VANCOUVER – In trying to understand why Jussi Jokinen is here, it’s important to consider where he has been.
The 34-year-old Finn, a sixth-round draft pick who was told many times he was too slow to build a National Hockey League career, has played in Dallas, Tampa, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Florida, Edmonton, Los Angeles and Columbus. Those last three stops were all this season.
That means, he said, that over 13 years in the NHL he has been able to learn from Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Steve Stamkos, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, Connor McDavid, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty.
The Hockey Hall of Fame may wish to invite Jokinen to sit on their selection committee because he has been a teammate to many of the greatest players of his generation. It’s too bad he missed Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron, but at least Jokinen now sits in the same dressing room as Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
But why is here with the Vancouver Canucks?
The most honest answer is because the Columbus Blue Jackets, getting near the NHL’s 50-contract limit, insisted the Canucks take him in order to close Monday’s deadline trade that brought 22-year-old prospect Tyler Motte to Vancouver in exchange for Thomas Vanek.
And when Jokinen could have been told on Tuesday simply to go home or to the minor-league Utica Comets, the Canucks brought him here because coach Travis Green sees a player who has experienced a lot and survived a long time as a conscientious pro who may yet have something positive to offer a franchise loading up with young players.
Jokinen may not even play a game for the Canucks, and many people on the West Coast will hope he doesn’t. But the winger, who knows this may be the end for him as a player, is determined to push the Canucks’ kids and earn Game No. 938 as honestly as he earned his NHL debut in 2005.
"You have always to put things in perspective; things could be worse," Jokinen said. "It’s my 13th year in the league; when I came in the league everyone said I was too slow. So I’ve been too slow for 13 years to play in this league. There’s not too many sixth-round picks who have played 900 games in the NHL. I’m really proud of that.
"Even though you go through tough times, you remind yourself that it’s a dream come true to play in the league and make a living playing hockey in the NHL with the best players in the world."
If you think the Canucks’ season has gone sideways, consider Jokinen’s.
The Edmonton Oilers targeted Jokinen in free agency, believing he’d complement their young stars and help the team challenge for the Stanley Cup.
But after a dreadful start by both team and player, the Oilers traded Jokinen on Nov. 14 to the Los Angeles Kings. He played on the Kings’ fourth line and a penalty-killing unit that was the best in the NHL. But on Jan. 17 Jokinen was waived and claimed by Columbus.
In 46 games this season for three teams, Jokinen has one goal and six assists while averaging 11:11 of ice time. His shooting percentage is 1.9. Last season in Florida, it was 9.3 per cent and for his career it is 11.8, so Jokinen is probably owed a few goals. Of course, that is complicated by not playing.
Green said Jokinen pushed teammates in Thursday’s practice and the coach reiterated that while the Canucks are developing players, there will be no free passes.
"He’s here to play; he’s not here to just hang out," Green said of Jokinen. "If I don’t play a young guy it’s because he doesn’t deserve to play. There are repercussions when you don’t play well. It’s not just open the doors and let guys play. You need to be prepared, you need to be held accountable and that’s the NHL. If you don’t play well, you don’t play. And our young guys know that."
Jokinen hopes to keep playing after the one-year, $1.1-million-US deal he signed with Edmonton, three teams ago, expires on July 1.
"I still love playing," he said. "I’m 60 games away from 1,000 games; that’s still driving me. I’d love to get a chance to play 1,000 games so I need at least one more year to play in this league. I know chances are not in my favour, but I’ve been in this league so long. First time I was traded was 10 years ago, but I always found a way to come back. Odds are not on my side again, but I’m doing everything I can to get a job next year."
Luckily, Jokinen and his wife, Salla, agreed she would stay home with their two kids in Florida this season, so the family has not been affected by Jussi’s tumultuous odyssey. But Jokinen badly wished his family was with him on Valentine’s Day.
Like many NHL players in South Florida, Jokinen’s home is in Parkland. The mass shooting that killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was about a mile from where Jokinen’s children go to school.
"Parents who lost their kids, I can’t even think what they are feeling," Jokinen said. "Compared to that, hockey is a very small thing in the world."