"It's something I was dreaming about as a kid, but every time you play in the Olympics, it's a new feel. I know I've played so many times in Olympics now, but it's still new to me each time. You get the butterflies -- and it's going to be great again." -- 5-time Team Finland Olympian Jere Lehtinen
In February, the three-time Selke Trophy winner will be representing Finland for the fifth-straight time. Even for a 15-season NHL veteran with the Dallas Stars, having the opportunity to join your fellow countrymen in the Olympic Village five times has to be pretty remarkable.
"I don't really think about it that much, but it's been great to play for your country," Lehtinen told NHL.com. "Especially that first time you play in the Olympics (in 1994 in Lillehammer). It was like, 'Wow, I'm really here.'
"It's something I was dreaming about as a kid, but every time you play in the Olympics, it's a new feel. I know I've played so many times in Olympics now, but it's still new to me each time. You get the butterflies -- and it's going to be great again."
Much like it was whenever he had an opportunity to join his older brother on the outdoor hockey ponds back home in Espoo.
"It wasn't hockey 24/7, but we did play a lot of outside hockey on the rinks and ponds," he said. "I started when I was about 3-4 years old and my brother was three years older, so I followed him and played outside hockey and everyone did the same thing. Through my childhood, where I lived, it was only a couple of minutes to get there.
"As a kid in Finland, you start having that goal of playing with your national team and then in the Olympics -- that's what you want to do. It wasn't so much the NHL at that time."
Make no mistake, once he established himself in the NHL as a rookie in 1995-96, Lehtinen's career took off. He's known around hockey circles as one of the finest two-way players in the game and for good reason. He's the third Stars' player to reach 500 career points -- joining forward Mike Modano and former Dallas defenseman Sergei Zubov. Entering this season, Lehtinen had never finished a season with a negative plus-minus rating. And while that streak is in danger this season -- he's currently a minus-4 -- Lehtinen is a plus-180 in 847 career games.
Paying attention to defensive detail is something he learned very early in life.
"I remember when I was younger, you just played and didn't worry too much about goals and stuff," he said. "I scored my share, but I think because I played defense in soccer when I was younger, I got used to it. I was back playing defense instead of offense all the time, so maybe that helped. That's always been my style to play and, of course, over the years I had a chance to play in men's leagues in Finland and my coaches were very good at pushing hard to play a two-way game. That helped me become the player I am now."
Internationally, he's won two bronze medals (1994 and '98) and one silver (2006). At the '06 Games in Turin, Lehtinen played on a line with Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne and played a vital role in helping lead his country to the gold-medal game against nemesis Sweden -- losing 3-2. Koivu and Selanne were the tournament's top scorers with 11 points apiece and Lehtinen finished tied for sixth with 8 points in 8 games.
While winning a silver medal was unforgettable, it wasn't the fondest memory etched in Lehtinen's head.
"There were some Olympic Games where I had a chance to see different events," he said. "Cross-country skiing and the Opening Ceremonies were big things to me. Knowing all these other things are going on in the Olympics -- besides ice hockey -- is what was so great and No. 1 to me."
Lehtinen was hesitant to offer up any Olympic predictions.
"There are favorites, but we have a good team and good group of guys and, of course, great goalies (Niklas Backstrom, Miikka Kiprusoff and Antero Niittymaki)," Lehtinen said. "We're coming in as underdogs. I think all teams have a good chance and if you're able to get your game going right away in a short tournament -- anything can happen.
"In the last Olympics, we played great and we need to find that right away and play a good team game again -- that's the most important thing."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com