Joni Ikonen arrives to the coffee shop in the centre of Kuopio directly after having had an on-ice training session with some teammates. He is relaxed and looks ready to start the season in a minute. It is obvious that he is in the middle of the pre-season even if it is only April.
“We started yesterday — a team meeting new coach and new players — then we have had physical tests. It will be a physical buildup, but we will still be on the ice twice a week. We will be doing skills on the ice rather than to practise a system. [Tommi Miettinen] has been in our system and he will build on the foundation laid by Sami Kapanen, but I am sure that he will bring in some new things.”
The Montreal Canadiens keep a close eye on their Finnish centre, and seem to be looking forward to seeing him among the other prospects this summer. “They are giving me some advice on what to work on before I go over for the development camp. They also want to check on my medical things.”
Kuopio has a university hospital, and the medical facilities are good, but it is natural that Montreal wants to have a close inspection when Ikonen is over in North America. “It was just a muscle injury, nothing too serious, but it sucked. When I was finally healthy it was [the situation], but it is nothing serious. I don’t know what happened, it sucked....”
It was a tough season, but Ikonen chooses to see the positives that the injury break brought forward.
“From the beginning of the knee injury, the thought was to build up muscle and prepare myself properly. It sure sucked to be out for half a year, but the positive side is I got six months more physical training done. I just tried to make the most of it”.
“Of course hockey is a physical game, so it’s a big part of the game, and for me to improve in that area is especially good. I don’t think it was a positive thing that I got injured, but I made the most out of it.”
Was he ever concerned during that first game? “I wasn’t worried. I maybe had some thoughts, but I had practised with the team for a couple of weeks with contact. It is not during the game you are nervous or worried, more before the game. The first game, I was just going around thinking before it. When you are in the game you don’t think of it, and never really after the first game.”
He shares how difficult it was to miss so much action at an important time in his development. “It wasn’t the most fun to watch the games from the stands: I have had some ups and downs on the mental side during the time off the ice. It’s not all good days, some days are better, of course.... Just when the first game got closer, I didn’t look back. I always tried to think positive. Once I played my first game it didn’t feel like I had been gone for half a year.”
While many consider the season a lost one, Ikonen refuses to give in to that feeling.
“This year went the way it went. It is important for me to get one really good full season. I’m hoping to develop my game and step up. Like we discussed earlier, a big part of my game as a centre is the defensive part.”
It was evident with how he was deployed upon his return to the ice that he was used in tougher situations, and more in his own zone. “It is good to play in a league with big strong players,” he said. “It will develop my all-around game as well. I still want to produce as much goals and points for the team, but I need to improve on the defensive side.
“I see myself as an offensive player, and no matter where you are you want to produce. NHL is a tougher league than Liiga, but no matter where I play I want to help out my team on the offensive side of the puck.”
It helps when you have a shot as good as Ikonen. It’s something that was hailed as a strength on draft day, but was not seen much in his first pro season. Ikonen promises a change in that for next season, bringing the good results from practising his shot during the injury break.
“I have had time to practise my shot this season, but for sure, hockey is a mental game and if you have the confidence to shoot you will score. If you don’t shoot you’ll never score, so of course, scoring helps.
“I am really confident for the next season and it will be good to pick up where I left off. I know some players have gone to a sports psychologist. I haven’t found the need for that yet. I prepare myself for now, but if I need help I will ask for it.”
The deadly combo he formed with Alexandre Texier won’t be back next year, as Texier has already had success with the Columbus Blue Jackets, “Well, he is obviously a really good, skilled player, I am not surprised,” Ikonen says of his linemate. “I am happy to see him perform that well and to see him get power-play time. I watch the highlights in the morning. I am so happy for him.”
There has been a Finnish explosion of players on the international stage, the NHL, and especially in Montreal. “Its always good to see Finnish guys succeed, and it’s good to see that Montreal trusts the Finnish players.”
Ikonen is ready to take the next step. His body has healed up properly and he has a long off-season to strengthen it further. He has the chance to take a prominent role on a team that looks to improve from last season, and his own progress bodes well. He has handled the mental challenges of a tough season well this past season, now he’s taking steps work it all out on the physical side as well.