‘The game is in his blood’: Those closest to Olli Jokinen describe his hockey journey, from All-Star player to professional head coach

Olli Jokinen of the Florida Panthers looks on from the bench against the Boston Bruins during the NHL game on October 13, 2005 at the Bank Atlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (Eliot J. Schechter, 2005 Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – Olli Jokinen put up some eye-popping numbers during his National Hockey League career.

To a casual hockey fan, it might come as a surprise to find out that Olli accumulated 750 points, including 321 goals, during his 17 seasons in the NHL.

The guy once thought of as a possible bust after being selected third overall in the 1997 NHL Draft eventually became the face of the Florida Panthers franchise during a period of time described by many of the team’s fans as the dark ages.

That, of course, was no fault of Jokinen’s.

During the final five of his seven seasons in South Florida, Olli averaged 34 goals and 75 points. He also wore the “C” on his jersey as team captain from 2003 to 2008, a role he took very seriously.

When Jokinen moved on from the Panthers after the 07-08 season, he left as the franchise leader with 188 goals and 419 points.

He was absolutely worth the price of admission, which back then, was saying a lot.

“You really got to watch this guy go from being a quiet kid in the locker room to a bona fide superstar,” said Jokinen’s former Panthers teammate Bill Lindsay. “He was put into a position to led by example and Olli ran with it.”

As the years went by, and Jokinen’s career started winding down, he began to focus on a different element of the game.

You see, hockey has always been as big a part of Olli’s life as anything else. He grew up watching his father Matti playing professionally in Finland, and once he entered his teen years, Jokinen was considered one of the best young prospects in hockey.

Over the course of a successful NHL career that spanned three decades, Jokinen always had a way of standing out to his coaches.

It wasn’t just about Olli’s extraordinary skills on the ice. What got the attention of the men wearing suits on the bench was his vast intelligence and appreciation for how the game was played, and how it would inevitably evolve.

“As he got older and aged almost out of the game, I asked him one day if he ever had an interest in coaching,” said Paul Maurice, who coached Jokinen in Winnipeg for two seasons from 2012-2014. “That was my grasp of him as a player, that he had a great understanding of the game.”

Olli’s hockey journey, at least for now, has come full circle. A career that began as a bright-eyed teenager in his native Finland has brought Jokinen back home, but this time, as a coach.

Last month Olli was hired as head coach of Mikkelin Jukurit in Liiga, Finland’s top professional hockey league and one of the best in the world.

To provide a better understanding of the road Jokinen has traveled, from his first days as a professional hockey player to becoming an NHL All-Star to starting the South Florida Hockey Academy and now becoming a head coach in Liiga, I spoke to several people who have been close to Olli over the course of his hockey life.

Jarmo Kekalainen, General Manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets: I started as a GM shortly after becoming Olli’s agent. He was one of my first recruits, I got both him and his brother to come from KalPa Kuopio to IFK Helsinki. He came in the 96-97 season and then went to Los Angeles in 97-98 after he got drafted, and then he came back. LA sent him back and we won the championship that year. So, we’ve gone through a lot together, and I’ve seen him grow from a teenager to a father and coach, so it’s been great to watch.

Bill Zito, General Manager for the Florida Panthers: I was an agent when I first met Olli. I did not represent him, but he was from Jarmo’s team. You know Jarmo’s my best buddy, and Jarmo was the GM, and I must’ve had 10-12 guys on the team. He’s this young kid from Jarmo’s hometown and I would see him and interact with him. I had an apartment in Helsinki, I was doing a lot of scouting and building the agency with my partner Markus Letho, who’s actually (Florida Panthers 2020 first-round pick Anton) Lundell’s agent. Back then it was a little bit of a different world. I was around all the time, and just got to know him a little.

Ian Pulver, NHL agent with The Will Sports Group: I was an attorney for the NHL Players Association from 1990 to 2004, so I would have known Olli when he turned pro from 98-99 up through 2006. And then I had the pleasure of representing Olli over the course of the last five years of his career.

Zito: - I remember when he was a kid and they won the championship in Helsinki, he basically just took over the playoffs and just dominated it. I didn’t really know him then, I was just impressed with how good of a hockey player he was. He was just a kid and he dominated it.

