Kiviharju leading the way
by Lucas AYKROYD|30 APR 2024
Captain Aron Kiviharju (#12, centre) is a force on host Finland's blue line at the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andre Ringuette
Aron Kiviharju fits into the grand old tradition of “the honest Finn,” the guy who speaks his mind and gives the proverbial 110 percent.

If you drop your wallet in downtown Helsinki, the Finnish U18 captain will pick it up and hand it back to you. However, he might steal the puck from you on the rink and send a perfect stretch pass to his teammate for a breakaway goal.

“I would say I’m a two-way defenceman, but my strengths are in the offensive game,” Kiviharju said with his characteristic blend of engagement and enthusiasm.

Kiviharju, an 18-year-old Turku-raised blueliner, is looking sharp heading into Finland’s Tuesday showdown with the defending champion Americans for first place in Group A. Despite missing more than six months after ACL surgery and coming into his third IIHF U18 World Championship with just seven Liiga games under his belt this year, he hasn’t missed a beat.

Before facing Slovakia on Sunday, Kiviharju spoke of taking “revenge” for the Slovaks’ shocking 3-2 quarter-final ouster of Finland in the 2023 tournament in Basel, Finland. He delivered, as Finland won 4-0 and didn’t allow the Slovaks a single shot on goal in the third period.

The former TPS Turku skater, who now plays for HIFK Helsinki, leads all Finnish blueliners with an average of 20 minutes of ice time per game. Partnered with assistant captain Veeti Vaisanen, Kiviharju has totalled three assists. He still has even more to give as a power play quarterback as the do-or-die games loom. 

With his vision, playmaking, and skating on display, he’s shoring up his status as a likely first-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. But that’s not front and centre in his mind.

“I don’t think that much about the rankings,” Kiviharju said. “I don’t actually even watch them because it doesn’t matter what people think. What matters is what happens on and off the ice.”

As far as NHL role models go, Kiviharju doesn’t hesitate to name elite defenders like Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche, Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, and Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks. But one of those superstars – the winner of the 2021 Norris Trophy and a perennial 70-point man – particularly stands out for the 178-cm, 78-kg rearguard.

“I would say I'm pretty close to Adam Fox,” Kiviharju said. “We’re pretty similar players. We’re not the fastest guys. We’re not the biggest guys. We're making good decisions with the puck and bringing really high hockey IQ.”

In terms of how to captain a hockey team, Kiviharju has another great example in his father Jani Kiviharju’s longtime friend Saku Koivu.

The senior Kiviharju and the IIHF Hall of Famer came up together through TPS’s system, winning a U15 title and training together in the off-season. Aron and U18 teammate Aatos Koivu, Saku’s son, are also great buddies, and Aron describes them as constantly talking and having fun when they hang out. 

Aron was born in Esbjerg, Denmark, when Jani, a hard-working right wing and three-time Liiga champion, spent the 2005-06 season there. But right now, Aron has his sights set on North America.

He’s a longtime Boston fan: “It's a sports city, a legendary club, a beautiful team.” Yet with that said, he gives the Vegas Golden Knights the inside track on repeating as Stanley Cup champions this year.

Regardless of where he ends up, donning an NHL jersey for the first time and skating out to make his debut in one of the 32 NHL cities is a vision he can’t let go of.

“It would mean a lot,” Kiviharju said. “I've worked so hard to make that dream come true. Actually, when I was 12 or 13 years old, it wasn't a dream anymore. It became a decision that one day I will play there and I will do everything it takes to get there. My dream is to be a Stanley Cup champion one day.”

Yet of course, you’ve got to take it one championship at a time – as any honest Finn will tell you.

After winning bronze medals in 2022 at the U18 Worlds in Germany and Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Alberta, Kiviharju would love to add another medal. And it’ll be that much sweeter if it happens to be gold on home ice.