Before Ville Leino plays a regular season home game as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, he will have the rare opportunity to play in front of his “home” fans in Helsinki this Friday night when the Sabres open up the 2011-12 NHL season against the Los Angeles Kings. A native of Savonlinna, Finland, Leino – who turns 28 on Thursday – now makes his offseason home in Helsinki and is expecting as many as 40 friends and family to be in attendance at the Hartwall Areena on Friday. Leino recently sat down with Kevin Snow of Sabres.com to give some insight into the Finnish hockey culture.
DESCRIBE THE YOUTH HOCKEY PROGRAMS IN FINLAND… It’s different than North America. I started playing hockey when I was seven years old. You play in the town you are from, where you grew up or where you are living now. Depending on where you live, you could travel as far as 250-300 miles to play a game. After about 13 or 14 years of age, the good players are recruited to play with some of the better teams. They have junior team programs as you get older, and that becomes national team development programs if you are good enough to continue on.
HOW MUCH EXPOSURE DID YOU HAVE TO THE NHL WHILE GROWING UP? We would get occasional games at night time, but they were always very late. I remember we had the NHL Weekly highlights program. We would watch that show every Sunday, and it was highlights of all the big games and best players. I would collect hockey cards of all my favorite players, but I wasn’t able to watch that many games.
DID YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PLAYER GROWING UP? When I was younger, I followed my local teams and wanted to be just like those guys. But as I got older I started to pay more attention to NHL players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. I really enjoyed their style of play. It was a real thrill for me to be able to play with them in Detroit.
DESCRIBE THE TYPICAL FINNISH HOCKEY PLAYER… I think Finns are most commonly very hard workers. They are trust worthy and don’t do too much fancy stuff on the ice. I think it’s a product of how the national team program has been built up, and how we’ve been able to have so much success. We don’t have that many players in the NHL, or playing hockey in general like they do in North America or Russia. That’s how we’ve been brought up. Now they are trying to bring more skill into the program because there are not enough pure players coming. So now they realizing they have to work more on the skills.