CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Former Florida Panthers captain Olli Jokinen is preparing to take the next step in his post-playing career, and it’s a big one.
Once regarded as one of the top scoring centermen in the NHL, Jokinen is hoping his prowess as a coach can exceed the success he saw as a player.
Jokinein has been running the South Florida Hockey Academy for the past five years, helping shape young athletes and prepare them for what they hope is a long, prosperous hockey career.
Now Jokinen will see if he can do the same for himself, as a coach.
Jokinen has been hired as the next head coach for Mikkelin Jukurit in Liiga, which is the top pro hockey league in Finland, regarded as one of the best in the world along with the NHL and KHL.
It’s a big step to move from coaching U-16 kids to grown professionals, but it’s one that Jokinen has been working hard to prepare for.
“Once we started the South Florida Academy Hockey Academy, since day one my personal goal was to educate myself and learn the game and start learning to become a coach,” Jokinen said. “So for me, it’s been a driving force every day.”
The love and dedication to the sport of hockey is something that has been apparent to Jokinen’s peers since his early days in the NHL.
It’s a big part of why the SFHA has been successful, and why Jokinen is getting the opportunity to take his coaching career to the next level.
“Olli was born to be a coach,” said Radek Dvorak, Jokinen’s former Panthers teammate and fellow SFHA founder. “It’s a great opportunity for him to coach a senior team. He’s very dedicated to coaching and pays great attention to details.”
In addition to honing his coaching skills with the academy students, Jokinen also has spent the past several summers working with professional players during the offseason, even running a handful of informal, pre-training camp Panthers practices over the years.
Staying in close contact with guys who are still playing the game has allowed Jokinen a glimpse into how coaching has evolved since he retired in 2015.
“I think today’s coaching is more about that you’ve got to be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help these players reach their potential,” Jokinen said. “When you start coaching, you work for the players. You’re there to help the players, not the other way around.”
Olli’s desire to become a professional head coach was no secret in hockey circles.
It’s something that even those around him in South Florida had begun preparing for.
“I was expecting him to have a job like this in the future so it’s not a big surprise,” Dvorak said.
Over the past year, Jokinen interviewed for several vacancies, including jobs in the KHL and NHL.
At the end of the day, he had his choice of where to go.
“I had offers. I did five interviews during COVID,” he explained. “Three of the teams were from Eurpoe – one in Finland and two in Russia.”
At the end of the day, Jokinen said he knew Mikkelin was the right place to go after he met with representatives from the club, including team manager Mikko Hakkarainen.
Olli stressed the importance of trust and synergy between the head coach and management, and the vibe felt right with Mikkelin.
“The biggest thing for me, why I wanted to go to Mikkeli, was the honesty of the owner and the GM,” Jokinen said. “The principals of how they want to run the organization and how they live their lives matches the way I live my life. There was such a good fit and it just felt right to go there.”
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
While Jokinen doesn’t take over officially as Mikkelin’s head coach until the team’s current season ends, he’s already been hard at work studying the style of play in Liiga and scouting both his current players and potential targets for the future.
“I have a very good understanding of what kind of hockey they’re playing over there and what kind of systems other teams are using,” he said.
As for systems he plans to incorporate, Jokinen said he first wants to meet with his players and coaching staff before mapping out any specific plans. He’s well versed at the way teams are playing in Liiga and will map out the best style to match Mikkilen’s personnel.
One thing is for sure, and that’s practices under Jokinen will be fast-paced, high-energy and perhaps most importantly, challenging to each player.
“Practices need to be at a high level, they need to be harder than games,” Jokinen explained.
It’s rare when a new head coach takes over a successful, winning hockey club. If the team was doing so well, why get rid of the coach?
That is very much the case for Jokinen with Mikkelin. The team was highly successful in Finland’s second tier league but has struggled in the five years since it moved up to Liiga, failing to finish higher than 11th in the 15-team league.
“We will be surprising a lot of people, that’s how I look at it,” Jokinen said. “There is a winning culture already in place in that city, you just have to find a way to bring it back.”
Jokinen believes a big key to the long-term success of Mikkelin will be through training and nourishing the club’s junior players.
For most teams in European leagues, they each have junior clubs in which they try to cultivate players from a young age to eventually play for the professional club, and Mikkelin is no different.
Much like his time with the Panthers, Jokinen is heading to what would be considered by all accounts as a small market team. Mikkeli is a town of only about 50,000 people, and while Olli refers to it as a “sports town,” the team isn’t one that will be throwing stacks of cash at the top available free agents.
“At the end of the day, the way it works in Finland and the best way to do it is to produce your own players,” Jokinen said. “A lot of the smaller organizations like ours; a big thing is to develop our own players.”
Building and maintaining a strong junior program will be essential to the team’s ultimate success.
With the emphasis on working with, training and mentoring the younger players in the program, it makes perfect sense why Jokinen, who’s been running the SFHA for the past several years, was a prime candidate for Mikkelin’s coaching vacancy.
“I can give my knowledge in that area as well,” he said. “That’s one of the job requirements.”
As far as expectations go, Olli’s eyes are wide open to the situation he’s inheriting: an overmatched team still trying to gain its footing in Liiga that will have a good amount of roster turnover in the coming weeks and months.
There is undoubtedly a ton of work to be done.
And he couldn’t be more excited for the challenge.
“Are we going to try and win the league? Of course,” he said. “Is it realistic? I don’t know. If we have a mindset that we get better every single day when we come to the rink, we have a chance to do great things.”
Jokinen left his native Finland as a fresh-faced teenager and has called North America home ever since. While he grew up in Helsinki, Olli is still quite familiar with his soon-to-be new home.
Jokinen returns to a town in Mikkeli that he visited frequently as a child, and where he still has family members to drop in on.
As was the case throughout his playing career, the Jokinen family will travel together when he makes the move back to Finland.
Olli’s wife Katerina and his two youngest daughters, Keira, 9, and Emma, 16, will pack up their lives in Coral Springs and hop across the pond to Helsinki, where Katerina works and where the girls will attend English-speaking school.
The couple’s older daughter Alexandra is currently a junior at Savannah College of Art and Design and plans to remain there and obtain her degree before joining the family in Europe.
Olli plans to move between Helsinki and Mikkeli during the season, an easy commute that will keep the Jokinen clan connected while they coach, work and attend school.
“Family is very important to me,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to be with them when they’re two hours away instead of a 10-hour flight.”
After bouncing around together for a few years at the end of his career, the Jokinen family had established some roots in South Florida, so leaving won’t be easy, especially for his daughters.
One thing you can count on from Jokinen is that he can put a positive spin on just about anything, and he’s surely putting those skills to work with his family.
“It’ll be a neat experience for the kids,” he said. “We’ve been here [in South Florida] now for six years without making any moves and settled in here. Now a new adventure begins.”
It’s an adventure that Jokinen hopes will someday bring him and his family back this way.
Ultimately, his goal is to become a head coach in the National Hockey League, as it is for so many aspiring bench bosses.
Does Jokinen have the edge to make it? Time will tell.
“I would love to be a coach in the NHL, and that is what I hope to do eventually,” Jokinen said. “It will take a lot of hard work, but hopefully this will be the first step.”
Goodspeed on your new adventure, Olli.
Panthers fans will be rooting for you.