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Flames European amateur scout wished him good luck pre-draft and things turned out perfect

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

CHICAGO - On the way to his seats in the stands at the United Centre a couple of hours before the action got underway, Juuso Valimaki happened to bump into Ari Haanpaa, who was on his way to the draft floor.

"He just said 'Fingers crossed for you','' recalled the newest Flame of the chance encounter with the organization's European amateur scout, his fellow countryman and supporter.

As things played out, an hour and a half later …

"I guess that turned out to be a good omen,'' said Valimaki, modelling the Flaming C for the first time.

And in truth, the predominantly-red colour scheme looked most becoming on him.

"You never know what's going to happen. Every team's got its own list. Every team has different players they want. Things have to fall into place. You're a little nervous, waiting," said Valimaki.

With trade winds amped up to tempest level all day, Flames' GM Brad Treliving held tight to his first-round pick, 16th overall, to chose the Finnish-born defenceman.

"Not a ton there (trade-wise). We went through all the discussions and there was nothing that made sense. We're really pleased with the guy we got,'' said Treliving afterwards.

"The names kept coming off the board and we were excited when the player we took was still there. He's a high-end thinker. Moves really well. There's not a lot of holes in his game. He's not dynamic dynamic. He just makes good play after good play after good play."

Valimaki's Tri-City teammate and chum Michael Rasmussen had been selected seven picks early, at No. 9, by the Detroit Red Wings.

The shy, rangy blueliner from Tampere and the skyscraper-sized centreman hailing from Surrey, B.C. hit it off almost immediately.

Valimaki, relocating from his homeland at the rather tender age of 17.

"That was great to see,'' said Valimaki of Rasmussen's selection. "I'm so happy for him.

"He helped me tons. My first year, when I came over, we lived together. Being in the same house, he helped me so much with everything, with adjusting.

"To have a guy you consider a brother go through the same thing you did this year, the draft year, all that … I couldn't have asked for more. He's always been there for me.

"We're going to be friends forever."

Video: Juuso Valimaki's family shares their reaction

Rasmussen had high praise for his friend.

 "Not many guys deserve it more than him. Great teammate. Leader. Someone they'll really enjoy having in their organization," he said.

Any quirks Flames' fans should know about?

"Actually, he's a pretty open book for the most part,'' Rasmussen replied. "I'll tell you this, though: Sometimes he does like to sing. And, you know what, he's a pretty good singer. I won't go any further than that. It's an inside thing."

Aiding in Valimaki's North American acclimatization process, mom Mia and two brothers made the move to Kennewick, Washington last fall.

That added degree of support paid off: Valimaki's offensive stats jumped from seven goals and 35 points his first year to 19 goals and 61 points in 2016-2017 in only 50 starts, good for fourth on the Americans.

He also played for Finland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, chipping with two goals in seven starts.

But his mind had long been on the Windy City and how things would shake down Friday night.

"It's a dream that I've always had. My goal is to play in the NHL. I felt, with my family and my agent, that the best way to get there, to reach that dream, was to play in the WHL.

"What I want to do is play hockey."

"Obviously at the start, being away from my family and friends back in Finland was a little bit tough.

"But you chase your dream. You try and do what you love.

"The biggest thing for me now is improving my defensive game, my skating, my quickness and my pivots. I think my gaps will get better and my defending in the corners."

Up in the Flames' suite, fourth floor at the United Center, the newest member of the organization accepted back slaps and handshakes all round. He already looked at home.

And in truth, Valimaki had a hunch of his NHL destination long before Haanpaa's pre-draft finger-cross.

"You just get a feeling. I thought the interview at the Combine went well. Then then I went home from the Combine, I had lunch with Ari.

"He told me they really liked me."

A draft-day smile.

"Turns out, they did."



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