Henri Jokiharju may have just completed his first season of North American hockey, but if you didn’t know that, you’d never have guessed it by watching him man the blueline for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.
Jokiharju, who turns 18 years old on June 17, made the journey to Oregon from Tampere, Finland, after the Winterhawks called his name with the 25th overall selection in the first round of the 2016 CHL Import Draft. From there, the 6-foot, 170-pound rearguard helped anchor the Portland blueline and propel the Winterhawks to a 40-win campaign, establishing himself as an upper-echelon talent for the 2017 NHL Draft in the process.
“After Christmas, that’s when I played my best hockey,” Jokiharju said over the phone from his native Finland. “Overall, the season was really good.
“The whole Winterhawks organization, the coaching staff, trainers, equipment managers and, of course, my teammates and ‘D’ partners – that’s a big part. You can’t do everything by yourself.”
Self-described as a good skater with great vision and the ability to make smart yet simple plays, the Finnish import played a vital role on the Winterhawks blueline. He finished second in scoring among defenders with 48 points (9G-39A) through 71 games, trailing only Caleb Jones (EDM, 4 – 117, 2015) and his 62 points (9G-53A). Jokiharju’s 48 points were also good enough to lead all WHL rookie defencemen.
While the transition from his homeland to the Western Hockey League went smooth for the most part, it wasn’t without some challenges along the way, as is to be expected when a 17-year-old kid crosses an ocean in pursuit of his dreams.
“Every time you take new steps and are in a new league, it is going to be a little rough and a little tough,” Jokiharju said. “That was the case for me, too. North American style [of hockey] – it took at least a month and a half to get to know the style, how we’re playing and what kind of hockey opponent teams play.
“The game style in North America is way quicker. We don’t play any trap like how we play in Finland. We play a really quick game [in Portland] and our team was one of the quickest teams in the entire WHL. I like our head coach Mike Johnston and his game style. When we play, I enjoy every game and every practice.”
Key to Jokiharju’s expedited adjustment to life in North America and the quick-paced reality of the WHL’s U.S. Division was the support of his family.
His 21-year-old brother Juho spent the 2016-17 campaign enjoying his sophomore season at Clarkson University and was able to impart some of his gained knowledge as to life in North America and what to expect.
His father Juha played seven seasons of professional hockey with Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League and another two with AIK of the Swedish Elite League, giving him plenty of experience to draw from as he watches his sons develop from afar.
“I’m very thankful for my family,” Jokiharju said. “They’ve supported me. I talk a lot with my father and other family members.
“[My brother] was here [in the United States] the year before. He told me it was going to be tough and you’re going to get homesick, but you’ll get used to it. He’s helped me a lot.”
Being mentally prepared for a life-changing move helped Jokiharju hit the ground running upon landing in North America. While his family supports provided a great structure to build around, the well-spoken youngster was laying the brickwork for his North American adventure long before the Winterhawks selected him during the 2016 CHL Import Draft.
Having the opportunity to represent his nation at the 2016 IIHF World U-18 Championship – hosted by Grand Forks, North Dakota – Jokiharju was given a taste of big-tournament play and North American ice. After striking gold with his countrymen at the tournament, he knew his final destination had to be the Canadian Hockey League.
“I knew before [that tournament] I was coming to play in North America,” Jokiharju said. “I was already preparing and I knew what it was going to take to play in the WHL or any other CHL league.”
Fast-forward to June 2017 and it’s clear Jokiharju’s decision is paying off immensely. NHL Central Scouting has ranked him 19th among North American skaters, his rating having jumped from 22nd at the time of the midterm rankings. He stands a good chance at hearing his name called when the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft gets underway June 23 in Chicago. As exciting as that is, he knows he still has a long way to go.
“It’s a big goal for me [to be drafted], but the biggest goal is to play in the National Hockey League and win the Stanley Cup,” Jokiharju said. “There’s still a long way and I have to develop at that level to be ready to play in the NHL. This coming draft is a huge thing for me and you get a lot of energy, a lot of power from it. I’m pretty excited.”
Jokiharju is looking forward to bringing his family to Chicago to be at his side for the draft and he even plans on fitting in a few on-ice sessions prior to June 23. Once the NHL Draft comes to pass, it will be back to work with a brand-new target existing clearer than ever.
“I want to be a top-two or top-four ‘D’ in the NHL,” Jokiharju said. “I need to improve my shot so it will be more dangerous… That way I’ll be able to make good passes because guys will be thinking more about my shot. That’s one of the biggest things I want to get better at and improve upon all the time.”
If his track record provides any indication, it’s a near certainty Henri Jokiharju will continue to trend in the right direction and, one day, leave an NHL club very thankful for having the foresight to call his name at the 2017 NHL Draft.
Henri Jokiharju – Defenceman
Weight: 170 pounds
Hometown: Tampere, Finland
Acquired: Round 1, 25th overall – 2016 CHL Import Draft
2016-17: 71 GP, 9G-39A – 48 points