Winning gold medal at World Juniors has Red Wings prospect Vili Saarijarvi wanting more

Brendan Savage | bsavage@mlive.comBy Brendan Savage | 

Follow on Twitter 
on January 17, 2016 at 6:06 AM, updated January 17, 2016 at 6:08 AM
FLINT, Mich. – From start to finish, the World Junior Championship couldn’t have worked out any better for Detroit Red Wings prospect Vili Saarijarvi.

It began with Saarijarvi’s junior team, the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League, giving him a week off prior to the tournament in order to be fresh when the World Juniors started Dec. 26.

That allowed Saarijarvi to head home to Finland – Helsinki hosted this year’s tournament – and spend some time with his family and friends over the holidays.

By the time the tournament ended 11 days later, Saarijarvi was heading back to Michigan with a gold medal hanging around his neck.

Saarijarvi helped Finland post a 3-1 record inthe preliminary round to earn a spot in the playoffs, where the Finns nipped defending champion Canada 6-5 in the quarterfinals and edged Sweden 2-1 in the semis to earn a rematch with Russia in the championship.

The Russians handed Finland a 6-4 loss in the preliminary round before Saarijarvi & Co. avenged that setback with a 4-3 overtime victory to win the gold medal.

It was Finland’s second gold medal in three years and fourth ever at the World Juniors.

“It was like very big experience and very good, very good experience,” said Saarijarvi, 18. “What made it so special was that it was played in Finland and Helsinki. I went to home before the tournament to see my family and friends and then the goal in the tournament was that we get the gold and we get it so it was a great experience.

“That made it so special that we won at home.The crowd we had there and those Finnish fans was awesome. it was unreal.”

The tournament marked the fourth straight year Saarijarvi represented Finland on the international stage.

He played for the Finns’ U-16 and U-17 teams before representing his country in last year’s U-18 World Junior Championship.

“Two, three years ago, I started playing under-16 national team games and watching TV,” he said. “Those under-20 World Juniors, it was like a dream. I wanted to play there. It was my goal. I watched it as a kid.

“It was pretty awesome.”

Saarijarvi appeared in all seven games for Finland at the World Juniors, picking up four assists and two penalty minutes while getting 11 shots on goal to go with an even plus-minus ratio.

His best game was in an 8-3 victory over Slovakia, when Saarijarvi had three assists.

Playing against the top young players in the world – some of whom have already began their professional careers – wasn’t the only adjustment Saarijarvi had to make at the World Juniors.

After spending the last two seasons in North America – he played for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers last season – Saarijarvi had to get reacquainted with the larger international ice surface used in Europe.

“Big ice, it was a little bit different,” he said. “There was more time and space in the offensive zone and defensive zone. You need to be ready all the time. You have to be ready here, too, but there was so much space.

“It was big rink and big ice so I think that speed in the games was very high, too.”

Saarijarvi said his phone exploded with text messages and voice mails after Finland won the gold medal.

Among those who contacted him with congratulatory messages were Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin and director of player development Jiri Fischer.

“I felt pretty good that they texted me and of course I answered back,” Saarijarvi said. “It was good to know they were watching. There’s a lot of Red Wings scouts. I didn’t talk to them at the tournament. After the tournament. My phone was just blowing (up with) messages.

“It was crazy. It was so much fun but same time getting those messages, there were so many, congrats and stuff like that, it was crazy. Right after the game, after we had all the things going on, I called my family … it was a big thing for me to see my family after that big game.”

Although he’s a bit undersized at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, the Red Wings liked Saarijarvi’s offensive ability when they selected him in the third round (73rd overall) of last year’s draft after he had six goals and 17 assists in 57 games for Green Bay.

He was slated to go back to Finland this season but when the Firebirds selected him in the CHL import draft, both Saarijarvi and the Red Wings thought it would be a good idea if he played in Flint so he’d be near Detroit.

That has allowed the Red Wings to keep a close eye on his development and Saarijarvi was able to attend a game in Detroit against the Washington Capitals.

Saarijarvi has been among the Firebirds top players all season.

At one point early in the season, he led all OHL defensemen in points and assists while ranking among the league’s top scorers. After 32 games, he has six goals, 15 assists and a plus-8 rating.

Saarijarvi, who has been ranked the Red wings’ fourth-best prospect and 40th among all NHL teams, is fifth on the Firebirds’ scoring chart despite missing nine games.

“He’s a coach’s dream,” said Firebirds coach John Gruden, who uses Saarijarvi on special teams and during the 3-on-3 overtime. “You could put him out in all situations and never have to worry about it. He’s having a good season.

“His strengths are his vision, his skating and for a little guy he competes hard. He takes away time and space and he gets in their face. He doesn’t sit back. For a guy who is not huge, he plays awfully hard without the puck.”

To keep progressing, Gruden says Saarijarvi needs to gain strength and weight, continue to understand what it takes to be an elite defenseman and keep pushing himself.

“But he’s definitely at the point where he’ll be good enough once the time comes,” Gruden said.

After helping Finland win the gold medal, Saarijarvi didn’t waste any time getting back on the ice.

The Finns beat Russia for the gold medal Jan. 5, Saarijarvi arrived back in Michigan during the wee hours of Jan. 8 and he was in the lineup that night when the Firebirds traveled to play the London Knights.

“He had a big smile on his face,” Gruden said with a grin. “It was pretty funny. He landed at 12:30 a.m. on Friday and he was like, ‘What time do I have to get to the rink?’ because he wanted to play in London.

“That’s just the type of guy he is.”

Saarijarvi said he has enjoyed playing in Flint despite the ups and downs experienced by the Firebirds, who have lost nine straight games and are last in their division with a 14-22-3-2 record.

In addition to struggling on the ice, the Firebirds made international news in November, when owner Rolf Nilsen fired the entire coaching staff before reinstating Gruden and his assistants after the players walked out in protest.

The World Junior experience has easily been the highlight of an up-and-down season for Saarijarvi.

“It was a great experience,” Saarijarvi said. “I know what it takes to play in the tournament and what kind of games over there we played and I think, like I say, it pushed me up. Work more and harder. The feeling we got winning, when we won that game, was I want to do it again.

“It pushed me to play harder.”


Red Wings prospect Vili Saarijarvi talks about winning World Junior Championship gold medalThe Flint Firebirds defenseman won the gold Jan. 5 in his native Finland.