While plenty of eyes have been following Rampage alumni in St. Louis who are part of the Blues’ Stanley Cup run this spring, another Rampage product has already brought back some significant hardware and has proven he can perform on one of international hockey’s larger stages against some of the world’s better players.
Rampage defenseman Niko Mikkola made his first appearance at the IIHF World Championship in May, playing a key role on the blue line for Finland. With a 3-1 win over Canada in the final, the Finns claimed their third-ever gold medal at Worlds and their first since 2011.
Mikkola, 23, had a standout tournament. After totaling two goals and nine points in 70 games with the Rampage during his first season in North America, Mikkola tallied two goals and five points in just ten tournament games, along with a plus-3 rating, against competition that included plenty of NHL talent.
Over the course of the tournament, Finland defeated (among others) Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, and Canada twice. They were met with a hero’s welcome in Finland after their gold medal victory with a massive rally back home.
“It was pretty crazy. There were so many people supporting us and celebrating with us,” said Mikkola. “Of course it was a huge deal for me and it’s always an honor to play for Team Finland.“
Though it was his first World Championship appearance, it was not his first effort on an international stage for Suomi. Mikkola represented Finland in 2016 at the World Junior Championship where he also won gold.
“Maybe more people are watching [the World Championship], but it’s always a big deal in Finland,” said Mikkola. “Both [WC and WJC] are unique and I value those experiences very highly.”
Team Finland has had extraordinary international success of late, also winning gold medals at this year’s World Juniors and at last year’s U-18 World Championship. Despite their recent results, the World Championship team surprised many. With other teams sporting some significant NHL talent, the Finns didn’t dress a single player that had scored a goal in the NHL during the 2018-19 season.
The roster did include consensus 2019 top-2 NHL Draft pick Kaapo Kakko, who shined, as well as captain Marko Anttila of Jokerit in the KHL. Still, Finland had to rely on young players and several AHL regulars, like Mikkola and Rockford IceHogs defenseman Henri Jokiharju and goaltender Kevin Lankinen.
Some pundits were surprised by the tournament’s end result, but Mikkola was not.
“We played one practice tournament before Worlds and we beat Russia and Czech.,” said Mikkola. “After that, we knew we could beat every team if we trusted ourselves.”
The Finnish coaching staff placed lots of trust in the youth, with Mikkola playing important shutdown minutes nightly and Lankinen carrying the load in net and winning goaltending duels against the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Matt Murray.
After seeing plenty of Jokiharju and Lankinen this season in divisional matchups with the IceHogs, Mikkola had little doubt he and his international teammates could answer the call.
“Lankinen and Jokiharju are great guys, like everybody else on our team,” said Mikkola. “It was great.”
You can imagine Blues fans and management thought it was pretty great, too. Rampage General Manager Kevin McDonald identified Mikkola as a prospect who had made significant strides in his first year in North America, exhibiting a strong defensive game and developing his skills as a puck-mover.
Clearly, Mikkola is feeling stronger in the offensive end, potting goals in the tournament against Sweden and France. Adding that to his shutdown play, Mikkola was recognized as one of Finland’s top three players for the tournament.
With such a strong showing, the Blues hope Mikkola will soon be turning heads against NHL talent on a more regular basis.
“I felt pretty good to play against those guys,” said Mikkola. “I think I’m not far away.”