Aho hoping to come back
by Lucas Aykroyd|14 MAY 2020
Finland's Sebastian Aho, who led the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship with nine goals, has 38 goals so far this season with the Carolina Hurricanes.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
At age 22, Sebastian Aho has developed a mature, pragmatic outlook. It helps the Carolina Hurricanes forward to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought hockey to a halt. The timeline for potentially resuming the NHL season remains unclear, and Aho is doing his best to stay patient back home in northern Finland.

“We all have to be flexible and try to do our best under these circumstances,” Aho said in a phone interview with IIHF.com from his Oulu apartment. “Whatever decision they make, I’m ready to do that. I’m just waiting here like everybody else.”

Of course, as Carolina’s leading scorer with 66 points, the savvy, shifty centre also wants to make sure he is physically fit when the first puck drops again. The Hurricanes were clinging to the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference with 81 points in 68 games when the NHL shut down on 12 March.

“I’ve been working out mostly at home,” Aho said. “I’ve got some weights and my Precor bike.  I’ve been running outside. Actually, when I first got back to Oulu, there was still natural ice on the sea. So I was skating outside and playing some outdoor hockey. That was pretty awesome. But now it’s too warm for ice.”

The fourth-year NHLer has starred on one of the league’s hottest lines this season. When coach Rod Brind’Amour placed Andrei Svechnikov on left wing with the dynamic duo of Aho and Teuvo Teravainen earlier this season, it paid dividends. Aho got his first career five-point game in a 6-2 romp over the Minnesota Wild on 19 December to delight Raleigh fans. The Karpat product registered the NHL’s third-longest point streak of 2019-20 (14 games) between 21 January and 28 February.

However, Svechnikov dominated the highlight reels. The gifted Russian sophomore, who has 61 points this year, became the first player in NHL history to score a lacrosse goal. He did it on 29 October against the Calgary Flames and again on 17 December versus the Winnipeg Jets. So you might wonder: with extra time to practice his moves, is Aho preparing to perform “The Svech” himself?

“I’ve never tried to do that,” Aho said with a chuckle. “In practice, it’s pretty easy to do. I think many guys can do it. But in a game, there are five guys plus a goalie who are trying to stop you from doing that. It’s impressive to pull it off. For me, I guess it’s just not me! I’m more of a simple guy. I try to look for the passes and get to the net.”

That pragmatic approach has enabled the Canes’ second-round pick in 2015 (35th overall) to score a career-high 38 goals this season. While that’s well shy of Blaine Stoughton’s franchise-record 56 goals with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, it’s just seven back of Eric Staal’s 45 goals in 82 games in 2005-06 prior to Carolina’s lone Stanley Cup.

The Montreal Canadiens coveted Aho’s production when they tendered him a rare offer sheet for five years and $43 million last summer. Predictably, Canes GM Don Waddell didn’t hesitate to match it.

This year is the first time Aho has ever gotten more goals than assists (28 so far) in league play at any level. His explanation is straightforward.

“The only thing I can say is that on the power play, I’m in front of the net instead of being the playmaker. That’s the only thing that comes to mind. But other than that, I’m just trying to go to the net more. A lot of the goals I scored this year were exactly those ones, putting the rebounds in.”

Last year, he stepped up in his first NHL playoffs. With five goals and seven assists in 15 games, Aho had the “Caniacs” going wild in the North Carolina capital as their club marched to the conference finals for the first time since 2009. After dethroning the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in a seven-game first-round upset, the Hurricanes swept the New York Islanders in four straight before getting swept themselves by the Boston Bruins.

“Those games were really intense,” Aho recalled. “Definitely in the first round, I feel like everyone’s excited. Nobody’s hurt. Everybody has a lot of energy. In the first series, there was a lot of hitting and emotion. That was a really tough series against Washington. To come out as the winner, we got a lot of confidence from that. Obviously it showed in the next series against the Islanders.”

While the 183-cm, 80-kg pivot would love to have another deep playoff run, he can also draw inspiration from his three World Championship appearances (2016-18). He has always come through for Finland in senior IIHF competition. With a tournament-leading nine goals, Aho was named Best Forward and a media all-star team member in Denmark in 2018.

However, as a team-first guy, Aho’s best Worlds memory is winning silver in Russia in 2016. Coach Kari Jalonen’s stacked roster didn’t lose a game until falling 2-0 to Canada in the final.

“That was my first World Championship, so it was a pretty awesome experience,” said Aho, who had three goals and four assists. “I got to play with Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, guys like that who had played in the NHL for so long. And we did pretty well. We beat Canada 4-0 in the group stage. That was a really good tournament, but obviously Canada had a good team. It was kind of unfortunate that we didn’t get the gold medal. But still, it was a lot of fun.”

In 2016, future Winnipeg sniper Patrik Laine was named tournament MVP. Earlier that year, Aho had teamed up with Laine – coming off a Liiga title and rookie of the year honours with Tappara Tampere – to win gold at the World Juniors in Helsinki. And Jesse Puljujarvi completed their explosive line there.

“Pulju,” unlike Aho and Laine, has struggled to establish himself as an NHLer. After three spotty seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, the #4 overall pick in 2016 returned to Karpat in 2019-20 and came fourth in Liiga scoring with 53 points. Aho believes NHL fans haven’t seen the last of Puljujarvi.

“Sometimes I think it’s mostly about confidence. When things are rolling in the right direction, you build up your confidence and you get more comfortable quickly, wherever you play. I feel like this year, when he played back home here with Karpat, he got a lot of confidence and that should help him get back to the NHL.”

Getting back to NHL action is high on Aho’s own wish list.

Naturally, in Oulu, he enjoys catching up with his father Harri, who won World Junior bronze in 1988 while facing superstars like Alexander Mogilny and Joe Sakic, and digging into his mother Leena’s traditional Finnish cooking.

Yet he misses Carolina teammates like defenceman Jordan Martinook, who got “knocked out” by former heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield in Aho’s favourite post-game Storm Surge. Eventually, Aho would like to resume visiting favourite NHL cities like New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. And playing Fortnite or Call of Duty with his buddies can’t replace the thrill of chasing the Stanley Cup. Still, for now, the waiting game goes on.

“Every day there is something new about this situation,” Aho said. “The way things are right now, it’s good to be home. But it would be awesome to play hockey and lead a normal life too.”