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FOCUSED ON RECOVERY

Valimaki admits injury has been tough on him mentally, but young Flames standout is staying positive: "I'm not even 21 years old yet. There's tons of years left to play."

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

The initial jolt of emotion, of disbelief mixed with recognition, triggered an almost paralyzing fear.

"Shock. I guess that would be what I felt right away," Juuso Valimaki is recalling of the moment he felt the stab of pain in his right knee.

"The first reaction was crying and screaming at the same time. The second was just crying.

"You can't believe it. Not again.

"I knew something had happened. I wasn't sure how bad it was.

"I've never had anything wrong with my knees before. So I've never experienced anything like this.

"But I definitely felt something. I knew something was wrong."

A month has passed since surgery to repair an ACL tear that has once again put the uniquely gifted young Finnish defenceman - who most definitely had a bead on a day-to-day job among the Flames' top six this year - on the road to recovery.

After being sidelined by a high-ankle sprain for an extended period last season, limiting him to 24 regular-season starts here and another 20 at AHL Stockton, this relatively recent turn of events seems particularly cruel, unfair.

Valimaki had returned from the ankle issue - always an injury with no finite recovery timeline - to make his post-season debut and and after a highly-productive off-season of conditioning and preparation, he seemed poised to begin his top-flight career in earnest.

"Yeah, I've been through (rehab) before," he says, "so you know: 'OK, it's a process. I've got to through it.' But in my case right now, I'd say that makes this harder. If I would've played all year last year, been healthy, prove to myself a little bit more, prove to everybody else a little bit more, been able to enjoy it a little bit more … maybe this would be a little easier. Maybe."

Valimaki, the 16th-overall selection in 2017 armed with a poise, an unflappable on-ice demeanour, far beyond his years, ranks high among the organization's most ready-for-primetime assets.

 

 

"I'm just focused on getting better," he says. "That's all I can do. Nothing's going to bring it back. I'm not gonna lie and say it's been easy. There's been a couple good days when I didn't think about it. When your mind is somewhere else. Out of the hockey world, the team, everything …

"There's a lot of good things - being around the guys, soon being able to see games. But every time brings back the feeling: 'I want to be there. I want to do that.'

"But I can't.

"That's the worst feeling. You feel powerless. You wonder why."

For support, girlfriend Vilma is now here in Calgary fulltime. The couple has just moved into new accommodation and they spent the last few days filling it with IKEA furniture ("It's Swedish,'' teases Valimaki, "but whatever …").

"That really helps. If I was alone every day it would be really hard. I have a lot of friends on the team. All the guys are good. The physios in the room and a lot of other people in the organization are on my side and willing to help.

"I'll take advantage of those people. I'm happy to do so and they're happy to help me. That's obviously a big thing.

"Most of my family is far away but I can still talk to them. My friends, too. I have a lot of people right here who can help.

"I have a lot of support around me."

 

Video: "I just have to focus on getting better"

 

Bolstered by that knowledge, and fully understanding his potential, Valimaki appreciates the payoff will be worth it. After surgery, which included the installing of screws in the knee, the joint should be stronger moving forward.

"It's the one thing that pushes me - that it will be better than ever," he says. "And I know that my head will be better than ever: My mental side will be stronger than ever.

"And I also know I'm not even 21 years old yet.

"There's tons of years left to play."

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