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Lehtinen shaping next generation of Finnish hockey

Former Stars player thriving as Finland's General Manager

by Evan Sporer @ev_sporer / http://www.dallasstars.com

What started out as pleasure for Jere Lehtinen has turned into business.

And lately, business has been good.

When Lehtinen finished his playing career with the Dallas Stars in 2010, a 15-year NHL tour spent entirely in the Lone Star state, he said he knew he didn't want to coach.

"But I wasn't sure what was going to happen in the future," he said.

What he did know was he still enjoyed being around hockey, watching it, and being at the rink. The following spring, he found himself in Bratislava at the 2011 IIHF World Championships, as a casual observer of the team from his native Finland.

"But I knew the head coach and the whole staff well, so they asked, 'If you come, why don't you join us, and help us?'" Lehtinen said. "I went with the team that tournament, and I actually enjoyed it."

Fast-forward five years, and Lehtinen is the general manager of Finland's national senior team. The program itself, in a self-described transition, carried the second-youngest roster to the 2016 World Cup.

The only younger team is the age-restricted, under-23 North Americans.

"We go younger," Kimmo Timonen said. "We had a group of guys for years, almost 10 to 15 years, we knew each other. Teppu Numminen, and a bunch of other guys, we played so many tournaments together. But now it's time for these young guys to step up and play."

But with Lehtinen at the helm, Finnish hockey, however one chooses to categorize the phase it's in, has plenty of reasons for optimism and excitement.

"It's great to see that happening," Lehtinen said. "We're on this side now, and we were with the main group many years."

In 2016, Finland won both the World Junior and Under-18 Championships.

Now, the mainstays of the program from so many years, like Lehtinen, like Timonen, like Numminen, and like Teemu Selanne, take in the game from the stands, wearing suits, molding the next generation of Finnish hockey.

"Especially last year at World Juniors, how good those guys played, and how many special players there were, and there are more guys coming up," Lehtinen said. "It's great of course because you hope they can keep this thing going, and win tournaments, and be successful. That's why we talk about it: They come in, and [the program] is in good shape right now."

Lehtinen said for him, what has kept him involved, and allowed him to move up the managerial ladder, was that he had something to offer.

"I wasn't sure how it was going to be, but I enjoy and kind of like it," Lehtinen said. "I realized I can help. That's the main thing: If you do something, you want to be helpful too, and give back, and the best you can do."

And it's not just internationally where Finland is seeing tangible improvements.

Top prospect Patrik Laine, who won gold medals at both of those 2016 junior tournaments, and has hung around with the senior team at the IIHF 2016 World Championships and the World Cup, was selected second in the 2016 Draft by the Winnipeg Jets.

Two other Finnish players, Jesse Puljujarvi (fourth) and Olli Juolevi (fifth) were taken in the top five. In all, four Finnish players were taken in the first round, the most Finns taken in the first round of a draft since 2002. Never before had three Finnish players heard their names called in the first five picks of a draft.

"It might take some players a few years before they step to this level, but they're pretty close," Lehtinen said.

It's not all Finland for Lehtinen though, who said he still keeps tabs on his Dallas Stars, his bedtime notwithstanding.

"I don't watch so much - the time change over in Finland is tough - but I follow all the time, and watch the games as much as I can," he said. "I really want to know how they do. I'm joking with friends once in a while how they're doing there."

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