It seems fitting that Lehtinen, 44, had his greatest NHL successes when Bob Gainey was the general manager of the Dallas Stars. Legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov once called Gainey the best all-around player in the world. Lehtinen, a fellow left wing, won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward with Dallas three times (1998, 1999, 2003) – just once less than Gainey. The low-key Espoo native hoisted the 1999 Stanley Cup as the two-way conscience of the Stars’ top line with Mike Modano and Brett Hull.
Lehtinen, who played 14 NHL seasons, owns one World Championship gold medal (1995) and three silvers (1992, 1994, 2007), as well as an Olympic silver (2006) and three bronzes (1994, 1998, 2010). He’s served as the general manager of the Finnish national team since 2014.
IIHF.com caught up with Lehtinen after the induction ceremony in Copenhagen, which also featured other ex-international and NHL greats like Rob Blake, Chris Chelios, and Daniel Alfredsson. (It was hard not to bang – er, nod – your head in agreement with these selections.)
Note: The signed Hall of Fame jerseys will soon be available for auction for a good cause. Stay tuned on IIHF.com
Congratulations on this honour, Jere. What will you remember most about today?
The main thing, I think, is just joining the group of inductees here. Most of them I played against in national team games, World Championships, Olympics, World Cups. I think it’s a family feeling you get. You go on the ice, you battle hard, you want to win, but outside that, everybody’s friends. You get to know different people from around the world. I think that’s the most important thing in sports.
When you look back at your early days, is it amazing how much the game has changed since the 1990s in terms of what’s acceptable with physicality, interference, and stickwork?
Yeah, it is. The rules have changed and the players have changed a little bit. And you know, we battled a lot. It was a war every time. But it changed. That’s evolution. My last couple of years, it was already going that way with not that much interference, speeding up the game. Again, it’s gotten more and more that way, and I think it’s good for hockey today.
You were on the Finnish team that beat the Russians in 1994 for Olympic bronze in Lillehammer. Twenty years later, we saw the Finns eliminate Russia on home ice in the Sochi quarter-finals. What have victories like that done for the self-confidence of Finnish hockey?
It’s been great to be part of that. Back in the 80’s, it was tough. Players would go in, not even thinking of winning [against Russia]. We changed. It started with the junior national teams. We beat those teams. And then it continued in the men’s tournaments. It’s huge. It’s confidence. You don’t look back. It’s just whoever’s coming against you, you know you have a chance to win.
It’s a big thing for Finnish hockey overall. Some years, of course, you don’t get anything, and then some years you go all the way. But you feel you have a chance.
What are you most proud of as the general manager of Finland?
It’s about the players you’re bringing and the years you get a good club. You get young players who’re winning in junior tournaments, U18’s and U20’s, and then you bring them here so they can be ready to win here too. So I think that’s a big thing. You have to have that big picture in your mind, where Finnish hockey is going.
Eeli Tolvanen, along with defenceman Miro Heiskanen, now belongs to an elite group of eight players who have participated in the World Juniors, Olympics and Worlds in the same season. Is it fair to compare Tolvanen to guys like Teemu Selanne or Patrik Laine?
It’s not fair to compare guys like Tolvanen or [Miro] Heiskanen. You look at them and they’re 18-year-old kids, but you look at them play and you feel like they’re ready for the men’s game. It’s fun to watch those guys play. They’re fast, they have no fear. They just get out on the ice and want to play good hockey and get better every day.
They have a bright future. And there are a lot of other players who are coming. It’s a good thing those guys showed they can play with the men’s team here and in the NHL. If they keep doing it, it’s great for Finnish hockey, and individually, those guys in the future will be in the NHL.
Who is the best Finnish player of all time?
It’s tough to say. Of course, when I was a young kid, I was looking at Jari Kurri. You know how he played and won Stanley Cups. Then you had Teemu Selanne coming up. Both guys had tremendous careers. It’s a little different times when they did those things. It’s hard to say who is number one, but as a kid, it was Jari Kurri for me. Then when I got older, I was able to play with both guys. That was a big thing for me.
What specifically appealed to you about Kurri?
I think it was just the whole Edmonton team at that time and how they played the game. He could score and play on the number one line and still do everything else around the ice. He was a complete player.
Finland versus Sweden is always a big rivalry. If you had to pick one Swedish player, who would it be?
There are so many. Nick Lidstrom is one of those. Overall, his career was amazing, what he did. But again, there’s Peter Forsberg. He’s about the same age as me. We had a good rivalry with our junior national teams, and going forward in the men’s games and the NHL. So I think that was the closest rivalry, the one guy. I respect how he played the game, and I think the respect went both ways. We played against each other a lot.
When was the last time you talked to Mike Modano and what did you guys talk about?
We talked not too long ago when I had my jersey retirement in Dallas [in November]. So after that we chatted and we’ve been contacting each other. It’s good to stay in contact with him. He went away from hockey a little bit and I hope he’s coming back in Dallas. It’s huge for Dallas.
Some guys stop working out when they retire. You hit the gym regularly. Why is that important to you?
With the injuries I had, that kind of pushed me to go to the gym and do things. I stay healthy and I can do other things than just sitting – like other sports. But mentally, too, I think that’s what I am. When I was a kid, I liked to do everything, playing. When I was done playing, I started right away working out. That wasn’t a problem. Mentally, it helps you with other stuff in your work.
Your hometown of Espoo has been chosen to host the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. What does that mean to you?
It’s great. I think it’s good because women’s hockey has been good in Espoo. We’ve been doing well in the Olympics and World Championships. Growing up in Espoo, I think it’s huge. It’s the second-biggest city, and there are a lot of girls playing hockey. I think it’s going to help the city of Espoo, getting more girls to start playing hockey. It’s great for women’s hockey in Finland overall.