For years, ever since Kiviharju was young, he has played up a level, or two, or three. At age 13, he was playing U16 hockey with TPS Turku and, this past season, as a 15-year-old, he started with TPS’ U18 team before moving on to the U20 club. His numbers – 30 points in 35 games – would be deemed impressive for a 19-year-old forward, never mind a young defenceman who only turned 16 in January.
At the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky Cup this week in Red Deer, Kiviharju once again is playing up as one of three 2006-born defencemen on the Finnish roster, in a tournament largely made up of 2005-born athletes. Team Canada, for instance, has no 2006-born players and is made up entirely of 2005ers.
“Many people have been asking me about (competing against older players),” says Kiviharju, who averaged a point per game (six assists in six games) last April at the 2022 IIHF U18 World Championship. “But for me, it doesn’t matter what the age group is, I just try to be myself on the ice, off [the] ice, and I think that’s when the best things happen, is when I’m myself. It doesn’t matter what the age group is.
“I’ve always known that I’m a few centimetres shorter or a few kilos lighter, but just try to find a way to get out from under the pressure. Just thinking all the way, like use your head when you’re in those situations when your body is smaller than the other guys. Just use your head and get away from the pressure.”
Talk to hockey scouts and coaches and Kiviharju’s ability to think on the ice is a primary reason for his success. He’s currently touted by some to be the front-runner to go first overall in the 2024 NHL Draft which, for a teenager, must feel like a lifetime away.
But at just 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Kiviharju, one of the smallest defenceman in Red Deer, has to have high hockey IQ and exceptional physical skills to ensure he can defend and provide offence.
“Aron has amazing hockey sense, how he sees the game,” says Finland head coach Lauri Merikivi, who has only gotten to know and see Kiviharju up close over the past couple of weeks as the Finns prepared for the U18 showcase event. “It feels like he always knows what’s going to happen right away. It looks very easy when he has the puck because he knows what’s going to happen and where the players are going to move.”
So, the million-dollar question is, where does that hockey sense come from? Kiviharju chuckles that it likely originated with his mom but notes his dad, Jani, who spent eight seasons with TPS Turku, got a three-year-old Aron on skates and, from there, curiosity kind of took over.
Merikivi says he doesn’t know where the hockey IQ comes from but is pleased to see it on his team.
“That’s a good question and, if I had the right answer, I would probably say that to all of these players,” he says with a laugh. “He played lots of different games when he was young. He is very interested in the game, he listens and he asks and he follows what other players do. And he’s curious all the time in what’s going to happen and how different situations will turn out. That’s the big thing.”
What that translates to on the ice is a player who seems to be a step ahead of the play. Think of Walter Gretzky teaching a young Wayne to go where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is at the moment.
Kiviharju describes himself as a defenceman who is strong with the puck and best in the offensive zone. But that shouldn’t take away from his more-than-capable abilities in his own zone keeping players, and the puck, away from his net.
“He’s not so big, like everybody knows. But he’s strong enough,” says Merikivi. “If I compare with other players the same age, he’s strong enough and he will improve that. His timing is really good. He knows when is the right time to hit and when is the right time to defend with the stick or make the box out or play 1-on-1. That’s the thing. I can compare him to Sebastian Aho, who is also not really a big player or really strong. But the timing is so good.”
Following the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Kiviharju will head back to Turku and try to crack the TPS roster and play in the Liiga, the highest level of the game in Finland. Whenever he makes the team (and his current coach thinks it could be this season), Kiviharju will be playing with and against men. It’s incredible to think he could be doing so at the age of 16.
“I’ve been waiting for that for my whole life, since I started playing hockey that I could be with the TPS men’s team,” he says. “I’ve been looking forward to that.”
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