“There are so many things about DU that I didn’t know when I committed to come here, but that I’ve realized are a real asset, a real treasure."
The journey across the ocean Juho Olkinuora made last summer en route to the University of Denver does not begin to compare to his odyssey since joining the Pioneers hockey program.
In just a few whirlwind months, Olkinuora, a freshman goaltender from Finland, has evolved from a last-minute insurance policy to a stopgap starter and, finally, into a player who should be a DU fixture for years to come.
A native of Helsinki, Olkinuora spent last season with Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League and hoped to continue his hockey career at the NCAA level. When no scholarship offers came his way, Olkinuora returned to Finland to contemplate a pro career in his homeland.
But Olkinuora got some good news when DU got some bad news. Sophomore goalie Sam Brittain underwent knee surgery last summer, sidelining him until at least the end of January, and the Pioneers were left without a bona fide backup for junior Adam Murray. Assistant Coach Steve Miller and former assistant Derek Lalonde scrambled to bring in a viable candidate, and soon Olkinuora was returning to the United States, eager to don DU’s crimson and gold.
Olkinuora was tabbed to serve as Murray’s backup but was thrown into the spotlight during the first half of the season as Murray battled nagging leg injuries.
“I wasn’t involved in recruiting [Olkinuora], but I’m sure it was done with the understanding of knowing what Sammy’s situation was and knowing that Adam was back and that there was a possibility [Olkinuora] might not play just because of the situation with the other two guys,” says assistant coach David Lassonde, who works closely with DU’s goaltenders.
“Because of Sam’s situation and then Adam being hurt on and off the first part of the season, Juho has been — for lack of a better term, he’s been a savior,” Lassonde continues. “He’s done an excellent job when called upon under a situation he probably wasn’t expecting.”
Olkinuora replaced an injured Murray during a loss at Michigan Tech on Oct. 28 and made his first start the following night, recording 27 saves to help DU escape the Western Collegiate Hockey Association series with a draw.
Murray returned within a few weeks but soon aggravated his injury, leading to a string of 10 consecutive starts by Olkinuora from Nov. 25–Jan. 6. In the initial game of that stretch, Olkinuora posted his first career shutout, recording 38 saves in a 3-0 win against Princeton.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Olkinuora has relied heavily on his athleticism to make saves. Under the tutelage of Lassonde, Olkinuora believes his mental approach and positioning in the crease have improved tremendously.
“Mentally, I feel more comfortable. The guys have been very welcoming,” Olkinuora says. “I think that is a big reason why I have been improving. I used to be more like a guy who wobbles around and scrambles everywhere, in goalie terms.”
Ever so slowly, Olkinuora is falling back into the role he expected when he left Finland for Denver. Murray recently returned to action and has been sharing starting duties with Olkinuora. And with Brittain’s return looming, Olkinuora’s role could diminish further.
Nevertheless, Olkinuora says he could not be happier with the chain of events that brought him to DU. Throughout the season, Olkinuora has hovered at the edge of the top 20 nationally in goaltender rankings—a huge achievement for a guy with no scholarship offers less than a year ago. And he understands he could not have scripted his sudden success at DU any more dramatically.
“There are so many things about DU that I didn’t know when I committed to come here, but that I’ve realized are a real asset, a real treasure,” Olkinuora said. “It was a great decision, even if I didn’t know it all then. I didn’t do my research as good as I should have, but the facilities, the coaching staff, the academics, the teachers, the dorms … I’m glad to be here.”