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Blues' Lehtera adjusting to North America, NHL life

by Louie Korac

A year ago this week, the 2014 Sochi Olympics entered the knockout round. To celebrate, looks at three players who used one of hockey's biggest stages to grab the spotlight and parlay their celebrity into the 2014-15 NHL season.

Today, we look at Finland forward Jori Lehtera, who parlayed his success into the start of an NHL career.

It's been a year since St. Louis Blues center Jori Lehtera made a name for himself in front of who would turn out to be his future employers in the NHL.

For Lehtera, 27, the competition of representing Finland at the 2014 Sochi Olympics now seems like a distant memory.

It was a good first impression for the Helsinki native, who has held a top-six role for the Blues, in  what he hopes is a prolonged NHL career.

The Blues (38-16-4), who have one of the NHL's best records, were impressed when Lehtera scored a goal and had three assists in six games to help Finland win bronze in Sochi, and he scored three goals and 12 points in 10 games at the 2014 IIHF World Championship.

The Blues signed Lehtera to a two-year, $5.5 million contract even though he had no NHL experience.

His transition to the NHL has had its ups and downs, but the ups came to light early.

"It's been good and bad games like always," said Lehtera, who has nine goals and 32 points in 51 games this season. "I think I started pretty good (17 points in 16 games), but now, the games before the All-Star break, I was kind of tired. Those games, I didn't play that good. I think now, it's going to go back to where I was at the start."

The All-Star break helped Lehtera get a mental and physical respite from the grind of NHL hockey, but there was a seven-game stretch when he sat out with concussion symptoms that enabled him  to get himself refreshed for the stretch run.

"He's had a break because of the concussion, so we're anticipating that he should be able to finish really strong," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think having a break with the concussion has allowed him to take that extra two weeks or 14 days … he should be up and running and good to go.

"I think he's been fine. I think there was a point there when we started playing a lot of back-to-backs where he really hit the wall. He had not played back-to-back games, and I think he found between the games and the travel exhausting. I think he was hurting physically because it was really demanding. I think one of them was in Winnipeg (on Nov. 23) because it was like he could barely move. I think he's more used to that stuff now. I also think missing seven games has been a blessing for him because he's going to get some energy back from it."

Lehtera adapted to a new League and an unfamiliar culture and environment. Having linemate Vladimir Tarasenko, a friend and teammate with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, helped alleviate some of the challenges he faced off the ice.

"I help him because I have experience and I was in his situation too," Tarasenko said. "These guys helped me a lot when I arrived here three years ago. … Stuff like about apartments and grocery stores, restaurants, and some team stuff when we're on the road trips and how it is here. I think right now he feels comfortable.

"Toughest part is living in a different country. But hockey is hard, too, because we play on a big ice there (in Russia). It's kind of a chip-and-go game, more physical contact here. I can help him, but he needs to feel it by himself too."

Lehtera said that when he gets away from the rink, he keeps all aspects of hockey away. He and his Finnish girlfriend have become fans of certain aspects of North American living.

Jori Lehtera made such an impression on the St. Louis Blues with his international play, they signed him to a contract. His first NHL season has had its ups and downs, but he's confident moving forward. (Photo: Getty Images)

"There's good restaurants here and my girlfriend is a big fan of Whole Foods because we don't have that in Finland," Lehtera said. "What I like to do here is watch TV and eat; I'm watching the Finnish shows. I've got Finnish TV at home."

Why Finnish TV?

"You guys have these commercial breaks," Lehtera said with a grin. "One-hour, 30-minute movie takes like three hours, three-and-a-half hours. It's unbelievable. I never saw anything like that before."

Lehtera, along with Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, quickly jumped on the scene as one of the hottest lines in the League and were dubbed the "STL Line." Now that Lehtera is heading into the tough stretch of the 82-game schedule, something he is not accustomed to after playing four seasons of the KHL's 54-game regular-season schedule, the tasks become tougher.

"We had the All-Star break and I got injured after, so I'm full of energy right now," Lehtera said. "I think it's going to be good that we're still playing for the playoffs. … I feel rested and ready to play.

"… I'm not tired right now. Before the last five games (of the All-Star break), I feel I needed a break. But now I'm full of energy and ready to go."

Word of mouth was one thing, but it took playing in the NHL and living its lifestyle for Lehtera to adapt and adjust to what suited him best.

"Everything that I knew about [the NHL], of course I never played here before so I didn't know 100 percent what I should do," Lehtera said. "It's what I heard, what I think. I think I did everything 100 percent what I know. Next year, for sure, it's going to be better because I know how to practice, how to do everything.

"… I think the most important thing when I came from there was self-confidence."

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