Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is by no means done with his marathon, but for these next couple weeks, he gets to see what the finish looks like.
Luukkonen, the Sabres’ 2017 second-round pick, is in Buffalo this week leading team Finland in the 2018 World Juniors tournament.
This quick glimpse of what his future could be only pushes the Buffalo Sabres’ prospect to work his way to putting on the blue and gold.
“Every kid that grows up playing hockey dreams about playing the NHL,” Luukkonen said. “When you have a goal like that it makes you work harder.”
It’s the netminder’s first trip back to the ‘Queen City’ since July when he was here for the Sabres Development Camp.
“It’s awesome,” said Luukkonen about being in Buffalo for the World Juniors. “I know there’s a lot of guys from the organization and fans watching me.”
The 6’ 4”, 196-pound goaltender went back to Finland this year after being drafted in June. He is currently playing with LeKi in Finland’s second-best hockey league, Mestis, where he has a .914 save percentage in 18 games.
Now that he’s back in Buffalo, local onlookers will be paying close attention to him facing skilled teams such as the United States and Canada.
Although it’s his first time in the World Juniors, Luukkonen has plenty of international experience. When he was just barely 17 years old, he led Finland to gold in the U18 World Championship in 2016, posting a .917 save percentage. The next year he went back but things didn’t go as well finishing with silver.
The memories of last year’s heart-breaking loss to the US in the gold-medal game are certainly there but being on a stage as big as the World Juniors is motivation enough for Luukkonen.
“I think that you don’t need any extra motivation when you come to tournaments like this,” Luukkonen said. “But of course, when you go to the finals and don’t win it next year it hurts.”
The Fin’s second love is soccer or football depending what you call it. He played the sport for 10 years with his father as the coach. Luukkonen, of course, played goalie for his father’s team and it was there where he picked up moves that he would take to the ice.
“I was always playing soccer and hockey as a goalie,” Luukkonen said. “So a lot of my game comes from soccer.”
Lukkonen was born in Espoo, Finland the home of former NHL forward Jere Lehtinen. At five-years-old his family moved to Hämeenlinna, a city of about 68,000 people and that averages about 18-19 degrees Fahrenheit in its coldest month of January.
Although it is three-times as large, the Finland native feels at home in Buffalo.
“It’s not really that much colder,” Luukkonen said. “When I was here for three weeks for the combine and the camp I saw the city. It’s pretty nice and comfortable. It’s nice there is a lake here, it brings back memories from home.”
Luukkonen still has a few more stops to go on his long marathon before he’s ready to call Buffalo his new home. But for the next two weeks, he is focused on trying to bring gold to his current home.