Unlikely Olympic opportunity fuels Jokinen's revival
After the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Olli Jokinen believed his long and successful international career had come to an end with a well-deserved bronze medal won on the strength of an unforgettable comeback against Slovakia on the penultimate day of the tournament.
Yet, four years later, Jokinen, now with the Winnipeg Jets, is preparing for an unexpected trip to Sochi, which will mark the fourth time he will represent his country in Olympic competition.
"I think it was more of a challenge," Jokinen told NHL.com about his return to the Finnish team from which he thought he had retired after Vancouver. "Four years ago, I never even thought that I would still be playing at this level.
"I kind of had a tough season last year and then our [Finnish] coach [Erkka Westerlund] called me and asked if he could put me in a long list [for the Olympics]. I thought about it as a good challenge. Team Finland is hard to make, there is a lot of good hockey players, so that way I wanted to challenge myself one more time for the national team. Things worked out and I made the team."
Jokinen, 35, was selected by the Los Angeles Kings at No. 3 in the 1997 NHL Draft and has spent almost 16 seasons in the League with the Kings, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames, New York Rangers and Winnipeg. In his 1,144 NHL games, he has scored 312 goals and 728 points, including a career-high 91 points in the 2006-07 season with the Panthers.
The glory years, though, were not the conversation when Jokinen struggled after signing a two-year contract with the Jets before the 2012-13 season. In a shortened season, Jokinen scored just seven goals and seven assists in 45 games and ended up a minus-19.
Things have changed for the better this season as the challenge of making the Olympic team has spurred Jokinen to a new level. He has 13 goals and 31 points in 57 games.
"You want to play well; after the last year I wanted to have a bounce-back season and prove to myself that I can still play at this level and prove it to the other people as well,” Jokinen said. "That was definitely one thing in the summer to put the work in and try to get better. I wanted to have a good start to the season to have a chance to make the national team."
Success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has never really found Jokinen. Despite his NHL longevity, he has only made the postseason on one occasion, for Calgary in 2009, and that lasted just six games.
It has been different, though, for Jokinen in international play, where he has collected a chest full of medals.
The big center from Kuopio has won gold at the 1998 World Junior Championship, two silver and three bronze medals at the World Championship and silver at the 2004 World Cup. In the Olympics, he earned silver at Torino 2006, and bronze at Vancouver.
"All three [Olympics] I've been to, they've been special," said Jokinen, who also played in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. "I think in 2006 in Italy, a lot of us we were in the prime of our careers and we had a good team. We ended up getting second place, which was disappointing, but it was a fun team to be around. The only game we lost was the final game. That way you have a little bit of a bitter taste in your mouth, but at the same time, it was the most complete team I've been on.
“Obviously the last Olympics, winning the bronze, you win the last game and it's a kind of a different feeling to finish the tournament with the win and end up getting a medal. At the end of the day, everybody is there for the win and that's what we are aiming for going to this one."
Finland has not been among the list of primary contenders for a spot on the podium before most recent big tournaments. But more often than not, when the tournament in question concludes, the Finns find a way to have medals draped around their necks.
"We don't mind being underdogs, that's fine," Jokinen says. "We have good goaltending, we have everybody buying into the system. Everybody is proud to put that jersey on and we stick with our game plan. I think it doesn't really matter who plays for Finland, the names on the back don't really matter, because everybody who goes there buys in and sticks with the plan. And good goaltending gives us confidence that we can win those big games."
If the Finns manage to win gold in Sochi, Jokinen would complete his Olympic medal collection.
"Of course, that would be nice," he said. "But there are a lot of good countries.
"Competition gets harder every year; there are probably eight or nine teams that believe they can win the tournament. And we [believe] too."
Author: Michael Langr | NHL.com Correspondent