International Ice Hockey Federation

Centre of attention

Centre of attention

Finland’s Sebastian Aho shows signs of greatness

Published 28.12.2015 15:55 GMT+2 | Author Risto Pakarinen
Centre of attention
HELSINKI, FINLAND - DECEMBER 26: Finland's Sebastian Aho #20 and Ilya Bobko #18 of Belarus look on during preliminary round action at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Sebastian Aho is in the zone. He feels fast and strong, and his passes find his linemates with great accuracy. Of course, he'd never say that out loud himself.

For many kids, maybe even all kids who play road hockey, or shinny, the dream is always the same: to score a championship clinching goal in a big ice hockey event. In his hometown. In Game 7. On OT. Off a breakaway.

The dream comes true for very few, regardless of the league or level of play, but it has already come true for Sebastian Aho, who scored the championship-clinching goal in the Finnish top men’s competition, Liiga, last April.

Karpat Oulu had the puck deep in their own zone, when Aho jumped on the ice, and instead of heading back to their zone, he just cut across the neutral zone and got a long pass that sent him on the breakaway. A few seconds later, he threw his gloves and helmet in the air, and started Karpat’s celebration.

“Who even thinks that? Only a 17-year-old,” said head coach Lauri Marjamaki, who will take over the Finnish men’s national team after the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Last June, the Carolina Hurricanes drafted Aho, a speedy winger, in the second round as the 35th player overall. At the World Juniors, though, the speedy winger has taken on the role of a wily centre who also happens to be speedy. In Finland’s first game, against Belarus, Aho’s line with Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine – two 17-year-olds, Aho turned 18 in July – combined for seven points. Puljujarvi and Laine scored one each, Aho collected three assists.

Switching to centre wasn’t a problem for Aho.

“We’ve played only a couple of games together, all three of us, but I’ve played with both of them previously. Well, with [Jesse] Puljujarvi almost all my life,” he said.

“The fact that I’m the centre now won’t change either one’s game, I just happen to be in the middle. [Patrik] Laine has no problems receiving passes on his backhand, and with Puljujarvi, I can pass form my forehand to his,” he added, not even considering the fact that he may have problems passing to his backhand.

His coach Jukka Jalonen, who was head coach of the men’s team in 2011 when Finland won gold in Bratislava, has a straight-forward answer.

“The explanation is simply that he’s such a good player,” he says.

“He’s a complete player who has a great hockey sense, he’s smart in the offensive zone and excellent in the defensive aspects of the game. Not every winger even can play in the centre, but he’s got a centre’s brain and hockey IQ. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever coach, and he’s still so young.”

Jalonen predicts a bright future for Aho, a spot in the top six in an NHL team, “if he gets stronger.”

Aho doesn’t have the wide neck or the bulky forearms many of his peers have, but he’s made a decision to steadily ramp up his off-ice training. He turned it up two summers ago, and kept on building on that last summer. He’s currently listed at 180 centimetres and 80 kilos.

On the ice, Aho is fleet of foot, but outside it, his feet are more than firmly on the ground. Nothing fazes him, nothing is a problem, not playing in the middle of the ice, not playing in a new line, not meeting Russia. Not even getting a slapshot in the neck, like he did in mid-November. He missed nine days of action and scored two goals in his first game back. (Oddly enough, his Swedish full namesake got hit by a shot in the neck, too, and had to miss the tournament.)

His 21 points in 26 games are enough for a 21st place in the Finnish Liiga scoring race, and that’s with Aho missing eight games. Not that points are how he measures his own game, though.

“I think I’ve taken steps forward as a player, but I consider scoring points a bonus, I simply try to be a versatile team player who is responsible with the puck. Of course you can, and should be, creative in the offensive zone, but in the neutral and our zone you have to play responsibly,” he says.

Aho’s line got a flying start to the tournament, but he knows it was just one game and that Russia will be a much tougher opponent that Belarus.

“I’m sure it’s a tough team to play against, and we have played a couple of games against them. I guess we’ll watch some video before the game, but our focus is on our game,” he says.

His focus is on his game so much so that even when asked to name some Russian players, he thought about it for a couple of seconds, then apologized for not coming up with any names.

“I just like to live in the now,” he says, and that covers also all ideas of playing in the NHL.

"Of course it’s always been my dream and now even a goal, but I don’t think about it that much. I’ve learned to shut some things out of my mind.”

He’s in the zone.


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