Flames prospect Valimaki leads as Finland’s Captain at World Juniors

Juuso Valimaki, a first-round pick of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.  Postmedia file

He missed the bus.

Over and over again.

That would usually be a troublesome trend, but not in the case of Calgary Flames’ first-round selection Juuso Valimaki.

“We have our development camp in the summer over at WinSport, and (the players) stay at a hotel near there and there is a van or a bus that takes them back and forth,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “So for the first couple of days of development camp, it’s always, ‘Ok, is everybody here?’ They do the roll-call, and Juuso was never there. He would never be on the bus because he would go to the rink early to work out, and then he would stay at the rink — when everybody else was coming back to the hotel — to work out.

“So say there were 40 kids at the camp. Well … there were only 39 on the bus. Juuso was never there, because he was either there early or staying late.”

Fine by the Flames higher-ups, who announced Valimaki’s name on their first trip to the podium — at No. 16 overall — at the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Oh yeah, that’s a good reason not to be on the bus,” Treliving said.

Treliving talks often about guys who “drive the bus,” and the Flames are optimistic that Valimaki has a bright future as one of those impact sorts at the Saddledome.

For the next two-plus weeks, the 19-year-old defenceman will be at the wheel for Team Finland, serving as captain for his national squad at the world junior championship in Buffalo.

The Finns open against Team Canada on Boxing Day (1:30 p.m., TSN/Sportsnet 960 The Fan). It should be an especially proud afternoon for Calgary’s hockey-operations and scouting staff, with future Flames in top leadership roles on both sides — Valimaki for Finland and left-winger Dillon Dube serving as Captain Canada.

Meanwhile, fellow Flames prospect Adam Fox will wear an ‘A’ for the host Americans.

“Just leadership and bring his presence on the ice — that’s what we want,” said Finland’s head coach, Jussi Ahokas, of Valimaki. “He doesn’t have to be any Superman or anything, but just be himself and I think that will be enough.

“As a person, he’s a really good guy. He works hard on the ice and off the ice. He’s a good teammate. And of course the way he plays, he always shows the best of what he can do.”

These aren’t uncharted waters for the blond blueliner, raised in the town of Nokia and now toiling for the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans.

Valimaki had the ‘C’ stitched on his sweater when he made his international debut at the under-16 level and then captained Finland to gold at the 2016 IIHF World U-18 Championship.

This must have been a no-brainer because Ahokas announced way back in August that the Flames’ prized prospect would lead the letter-wearing crew at the holiday showdown in Buffalo.

“It’s a huge honour, and it means so much to me. Especially in that big, big tournament, it’s something special,” Valimaki said. “I just want to do everything I can, on and off the ice, so that hopefully we play good and we compete for the championship and we’ll end the journey with the gold medals.”

There is no guarantee that world-junior difference-makers will eventually become stars at hockey’s highest level, but it’s certainly not a bad starting point.

In the lead-up to the 2017 NHL Draft, Flames scouts were struck by Valimaki’s sky-high compete level, by his size, his offensive skill-set and his smarts in both ends.

Their reconnaissance on the 6-foot-2, 211-lb. defender — it’s not uncommon to quiz past coaches, teammates and support staff and even billets and school-teachers — only increased their interest.

Valimaki’s work ethic and leadership traits were constants in those conversations.

“There are some guys that it’s just a certain way they’re wired, and that’s how he is,” Treliving said. “When you think of leadership, some people think, ‘Oh, it’s the loudest guy that is screaming and yelling all the time.’ Juuso encourages others, but it’s the way he looks after himself, the work that he puts in, the training that he does … It’s really leading by example.

“That’s one of the things, even talking to a lot of people around the Finnish national team, they saw at a younger age. He was always coming for extra, there early, staying late … and he has a deep desire to learn. You hear the comment of ‘being coachable.’ This is a guy who is asking and always looking for feedback and ways that he can get better. The time he puts into areas that he needs to work on in his game, it’s as good as I’ve seen with any young player. Areas that you talk to him about, areas that he’s got to improve upon, he’ll spend a lot of time trying to perfect his craft, and I think that’s really the strongest part of leadership.

“It’s sort of part of his DNA — he’s a very committed young guy and a very well-respected teammate, and he expects others that play with him to have the same mindset.”

The Finns won world-junior gold in both ’14 and ’16 but barely dodged demotion a year ago, failing to advance to the quarterfinal round before defeating Latvia in a best-of-three relegation series.

Valimaki is one of nine returnees from that squad.

“From the past experience, I’ve been captain with a lot of the guys that will be there again, and there is so much leadership, other than the guys wearing the letters, that it’s pretty easy to lead that group,” Valimaki said. “I think I’m more a leading-by-example guy, just doing everything as I good as I can all the time. I think I’m positive and kind of happy guy there, just trying to keep the negative stuff out of the room and just getting along with everyone.

“That’s my mindset — that if everybody is happy in the room, it will show on the ice.”

And, hopefully, result in a shiny keepsake.

Gold, preferably.

“That’s the goal we all want,” nodded Valimaki, pointing out nearly half of this band of buddies have been skating together in international action since their U-16 days. “I would say that the whole group, including coaches and everyone, I think we kind of deserve of it after this great journey. I think always one of our biggest strengths has been the team spirit and how the group of guys are in the room.

“We’ve got a lot of special momentum out of that, so I think it will be the way all of us want to end it. That’s what we’re going for.”