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Juuso Valimaki says the NHL Scouting Combine was the 'start of a great ride' - on and off the bike

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

The future Flame managed to keep his lunch down.

Barely.

Others around him weren't so lucky.

"It hits you like a minute or two after," Juuso Valimaki said, harkening back to his 2017 Scouting Combine experience and the dreaded Wingate cycle test.

"It doesn't sound as bad (as the VO2 Max) and I guess it's not really as bad at the time, but man - afterward?

"Worse. So much worse.

"Guys were puking left and right. I was able to keep it together. Fortunately.

"And I ended up doing pretty well, too, so I was happy."

The fitness portion of an athlete's Combine experience is rarely looked back on with such affection.

For Valimaki, though, it was the culmination of years of hard work and what he describes as the "start of a great ride."

On and off the bike.

The Combine - held annually in Buffalo, New York - is an invite-only prospect showcase, allowing 100 or so of the NHL's top draft-eligible prospects to meet and mingle with club brass, reconnect with old peers, and, yes, strut their stuff in a gruelling physical component that gives teams a baseline for the prospect's aerobic, anaerobic and musculoskeletal fitness.

It is, in essence, the kickoff to the upcoming NHL Draft, which this year falls in less than a month's time - June 21 and 22 - in Vancouver, B.C.

Valimaki, only two years removed with a full pro season under his belt already, still gets chills thinking about the experience and how attending the 2017 event was - quite literally - life-changing.

 

 

"I was actually thinking about this the other day," Valimaki recalled. "This time of the year will always hold a special place in my heart. I went over there to Buffalo, didn't know much about the event, didn't really know anyone, either.

"But it was exactly what I needed.

"It brought me out of my comfort zone a little bit. The draft, it's always so stressful for all the prospects. It's your future, after all, and we're all kind of waiting on pins and needles, not sure where we're going to land.

"But it sure is exciting. Once I started talking to the teams in Buffalo, it really started to feel real. I'm like, 'This is really happening.'"

In all and including the Flames, Valimaki met with 29 of the 31 teams that weekend. He entered the Draft as the 11th-ranked North American skater after a standout season with the Tri-City Americans, but ultimately went 16th to the Flames in a first round chock-full of talented blueliners.

While every team he met with expressed interest, Valimaki had "a feeling" after leaving his meeting with General Manager Brad Treliving and the Flames.

"I mean, you never really know, especially when you're meeting with all the different teams for 20 minutes at a time, but it was a great talking with Calgary," he said.

"I remember the conversation pretty well. We talked a lot about hockey, obviously, but I think they wanted to get to know me better as a person. Lots of talk about my family and things like that.

"It was really comfortable."

Valimaki didn't know what to expect from the meetings. He'd heard stories over the years, how teams would go off the board with out-of-the-box questions and even riddles to test their cognitive skills ("It was my understand there would be no math!"), but everything in his mind was fairly straightforward.

The conversations took place over a three-day period before trading the suit and tie for an all-black, adidas-branded training gear.

In his 24 regular-season and two playoff games with the Flames last year, it's clear the now-20-year-old was born with ice water in his veins. Not even the dreaded Combine gauntlet could faze him.

Ever the cerebral type, Valimaki went over the circuit and practiced the workouts ahead of time.

Again and again.

Even the all-out sprint known as the Wingate, with all sorts of pain resulting from the crazy-high resistance on a futuristic fan bike, and a horde of onlookers fiercely screaming in their ear to go harder, faster, longer.

The preparation paid off, as he finished fourth in peak power output (watts/kg), behind Josua Norris, Jesper Boqvist and Kailer Yamamoto.

"Physically, I felt terrible," Valimaki said. "Just brutal. Nothing left.

"But when I heard my results, I was pretty pumped.

"That's the Combine for you. Nervousness, excitement, and one really good opportunity all at the same time."

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