Bill Lindsay, former NHL and Florida Panthers player, current Panthers radio analyst: When he got here to Florida from the Island, he had been a high draft pick, but he hadn’t done a lot. It was Mike Keenan who walked in that dressing room and said ‘Listen, we’re going to find out if you’re a top pick or you’re not. If not, I’m going to find out really quickly.’ And he said it in front of the whole team! So, Keenan played him almost literally 30 minutes a night from the first 20 games. Olli didn’t have really good numbers with the Islanders, he didn’t really produce, and so it was Keenan that really made his career. Olli took off from there, got the ice time and then the Panthers legacy followed. He became one of the best players in franchise history.

Olli Jokinen of the Florida Panthers talks with teammates during the game against the Washington Capitals at the Bank Atlantic Center on December 1, 2005 in Sunrise, Florida. (2005 Getty Images)

Pulver: He has great experience, from being a first-round pack and playing under different coaches along the way. He has a great mind for the game and cares a lot about the players, knows how to talk to players, knows how a player thinks and he more than anything just cares about doing well. He’s a very proud guy, a competitive guy and just an all-around fantastic human being.

Zito: Over time, you just get to know people. He came over to the NHL and you’d see him and say ‘hey OJ’ and then maybe I had clients who played with him, and then I’d go to dinner with my clients, and he’d be there, or he’d come with us, and you get a little closer and get to know each other a little bit.

Katerina Jokinen, Olli’s wife of 19 years: It was always kind of a given that he was going to be a coach after he retired. I think when we were in Winnipeg it became even more clear that he had the potential and skill to do that. Paul Maurice had a lot to do with it. He’s the one that pointed it out to Olli that, you know what, you should be a coach, because he has such knowledge about it. So, I think hearing it from someone like that reaffirmed that it was a path he should be on.

Paul Maurice, Head Coach of the Winnipeg Jets: What’s interesting is when you stand behind the bench long enough you come across all different kinds of players. Hearing Olli on the bench, you could tell he had a good grasp of the overall game, not just the individual game. He’s kind of coaching from the bench, if that makes sense. He’s saying the things that are going through your head, he’s wired that way. And not a lot of players are like that. There are great players that see the game as an individual and Olli saw it as a coach right from the start. That was my first recollection, that this guy talked like a coach from bench.

Lindsay: I respected his game a lot and the way that he played, the numbers that he put up, he was an unbelievable player. Once Mike Keenan got ahold of him and really developed him, he turned from what was projected as a possible first round bust into a superstar. All of a sudden, this guy is just ripping goals left and right, and then he really started to mature as a player and as a person. It’s not surprising at all to see him behind the bench.

Radek Dvorak, former NHL and Florida Panthers player, and co-founder of the South Florida Hockey Academy: Olli was born to be a coach. It’s a great opportunity for him to coach a senior team. He’s very dedicated to coaching and pays great attention to details. After watching him at the South Florida Hockey Academy I was expecting him to have a job like this in the future, so it’s not a big surprise.

Kekalainen: The biggest thing for me is that he is passionate about the game. He’s shown it through his work in the academy, that he is willing to put in hours and hours of work. He’s basically dedicated his life to being a hockey coach. I think in coaching, just like in teaching, it has to be something that is your calling, it has to be a passion for you, otherwise it’s not going to work. It’s just too much hard work if it’s not something that is close to your heart. He’s done it on that level with the young men and dedicated his life to doing it.

Rich Rainone, parent and assistant coach at South Florida Hockey Academy, where his sons Bennett and David played: What brought us to the academy was the fact that you have all these incredible retired NHL players that were looking to honestly volunteer their time, because there’s not a lot of money in running a hockey organization, and I mean these guys were not only great guys and great with the kids, but you can just see that they were completely focused on making hockey better in Florida. They put the kids first. Just the way that they train the kids and teach the kids and give them the benefits of their experience, it is just an incredible opportunity. Our kids are truly blessed to be coached by these guys.

Pulver: He’s a very proud guy. He takes his family seriously and he takes the South Florida Hockey Academy seriously. Anything Olli does, he’s all in on. There’s no cutting corners with Olli.

