard as they can. You're playing in front of them - first in Colorado against them and then here with them. It's something great.

"You live for that.

"That's what I live for, anyway.

"That's the best feeling: To play in front of those people."

This season, the former 16th-overall draft pick concedes, was one of personal "ups and downs."

Or peaks and Valis.

 

 

Bucking the odds and landing a spot on the big team roster directly out of training camp. Suffering the maddening uncertainty of a high-ankle sprain in November. A return to active duty with the Stockton Heat in February. Recall. Then being conscripted for Games 4 and 5 of the Avalanche series.

"Vali's three years out from his draft year and here he is," lauded Flames' boss Bill Peters. "That's how long it takes.

"We're excited about Vali.

"You're 17, you go play two more years (junior), one year pro and now you're ready.

"The thing that was happening with Vali is that our team was getting better and ice time was reduced and then he got that hurt, right? That high ankle sprain.

"Those are terrible to come back from. They take forever.

"The D kinda hit stride and then he's sitting on the outside looking in, a young guy, not on the powerplay, not on the penalty kill, first-year pro.

"Doesn't make any sense so we sent him down and when he came back, credit to him. He was bigger, stronger, faster. He did a great job looking after himself and I can say that because we do all the body fats.

"He's leaner, he's heavier, he's stronger."

 

 

While admitting the intense desire to be here up top, Valimaki concedes that the time spent in the minors helped round his game.

"The start was really good, obviously, making the team. I was really proud of that, really happy,'' he says. "Then a big setback with the injury. It took a lot of time out of the year. But it's part of the game.

"I got the better first, then you get the worse after. There are tough days, days when you're down but you've got to take it the right way.

"Being in Stockton, probably long-term I think was good for me. Playing tons of minutes, learning how to do that in pro hockey.

"I think I grew as a player and when I came back up here, after a couple of games I feel even better than at the start of the year. Obviously, you can see the growth. I'm pretty happy how it went but obviously a disappointing ending for all of us.

"Everybody.

"I look in the mirror, too.

"So I can't be too happy about my game, either. We can all be better."

The aim obviously next season is to stick from post-to-post, adding responsibility along the way.

"The really good ones," said Heat assistant coach Joe Cirella, a 14-season NHLer on defence, during Valimaki's AHL spell, "can play powerplay, kill penalties, play big minutes, play in tough situations against top players.

"Can Juuso eventually be that guy? Yeah. I don't see why not."

They all see him that way. More decisively, he sees himself that way, too.

"He's thinking not only of making this team for 82 games, but being part of the powerplay or the penalty kill,'' said Peters, gazing into his crystal ball.

"That's how he thinks."

How he thinks is top-shelf. Big league. Carnegie Hall (or that aforementioned local equivalent).

"You want to be here,'' said Valimaki with an unshakeable conviction belying those 20 years. "You don't want to go down at any point.

"If you do, it's like: 'OK, I want to get back.' Every day, you're aching to get back.

"You don't want to play there.

"Especially when you get a taste of this, right?"

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