From relegation round to gold
by Dhiren Mahiban|08 JAN 2019
Finnish head coach Jussi Ahokas receives the gold medal after Finland beat USA in the final of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Jussi Ahokas took over the Finnish national junior program under less than ideal circumstances. Two years ago with Finland losing all three preliminary round games at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Montreal, coach Jukka Rautakorpi was fired. 

Ahokas, who was already in Montreal working as an analyst for the Finnish broadcaster and he was immediately named the replacement. 
A then 36-year-old Ahokas was initially expected to take over the Under-20 program for the 2017/18 season, but was forced to take over from Rautakorpi ahead of the country’s final preliminary round game.
“Well that was a bad situation that I had to jump in, but next year still it was quite… it left a little bit of scars,” Ahokas said.
Finland needed to defeat Latvia in the relegation round in 2017 in order to remain with the top group. Then last year, in Buffalo, Finland was upset in a shootout in the quarter-finals by the Czech Republic and finished sixth.
Two years removed from the relegation scare the Fins used a 3-2 win over the Americans on Saturday night in Vancouver to win their third gold medal at the under-20 level in six years.
“I think now we got to jump in with the new start,” Ahokas continued. “The whole year we’ve been doing well and I had a feeling of this team - February we had our first tournament with some of these boys. Had a good feeling that this would be a really good group.”
Defenceman Urho Vaakanainen has been to the bottom battling through relegation in 2017. The Boston Bruins prospect finished with four assists in the 2019 tournament. 
“It feels pretty freaking good,” Vaakanainen said. “I mean first tournament, yeah we were playing the relegation games. Last year, just kind of a disappointment not to the medal games, but I mean this is pretty much indescribable.”
Having now played for both a gold medal, and to avoid relegation, Vaakanainen says the pressure was much more significant in 2017, especially considering Finland had just won gold on home soil the previous year. 
“There’s way more pressure than in these games. That kind of pressure is unreal. I’ve never felt that kind of pressure,” Vaakanainen said of relegation. “I thought we had a good team. Everything went wrong inside the tournament. That’s in the past, now we have a gold medal so who cares.”
The Finnish players arrived in Helsinki on Monday evening.
photo: Sanna Hult / FIHA
While Ahokas wasn’t supposed to coach the 2017 under-20 team he did have several familiar faces on the squad. The 38-year-old native of Oulu in Northern Finland coached the country’s under-18 program to a gold medal victory in 2016.
Four members of that team were on his roster Saturday night at Rogers Arena, including Vaakanainen, Henri Jokiharju, Eeli Tolvanen and goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
“It’s great. We had four guys from that team and we were just talking about it, like me and Vaakanainen, Under-18s gold medal we saw the relegation games in Montreal, we saw last year was tough,” said Tolvanen who finished the tournament with four assists. “We talked this year before the tournament we’re just going to come here, have fun and hopefully get the gold medal and now we’re here standing with the gold medal.”
For Vaakanainen winning with the group, which won gold in Grand Forks, North Dakota three years ago, has made the experience sweeter.
“It’s good to have the same group,” he said. “Pretty much every team in every age group has played well, has had some success. They won last year: 99s won silver, 98s won gold so it’s big to have all the age groups playing well.”
Tolvanen, a Nashville Predators prospect, admitted it was easier performing at this year’s tournament knowing Ahokas was behind the bench.
“It’s huge,” the 19-year-old said. “He didn’t put any pressure on me. He put me in a great spot this year and he’s a great coach.”
Finnish head coach Jussi Ahokas lifts the trophy.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Ahokas had coached several of the members of this year's Under-20 team previously, including captain Aarne Talvitie.

"Unreal, not many guys and there’s five guys now who have… there’s tons of guys who I’ve known a long time," Ahokas said. "Even Talvitie, when he was nine years old, I remember him. I wasn’t coaching national teams, I was coaching skills with junior teams and I was coaching him also four times a week, just extra practice. Kind of cool that he was here now. 

"It’s been a long journey and we had such a great bunch of guys and I think that’s the biggest thing."

Entering Saturday’s gold medal game against the U.S., a team which featured projected 2019 first overall NHL draft pick Jack Hughes, many considered the Fins an underdog. Ahokas didn’t see it that way. 
“We don’t think of ourselves as underdogs, never,” Ahokas said. “But big thing was for us win in small rink, we haven’t done that before and now we’ve done that also. That’s the big thing for Finnish hockey. I think we’re producing more better players than past. Of course you need always great players. I think how they got together and how the team worked and how our leader players how well they played, that was the big thing. We were really tight.”