TRINEC, CZE - Two is better than one.
That's what 18-year-old Finnish defenseman Ville Heinola thinks about world junior championship gold medals.
"Last year, it was great to win. I learned a lot, but I was a young guy and didn't play many minutes and got hurt in the quarterfinals and wasn't on the ice. So, yes, I have a gold medal, but I would like to get another one," he said with a smile. "This time, I want to be a bigger part of the team and help us to win."
It's been an eventful six months for Heinola that started with being selected 20th overall by the Winnipeg Jets at the 2019 NHL Draft. After impressing management with his hockey sense and quick hands at development camp, he signed his entry level contract in mid-July. A few weeks later, he went to the World Junior Summer Showcase where his solid play from the blueline, especially when running the power play, was a hot topic of conversation.
Heinola carried that strong play right into rookie camp and then training camp and the preseason. Because of a variety of reasons including offseason attrition and injuries, the Jets blueline was uncharacteristically thin and he saw the opportunity to make the opening night roster and went for it.
"I just wanted to play my best," he explained. "I didn't know if I would make the team, that wasn't my decision. I just focused on how I played and hoped it was enough. I was happy for the opportunity to play my first games against NHL players and see where need to be.
"Just like last year at world juniors, now I have more experience and you know more. You know what the tournament is like. You know what it takes to win. You know how to manage your time and your body and you know more about how you can contribute to the team and help win," Heinola continued. "Now I know what the NHL is like and what I need to do to be successful there too."
He averaged 18 minutes a game while notching a goal and four assists for five points in eight games with the Jets before being assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL as injured players made their way back into the lineup. He played three games there before ultimately being loaned back to Lukko - his team in the Finnish League - for the rest of the season.
Video: WPG@PIT: Heinola buries one-timer for first goal
Heinola said the biggest thing he learned was that he needs to be stronger, both to withstand the physical play at the NHL level and to be able to shoot the puck with more authority and have a harder, heavier shot. He also wants to be smarter in his own end, but said having this experience has made him think the game a bit differently.
"When there are stronger guys against you, you have to be more clever and think about the game more because you can't beat them physically," said the 5-foot-11, 180 pound blueliner. "You have to think more about what they're going to do so you can be in a position to stop them."
His ability to out-think an opponent is one of the many reasons the Jets drafted Heinola in June.
"He's a real smart player," said Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger. "His forte is his escapability in the d-zone between the goal line and the back wall. His ability to make plays with his hands, which are really, really good and his hockey sense are what make him effective and are able to get him out of trouble, if needed.
"His ability to read the play and make the first pass - even if it's just a simple play - is one of his strengths," he continued. "It doesn't have to be anything that everybody's going to notice. Maybe just a chip off the wall to the winger that's swinging that nobody else notices, but he's paying attention. Those are his strengths. He's not a flashy player, just a safe, steady, reliable guy."
While the door closed on him playing in North America this year, it opened the door for him to play at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in Czech Republic and help Team Finland go for back-to-back gold medals.
"I've been watching this tournament since I was a child," he said, smiling at the memories. "I didn't really think that I could be one of those players until I was 16 and played in my first game in the Finnish League. Then, I thought maybe there's a chance. To make it last year as an underage player was a dream come true and it's an honor to be here again this year."
It's an opportunity the Jets are excited for him to have.
"There's always value in playing at this tournament," Heisinger said. "You're playing against your peers, for your country, under lots of pressure especially with the great crowds here. So, there's always value in being here. It's a great opportunity for him to get better and, as an organization, we like putting our players in situations that help them develop and be successful."
Through four games in the preliminary round, Heinola has four assists and is averaging 15 minutes a game.
"Ville is a top player to our team and a key part of our power play," said Raimo Helminen, head coach of Team Finland. "He's getting better with each game and you can see that he is more comfortable. We are happy with how he is playing and helping the team."
Finland will face USA in the quarterfinals on Thursday and, in addition to going for another gold medal, Heinola is grateful for the opportunity to play in tough games against the best players in his age group and said that even just hanging out and training with his teammates is really good for him.
"When you work with the best players in your country, there's a lot of competition and we're all pushing each other to be better," he said. "We all want to win. We all want to improve. We're all working hard to make it to the NHL and have long careers. Being around other people like that can only make you better. Being here and being part of this team is a very big accomplishment that many other young players don't get to have and I am very proud to be here and contribute to the team."
He paused and smiled before continuing, "But, I will be more proud when we win another gold medal."