December 10, 2019

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A pinch of grit and a dash of speed

Finnish forward finds recipe for success

Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Joona Luoto knows just what kind of player he is.</p>

Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press

Winnipeg Jets' Joona Luoto knows just what kind of player he is.

Joona Luoto has never experienced an identity crisis as a hockey player.

The Finnish-born forward understood quite early on the qualities he'd need to demonstrate in order to develop his game, turn the right heads and, ultimately, earn a living.

Wisely, he's made no attempt to reinvent himself in his first professional season in North America.

"Of course, there were guys who were scoring like (Sidney) Crosby and (Alex) Ovechkin, but I figured it out that I wasn't like those guys. I'm more like a grinder, going different ways at high speed, and that's more my game," Luoto said Friday morning, hours before his NHL debut with the Winnipeg Jets.

"Just keep those legs going and battle hard and protect the puck and make plays. I like to play hard all the time. I like to give all that I got on the ice, that's my game."

Luoto is the fourth Winnipeg skater to suit up for his first-ever NHL game this season, joining defenceman Ville Heinola, centre Dvid Gustafsson and winger C.J. Suess.

Luoto was promoted Thursday from the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. In nine games under Moose head coach Pascal Vincent, the 22-year-old undrafted winger had three assists.

"Just keep those legs going and battle hard and protect the puck and make plays. I like to play hard all the time. I like to give all that I got on the ice, that's my game." – Joona Luoto

It might well be an extended stay as the Jets have four forwards out long term — Bryan Little (perforated eardrum, vertigo), Mark Letestu (illness), Mason Appleton (foot) and Gabriel Bourque (lower body).

So, Patrik Laine's childhood friend, signed to a three-year, two-way contract in mid-June, received the call from the big club and, at 6-3, 192 pounds, was expected to offer some physicality on the left side on a fourth line with Gustafsson and Logan Shaw — two guys who also started the year in the minors.

Luoto stood out at Winnipeg's development camp in late June, at times looking like a man against boys, and followed up with a solid training camp, showing some strong skating and a willingness to fight for pucks.

The jump to the NHL came much quicker than he'd envisioned.

"Actually, I wouldn't believe that I am here now. I thought it's going to take me a long time to change my game to the North American style, the smaller rink. But it was a good thing to know that I could play and there was really nothing different than back home," said Luoto, who was afforded plenty of opportunity to impress in the pre-season, suiting up for five games, scoring once and adding an assist.

"The biggest thing is his work ethic. You watch him every shift and he just doesn't stop, and that's his mindset. He stood out at camp for doing all the right things. He plays his position, blocks shots, goes hard for pucks." – Logan Shaw on Joona Luoto

"I got a good training camp. I got here and didn't have to stress about anything, I just came here and played hockey and I think I've played pretty good. Of course, this is what I've been working on, and now it's here and I'm really excited."

Shaw, 27, who has 182 NHL games under his belt split between the Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens, said his young linemate with the gritty style gained the immediate respect of his Moose teammates.

"The biggest thing is his work ethic. You watch him every shift and he just doesn't stop, and that's his mindset. He stood out at camp for doing all the right things. He plays his position, blocks shots, goes hard for pucks," said Shaw. "You want to make your mark on the third or fourth lines, it's all the little things that make a difference.

"I hope he realizes — and I've talked to him as well about it — but sometimes those little things like blocking a shot or chipping the puck out don't look like much, but for coaches and an organization they go a long way."

Luoto is a year older than Laine and they played together as youngsters growing up in Tampere. Laine was drafted second overall in 2016 and stepped immediately into the NHL from Tappara of the SM-Liiga, while Luoto joined the same Finnish pro club that fall and played for three seasons.

They're living together in Winnipeg, along with Laine's mother, Tuija.

"We've been friends for many years. He's been really grinding his way to the NHL and always one of the hardest-working guys. He played bottom-six minutes but I never heard him complain, so that tells you what kind of guy he is," said Laine. "It's pretty unbelievable and it's great for me, too, as a friend."

Luoto had never seen an NHL regular-season game live, so he was deep in the fray for his first.

"It's a 27-hour flight and I was always in Europe," he said


Ville Heinola made quite the impression in Winnipeg but has decided to head home.

The 18-year-old defenceman, who made the Jets roster out of training camp just months after being drafted, is returning to Finland and will play for Lukko Rauma of the Finnish Liiga for the rest of the

Teenager Ville Heinola is headed back to Finland.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Teenager Ville Heinola is headed back to Finland.

season.

Heinola has a clause in his three-year, entry-level contract that allows him to return home instead of remaining in the AHL with the Moose. The undisputed surprise of training camp, Heinola had five points (1G, 4A) in eight games for the Jets this season and added an assist in three games with the Moose.

The Honkajoki, Finland product made his NHL debut and recorded his first point (an assist) on Oct. 3 in New York against the Rangers. He scored his first goal Oct. 8 against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

He won a gold medal with Finland at the 2019 world junior championship and will likely play a major role at this year's tournament in the Czech Republic.

 

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

Read full biography

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History

Updated on Friday, November 8, 2019 at 8:18 PM CST: Adds photo.

10:56 PM: Updates headline

12:08 AM: Updates numbers in sidebar

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