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Leino never gave up on his NHL dream

by Risto Pakarinen
HELSINKI -- When Ville Leino takes the ice on Friday, as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, it will have been three years, six months, and four days since his last game at Hartwall Areena in Helsinki, in the Finnish league semifinal series.

In those three and a half years, he's signed an NHL contract with the Detroit Red Wings, spent half a season in the American Hockey League, another half a season with the big club in Detroit, and been traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, where he became a playoff hero in 2010, scoring 21 points in 19 post-season games, tying Dino Ciccarelli's record for most points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a rookie.


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Last season's 53 points in 81 games proved that it wasn't just a fluke, and on July 1, 2011, Leino found himself as a unrestricted free agent, fielding offers from several teams.

"I saw that Buffalo was a great team with great players, and a fantastic goalie, probably the best in the league, in Ryan Miller," Leino told this summer.

That's how the Sabres won the race, and signed Leino to a six-year, $27-million-dollar contract this summer.

Not bad for a fourth-season NHL pro who has 149 regular season games under his belt and turns 28 years old Thursday. Despite the contract, Leino says he feels no pressure, and coach Lindy Ruff was careful not to add any, at least publicly, calling Leino just one part of the team.

"I just want him to have fun out there," Ruff said.

But as any high-priced free agent can attest, with a bigger paycheck comes more attention and higher expectations.

"You have to prove yourself every year in this league, but of course I probably have to prove it a little more this year," Leino said after the Sabres' first practice in Helsinki. "But I just want to help the team, so I have to work even harder, and stay hungry, not stop wanting to develop."

The fact that he's a late bloomer who has never played in the World Juniors, who was never drafted to the NHL, who got his Finnish league breakthrough as a 25-year-old, and who, despite his 18 Team Finland exhibition games between 2006 and 2008, has never played in the World Championships probably guarantees that Leino won't get complacent now, either.

It was hard work that got him where he is today, and it's hard work that is going to keep him there. It just took the Savonlinna, Finland native a while to realize that even great artists have to work at their craft.

"I was physically very immature," Leino says about his time with Tampere Ilves, a Finnish league team he signed with as a 19-year-old. "I had basically never done anything else but play hockey. It's a miracle I even survived the off-season training -- or that I didn't die of embarrassment."

Leino seems to get the last laugh, and today, he's a conscientious pro athlete, who does take his work very seriously.

"I guess a lot of people thought I'd never become a player when I didn't make the junior national teams in Finland. And maybe my style has always been a little un-Finnish, which may not have been appreciated. I suppose I've been perfectly foolish to stick to my own style," he told this summer. "Of course I've made compromises, too, and have matured, so that I won't do everything that pops into my mind on the ice, especially if it might hurt the team."

Team is a word that pops up a lot when Leino talks. 

"Everybody has his role on the team, and we need different kinds of players who play with their strengths," he says.

While the new contract, and the new role on the team as one of its leading forwards, do create some pressure for Leino, the six-year contract also makes it easier for him to look at the season as a whole. He knows he has a spot on the roster, even if he's not exactly on top of his game in October.

"I'd like to see my game getting better as the season progresses so that I'd play my best hockey when it really matters. So, in that sense, there's less pressure," Leino said.

And while one might think that Leino feels the pressure as he returns to Hartwall Areena on Friday, he didn't seem to feel it, at least not yet.

"I think the crowd will save the biggest cheers for Teemu [Selanne], and deservedly so," he said. "But it's nice to be back here."
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