University of Denver ice hockey alumnus Juho ‘Jussi’ Olkinuora (attd. DU 2011-13) won a 2022 Olympic gold medal for his native Finland on Feb. 20. It took 70 years, but it was the first gold medal won by a DU athlete since Jerome Biffle’s gold medal for Team USA in the long jump in the 1952 Olympic Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland – ironically, Olkinoura’s home city.
Olkinuora’s Finns upset the defending 2018 Olympic champions, the Olympic Athletes from Russia, 2-1, to win Finland’s first-ever Olympic hockey gold. The win set off a joyous celebration on the ice and in the small Scandinavian country of 5.5 million people.
Finland has been in the Olympic hockey tournament since 1928 and in more recent times, has been close to hockey gold before, but had never pulled off the big prize. In 1988 in Calgary (played under a round-robin format) the Finns were edged by the Soviet Union 2-1 and were left with the silver medal. And in 2006, the Finns again went home with silver after losing by a goal to arch-rival Sweden (playing on that Finland team was DU alumnus Antti Laaksonen). The Finns also have four Olympic bronze medals, won in 1994, 1998, 2010 and 2014.
The 6-3, 205-pound Olkinuora had impressed the Finnish Hockey Federation as national team goalie in the last three years, helping it to win a gold medal in the 2019 World Championships, followed by a tourney all-Star performance in Finland’s silver medal World Championship team in 2021.
Olkinuora is the very first DU hockey player to win Olympic gold as a player (several have won silver), and is also the first and only Winter Games athlete from DU to win gold. DU’s only other athlete-won Olympic gold medal (besides Olkinuora and Biffle) was Vince Boryla’s Olympic basketball gold medal in 1948 in London for Team USA.
DU does have a couple of hockey alumni who have later coached national teams to Olympic gold: Craig Patrick was an assistant coach to Team USA’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y., and former DU captain Kevin Dineen coached the Canadian Women’s team to gold in 2014 in Sochi, Russia. However, coaches are not awarded Olympic medals, only athletes.
Olkinuora, 31, was not Finland’s top goalie in Beijing, playing in only one game (for 62 minutes) in the Olympic tournament, but he was crucial to Finland’s team success, as he was the winning goalie in the Finns’ 4-3 memorable comeback OT win over Sweden in group play. He also made a first-period save in that game on Sweden’s Marcus Kruger that some are calling the save of the tournament.
At DU, Olkinuora had a spectacular 20 month experience with the Pioneers — where he started as a lightly recruited, un-drafted, 21-year-old walk-on freshman. He backstopped his way to an all-American performance in his second season with the Pioneers in 2013 that left NHL teams waving money for his services. He left DU after that sophomore season to sign an NHL contract with the Winnipeg Jets and played in the North American minor leagues, before leaving for Europe in 2016. He now plays professionally in the KHL in Russia, with Metalurg Magnitogorsk.