"There are so many crazy hockey fans in Finland. They watch all the NHL games on TV at 3 or 4 at night because of the time difference. Now they get to go to the game and see the players they watch on TV. It's just very special."
-- Kari Lehtonen
It's a safe bet that Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen
will be eagerly watching what is going on when the NHL invades Finland next week.
Lehtonen grew up in Helsinki, site of the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere games between the Chicago Blackhawks
and Florida Panthers
. Plus, Lehtonen started his career playing at Hartwall Arena, home of the Premiere games, while with Jokerit. The Panthers play Jokerit in an exhibition game on Sept. 30, two days before the two-game Premiere Series begins.
"I think it is a huge honor, especially that the NHL picked Helsinki to play a couple of games," Lehtonen told NHL.com. "It's great for the fans. There are so many crazy hockey fans in Finland. They watch all the NHL games on TV at 3 or 4 at night because of the time difference. Now they get to go to the game and see the players they watch on TV. It's just very special."
Lehtonen's memories of playing hockey in Helsinki are also very special.
He joined Jokerit's first team as a teenager and quickly became an overnight sensation, capturing the eye of virtually every NHL scout dispatched to Scandinavia. In his first full season, as an 18-year-old, he posted a 1.79 goals-against average in 23 games, then led Jokerit to its sixth Finnish championship. Later that spring, the Thrashers took Lehtonen with the No. 2 pick in the 2002 Entry Draft, one pick after Columbus chose Rick Nash
Lehtonen was brilliant for Jokerit again in 2002-03, posting a 1.98 GAA in 45 regular- season games and proving he was ready for the North American game. He joined Atlanta's minor-league affiliate in the fall of 2003 and has been a fixture with the Thrashers since 2005.
Even now as an established NHLer, a small part of Lehtonen remains in Helsinki and with Jokerit. In fact, Lehtonen has entertained the option of returning to Jokerit to close out his career after his time in the NHL is done.
"For me, when I was playing with Jokerit, it was an exciting time," Lehtonen told NHL.com. "I was a 17-, 18-year-old kid and they gave me a chance and everything went well and we were able to win the championship. So many good memories, it's hard to tell what were the best things."
As he rehabs from back surgery and tries to ready himself for the 2009-10 season with the Thrashers, he still follows what is going on in his homeland and with Jokerit, one of the biggest clubs in Finland's SM Liiga.
"I follow it through Internet, but not quite as closely as I did when I came here because all of my old teammates were still playing there," Lehtonen said. "Now it's been a few years and the team has changed a lot and I don't know too many guys on their roster. That's why I don't follow as closely, but it's still a special place in my heart."
That loyalty to Jokerit, though latent, is one of the reasons why the goalie is not shy about admitting he is a little jealous that it will be the Chicago Blackhawks
and the Florida Panthers
, not the Thrashers, that will be facing off at Hartwall Arena during the first weekend of NHL play.
"I was really hoping we would be one of the teams," Lehtonen said. "First, I heard that Helsinki was getting a game, but they didn't know the teams yet. Then, I heard rumors that Atlanta could be one option and I was so pumped about that. Maybe next time. I'm not mad or anything. There're 30 teams. But, that would have been a dream come true for me."
Instead, he wishes the Hawks and Panthers luck, hoping they enjoy his hometown.
"It's a small city, but really clean and hopefully not too cold when NHL goes there," Lehtonen said. "They should have a good time. The rink is great also. It's a newer rink and everything is perfect. I'm sure it is going to great for everybody that has the opportunity to go there."
Lehtonen is confident that his countrymen will roll out the red carpet for the NHL when it arrives next week.
"Hockey's the biggest sport in Finland; everybody follows it," Lehtonen said. "It's like baseball in America."