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Breaking Away

Wednesday, 01.30.2008 / 3:05 PM / Feature
By Ken Sins
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Breaking Away

Jussi Jokinen had the NHL buzzing in 2005-06. National columns were written and TV features were aired in the U.S., Canada and Europe detailing the rookie’s extraordinary success in the shootout.

The 24-year-old’s assortment of baffling breakaway moves made him the master of the competition in the NHL’s initial season with the tiebreaker. He connected on a league-best 10 of his 13 attempts to help the Stars to a 12-1 record in games that were still tied after overtime.

Last season, opposing goalies caught on to some of his one-on-one tricks, and Jokinen was a little more down-to-earth 5-for-12, but the Stars still went 9-4 in the tiebreaker. The Finn’s shootout success was nothing new. He has excelled in it since he was an eight-year-old when he scored the game-winner in a tiebreaker to win the final game of a big tournament.

But now, in his third season with the Stars, Jokinen wants to expand his horizons. Shootout success is nice, but his five-on-five and power-play production are also drawing notice. Prior to suffering a knee injury around Christmas time, Jokinen was among the team leaders in goals and power play tallies, and his attention to detail also improved as he strives to become a better-rounded player.

“It was a big story my first year and I enjoyed that streak,” Jokinen said of his shootout prowess. “Hitting 10 was very good, but I’m focusing on becoming more of a complete player.”

To that end, Jokinen earned national headlines this season on Nov. 16 when he notched a career-high four goals in a win over Colorado. He became the first Star to score four goals in a game since current co-General Manager Brett Hull did so on March 21, 2001. Jokinen’s season had been off to a slow start, so that breakout performance certainly stoked his confidence.

“Things weren’t going my way early in the season, then I was scratched for a game,” Jokinen said. “That was disappointing, but it’s a long season and I was in good shape, working hard. After I got those four goals, it was a big relief. My confidence level took a huge step up. I like to keep the puck, make passes and make plays, so when my confidence level is high, it’s so much easier. You can try those tough passes. When you’re not producing and your ice time goes down, you might think you can’t try something because you might not play anymore.”

Said linemate and countryman Niklas Hagman: “Maybe the four goals gave him an extra boost. That’s not something that happens every day. It’s fun to play with him and see him continue to develop.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Jokinen wasn’t a bad player in his first two NHL seasons. He posted 17 goals and 38 assists in 81 games as a rookie, with his assist total the sixth-highest by a first-year player in franchise history. He added two goals and an assist in five playoff games, and last season, he collected 14 goals and 34 helpers in 82 games. Now with two seasons on his resume, Jokinen knows more is expected.

“This is a big year for me,” Jokinen conceded. “I want to take the next step and become a really good player.”

At 5-11 and 190 pounds, Jokinen’s accurate left-handed shot and solid puck-handling ability are his strong suits. He also showed durability last season as one of only three Stars players to appear in every game.

“He’s working at getting to be more complete every day,” said Stars Head Coach Dave Tippett. “He got a reputation as a rookie because he was so good in the shootout, but he did a lot of great things too. He’s a strong offensive player who does things well with the puck, complements other players and is good on the power play. There’s a lot more to him than the shootout. He gets revered for the shootout because of media attention but he does a lot more things.

“That four-goal game really helped push him forward. He’s a guy who looks at stats a lot and wants his stats to be good. That game really helped him in that respect. He’s played really well. He’s a guy we rely on for offensive creativity and he’s done that for us.”

Jokinen’s efforts to turn up his game a notch or two have been noticed by teammates.

“He’s a very talented guy, very nifty with the puck, very good on the half-wall,” said Stars alternate captain Stu Barnes. “Whether it’s a power play or five-on-five, he controls it very well. He’s a good passer who’s having a very good year.”

Jokinen grew up in the small town of Kalajoki, in the center of Finland, the eldest son of Keijo and Annikki Jokinen. His father is in agriculture, operating a potato farm, and his mother teaches continuing education to adults, while younger brother Juho plays in the Finnish Elite League. Among Jussi’s childhood friends was Joni Pitkanen, now a defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers.

He excelled in soccer growing up, but he decided at an early age to concentrate on hockey. When Jokinen was 15, he was given the opportunity to move 90 miles north to join a junior team. He enjoyed going to school and practicing twice a day, but the negative was separation from his family, although they often made the drive to see his games.

Living away from home as a teen had at least one benefit, teaching him how to take care of himself.

“My dream was to play in the NHL,” he said. “I lived with a buddy the first four years away from home, which really helped. I learned to do the shopping, get my own clothes and take care of myself, and that helped me when I came here. I was independent already, but when you’re 15, it takes some getting used to.”

At 18, he graduated to Karpat Oulu of the Elite League while he finished school. He also served his six-month hitch in the Finnish army.

Jokinen was selected by the Stars in the sixth round of the 2001 Entry Draft (192nd overall), so his NHL future was hardly guaranteed. He played for Karpat from 2001-05 and improved his goal-scoring totals in each of his four seasons, notching 23 goals and 24 assists in 56 games in 2004-05, then totaling seven points in 12 playoff games.

“That was a tough year, but I got lots of ice time and we won back-to-back championships,” Jokinen said. “After my last year there, I said to myself, ‘Now I’m ready to take the next step and come to the NHL.’”

Jokinen gained valuable experience playing for Finland in the 2001 World Under-18 Championships, and the 2002 and 2003 World Junior tournaments, ranking first on the club in scoring with eight points in 2002. He also played for his country in the 2005 World Championships, and helped Team Finland to a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.

He enjoys living in Dallas, and also goes back home every summer. His wife, Salla, is a medical student back in Finland, but she came with Jussi’s parents to visit over the holidays to give him a little taste of home.

“There are good things there and good things here,” he said. “I miss the little things, like Finnish candy, but my friends bring it over for me. I miss the snow a little, but we see snow when we play in Canada. I like Dallas, it’s been great.”

Jokinen started learning English when he was 10. By the time he decided to move to the NHL, he was proficient in the language. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, however. When he’s on the ice on a line with fellow Finns Hagman and Antti Miettinen, they speak their native tongue. They also know each other’s games from their time together playing for their country in international competition.

“It’s a little easier,” Jokinen said of playing with his countrymen. “I like to speak a lot on the ice... ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that. Off the faceoff, let’s try this.’ It’s easier to say that to other players when they understand Finnish.”

Hagman agrees that there’s an advantage.

“You want to come up with a play, and it’s easier when you can just yell to go to the back post, do this or that, and the guys on the other team don’t understand Finnish,” Hagman said. “The bigger factor is we’ve played with each other before on the national team. We have a certain way of thinking what we do with the puck when we have it in the corner, where the other guys should go, the forecheck and stuff like that. That helps a lot.”

Jokinen enjoys playing center, which utilizes his playmaking skills, but he’s also comfortable on the left side. Whatever position he plays, Jokinen’s development as an all-around performer continues its upward arc.

“Everybody wants to be known as a complete player, but everybody gets there in different ways,” Barnes said. “For him, the shootout was a great opportunity to show what he can do. He’s racked up so many points for us in the shootout, but he’s going to continue to get better in all aspects of the game.”

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