Hawk imports sharpen their skates
Their dogs — and, yes, their parents and siblings — are too far away. But Henri Jokiharju and Joachim Blichfeld insist they feel right at home in Portland. They certainly look it when they slip on the Portland Winterhawks sweater.
Jokiharju, a defenseman from Tampere, Finland, and Blichfeld, a forward from Frederikshavn, Denmark, are the most recent in a significant group of European players who have played — and made an impact — in Portland.
An example of that impact was the Feb. 10 win over Spokane. Blichfeld scored two goals in the third period and scored the shootout winner. In the same game, Jokiharju scored a goal and assisted on Blichfeld's third-period goals.
"Both guys have really matured as players and been big impact players in their first year in the Western Hockey League," Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston says.
Blichfeld, an 18-year-old winger who was drafted last summer by the San Jose Sharks, has 24 goals and 26 assists in 47 games. He ranks third on the team in goals and fourth in points. He is fourth among WHL rookies in points.
Jokiharju, a mobile defenseman, has grown 2 inches and added 12 pounds since he arrived in August. He has seen his stock for the 2017 NHL draft grow, too. He has 32 assists (tied for fourth on the team), and among his seven goals are two game-tying efforts when the Hawks pulled their goalie late in a game. Jokiharju leads WHL rookie defensemen in goals and assists. His plus-12 rating is tops among Portland D-men.
Finding players from Europe who will fit the Johnston profile — skill more than size — involves talking with agents, scouts and the players themselves. While luck is involved with the import draft — which includes all 60 teams from the three junior leagues that make up the Canadian Hockey League — Johnston has had several big hits. During his first stint as Winterhawks coach, Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi and Oliver Bjorkstrand became WHL stars.
"The big thing is trying to find players that fit the way we want to play," Johnston says. "Some teams pick different players — bigger guys. We tend to look for guys with some skill and mobility. Sometimes a defenseman like Henri (Jokiharju) gets overlooked because he was only 5-10 or so last year. Now he's 6-feet. Not a lot of teams are interested in a 5-10 defenseman. We don't mind that, though, as long as he moves the puck and is smart."
Jokiharju fits that description. In the recent CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, he set a record with three assists from the blue line.
In addition to his physical growth since joining the Hawks, Jokiharju has adjusted to playing on the smaller North American ice surface.
"The start was pretty rough for me," Jokiharju says. "The hardest thing was that we have so many games and the different kind of game style that we have here. The smaller ice makes the forechecking faster. It's one of those things that I still have to worry about. It took me a couple of months to get comfortable on the ice so I could do my thing."
By doing his thing, Jokiharju's NHL stock has risen. He was listed as the 22nd skater and fourth defenseman on the midterm rankings of players eligible for the 2017 draft by NHL Central Scouting.
Gaining that experience and exposure to scouts was the motivation for Jokiharju leaving Finland for North America at 17. It wasn't completely new territory. He was in North Dakota last winter, helping Team Finland to the Under-18 World Championships gold medal. (His team beat Blichfeld's Team Denmark at that tournament).
And Jokiharju's 21-year-old brother, Juho, is a sophomore forward at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.
Blichfeld hopes a strong season with Portland will lead to his first NHL contract. He played his 16- and 17-year-old seasons in Sweden for the Malmo Redhawks' under-18 and under-20 teams. He was drafted by Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2015, but decided to stay one more season in Sweden.
"I just think I was too young, and it was too far away. I'm over here now, and I'm really happy," Blichfeld says.
Scoring goals in 10 of 13 games, as Blichfeld recently has done, will improve any forward's outlook. Eight of his 24 goals have come on the power play.
"(Blichfeld) has a lot of skill. He's got a great shot, really good on the power play. Good passing and puck skills," Johnston said. "As an NHL player, the big thing for him is just maturing physically in his strength and learning how to battle against bigger players."
Blichfeld experienced a big stage as part of Team Denmark at the 2017 World Junior Championships. One of the younger players on that team, he had three goals and one assist in five tournament games, helping Denmark reach the quarterfinals, where they lost to Russia.
Such experiences are valuable, but it is the day-to-day with the Winterhawks — the busy 72-game regular season, the skills work on the ice, and the off-ice conditioning — that Blichfeld and Jokiharju have come to appreciate.
"Every game is a hard game," Jokiharju says of the WHL. "There aren't easy games like in Finland. It's a good place to develop and become a better player."
Johnston says each can have a bright future in hockey, and he is excited about having Blichfeld and Jokiharju around Portland for a while. With a young roster, Johnston selected Blichfeld and Jokiharju in part because they were young enough to grow alongside Portland's other promising rookies.
Six months into their first WHL season, they no longer feel like rookies. Portland has become a comfortable second home.
"In Sweden, I lived two years by myself, so that made (this transition) easier," Blichfeld says. "I have a (billet) family over here, and they make me feel like I'm home, so outside the rink it's been great."
The two players did not know each other before arriving in Portland, and they live with different billet families here, but Blichfeld and Jokiharju became fast friends.
"We understand each other, so we talk a lot and we hang around together," Jokiharju says.
They have adjusted to the food (pretty similar) and to the routine (online college courses, daily workouts, on-ice practices). They rave about the thrill of playing in front of large crowds at Moda Center. They are thriving in the most competitive environment either has experienced.
"I think it's so fun to play over here," Blichfeld says. "We have so many games and all the teams are so good, so you have to be ready every night. I think it's awesome.
"I like the lifestyle I have: Wake up every day and get to do the thing I love, which is playing hockey. And we have so many games, so I love it."