Bennett Rainone, played for Olli on the U-16 team at the South Florida Hockey Academy: It was a great experience because he helped me develop a lot, and I thought it was pretty amazing to have an NHL player coaching me. I think he helped me a lot. Anytime we made a mistake, he would help us out and teach us. He would show us what we did wrong and then have us fix it during practices. He was more of a player’s coach.

Maurice: There are guys that love the game, and they play the game, and they move on from the game, but Olli was into the game. A great testament to that is he ran the hockey academy in Florida to teach the game. Because the game is in his blood. It’s what he does. He’s wired to do it. He absolutely will do very well with becoming a coach. He’s one of the players who saw the game from the bench like a coach.

Paul Maurice, head coach of the Winnipeg Jets, talks with Olli Jokinen during first period action in an NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the MTS Centre on January 25, 2014 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (2014 Getty Images)

Zito: When I read that OJ was going to coaching, I said, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ I think it’s just his nature. If you’re around Olli, he is a considerate guy, he’s thoughtful, he’s just a good person. The guy that I know is someone who’s always, ‘Hey, how are you doing.’ He’s the guy if you ever needed anything, you’d call and he’d say, ‘Oh right away,’ and you don’t even have to ask, because of course you know the answer is yes. I think as a coach he will be that way with his players. I think he’ll hold them accountable because boy is he competitive. He is a guy who wants the best for the people in his charge.

Jokinen: During the process, the thought process was, ‘Are we really doing this?’ (laughs). Because he had been interviewing a few other times, but it didn’t finalize, so until this time became final, I didn’t want to think about it and get my hopes up or even think about what that would mean. Then when it got finalized it was like, ‘Okay, guess we better tell the kids.’ But they were also aware of the process. It’s a slow process, it took several weeks. Little by little it became more real. It’s exciting, and I’m very proud of him.

Maurice: Olli and I talked this summer about him becoming an assistant coach here for the Winnipeg Jets. I ended up going in a different direction because I wanted a different role filled. Todd Woodcroft was my assistant coach, and he went on to coach at the University of Vermont and we had a hole to fill, and Olli was on the list, just for that. Olli was probably my first call when I knew I had an opening. But even with that, there was an understanding for Olli that he was a head coach. People are wired differently, and he’s wired to be a guy that coaches across all spectrums. It’s a different view of the game, and Olli has that. He has that strength.

Rich Rainone: Olli will be successful as professional coach because hockey is truly his life. When you’re talking about what I saw behind the scenes with Olli running the South Florida Hockey Academy, and how much work that he put into this program to ensure its success - this is a guy, you’d walk into their office and maybe five coaches would be at the conference table going over the practice plays for the next week for each team, and how the drills are going to help the players, all these little different things. Obviously, he carries lots of experience, but I think overall he’s just an incredible person. Like my son Bennett said, Olli is a player’s coach, and when you combine that with the kind of person he is, on top of his knowledge, that’s what’s going to make Olli extremely successful.

Dvorak: I know how much he loves hockey and how much he loves coaching. For him to go back home and be able to coach a senior team, it’s a great experience for him, that’s for sure.

Pulver: Probably with Olli, my fondest memories are talking about the realities of the game and our conversations about the game of hockey, the business of hockey, what makes players tick, what makes coaches tick, what’s successful and what’s not. He was extremely mature at the end of his career, and he took a lot of pride into everything he did. He was very proud of the South Florida Hockey Academy and the work they’ve built there. He’s just a good person who I’m hoping will be a great coach.

Bennett Rainone: He was always on top of our training and saying how much it could help us. He would only tell us positive things because sometimes when a coach says something, you listen no matter what, and he didn’t want us to get into any bad habits. So, he would only tell us good things and then we would use those in the games, and we would be successful.

Maurice: Why will he succeed? Well first, it’s his passion, right? When his career came to an end, he didn’t sit on the sidelines waiting casually to be a coach. He got involved. He got into the everyday life of coaching, he got into developing young players. So, there’s a passion there. There’s something more than just showing up at the rink and putting a tie on and yelling. He has an understanding of the big part of the game.

Kekalainen: We’ve talked about coaching, and hockey in general, several times, but he’s an independent man and he’s got a lot of experience. He knows what his challenges are going to be. We talked about it after he was named the coach in Finnish league, and I congratulated him and wished him the best of luck.

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.