From past to present, bond runs deep for Stars, Finland
Dallas recently celebrated its 'great relationship' with the country that has spanned decadesby Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer
The Stars' love affair with Finland might have started all the way back in 1984 when the organization drafted Kari Takko.
Not only did the talented goalie play six seasons for the Minnesota North Stars, he joined the Dallas Stars as head of European scouting in 1999 and helped bring in a long lineage of players from Finland that includes current stars Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and Roope Hintz.
That heritage was celebrated last week in Lahti when that trio joined Julius Honka and John Klingberg at the Liiga Alumni All-Star Game. It was a reminder of just how important the country has been to the Stars organization.
"Obviously, we have had a lot of good luck there," said Les Jackson, the Stars senior advisor to the general manager, who drafted many of the Finnish players. "We had some good people when we were in Minnesota and we got Jere (Lehtinen), and we went from there.
"It's been a great relationship."
Video: Current and former Stars unite at Liiga Alumni Game
Lehtinen was taken 88th overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1992 and forged a career that led to his No. 26 being retired in 2017. He currently serves as the general manger for the Finnish National Team, and carries on the bond between team and country.
Lehtinen was the perfect player at the perfect time, as he mirrored the style of then Stars general manager Bob Gainey. During a Hall of Fame career with the Montreal Canadiens, Gainey won the Selke Trophy (given to the best defensive forward in the league) four times. Lehtinen then went on to win it three times with the Stars.
Lehtinen's success with the team led to Dallas going back to find players such as Antti Miettinen, Jussi Jokinen, Niko Kapanen and Niklas Hagman.
"When I was in Dallas, we had a bunch of Finns," Miettinen said before the All-Star Game. "Now they are stacking up again and they got some great talent there in the Finnish players. It's good to see. I think Finnish hockey is booming right now."
Lehtinen, who is leading Finnish hockey right now, helped pave the way.
"In a lot of ways, their style of play fit exactly what we were building back in the day," Jackson said. "Bob Gainey was a strong defensive forward, and was very diligent, and I think we took a lot of players that sort of fit that mold, starting with Jere Lehtinen. Then, it just sort of followed and we liked what we found there."
The players today follow through on that thread.
"When the Finns won the World Championships, I think there were two-and-a-half million (people) watching the game," said Lindell. "When you think there is a bit over five million people in Finland, it tells how big the hockey is."
The Stars organization has employed more Finnish players than any in the NHL, and the pride of the country is one reason he team keeps going back.
"Finland is a small country and a blue-collar country, and they are very proud of their hockey," Jackson said. "I think if you look at a lot of international tournaments, they are 'overachieving' so to speak. They're almost always on the medal stand, and they play hard all of the time."
Stars coach Jim Montgomery said he loves the attitude of the current Finnish players, and said they help carry on the culture that the veterans are trying to build.
"I think with our culture in Dallas right now, those guys are key components of what we want to do not only today, but for years to come," Montgomery said. "When I look at Lindell, Heiskanen and Hintz, it's not only what they do on the ice, but how they live off the ice.
"The three of them carry themselves the right way. They practice the right way, they consistently play hard and they're consistently good teammates."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.