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As part of the USA Hockey ‘Hockey Weekend Across America’ initiative, Sunday, Feb. 17 was designated as ‘Honor your local hockey hero’ day.
The Dallas Stars presented an award and gift during their home game Sunday afternoon at the American Airlines Center to a true hero, Jouni Lehtola, in recognition of his lengthy list of contributions to DFW youth hockey.
Lehtola is an extremely worthy honoree, as he could very well be considered the ‘father of Metroplex youth hockey.’ Hired by the Dallas Stars shortly after the club arrived in town from Minnesota in 1993, Lehtola basically started the local youth hockey program from scratch and helped build it up to the point that now, just 15 years later, there are thousands of kids playing hockey here and the area is producing elite-level talent in all age groups.
“He was the original hockey program manager for the Dallas Stars from 1993-97, but he’s never stopped being involved in youth hockey,” noted Keith Andresen, Senior Director of Hockey Programs and Ice Scheduling for the Dallas Stars. “He’s been involved, not only at the local level as a coach and administrator for several organizations, but he’s always been involved with the USA Hockey camps. He is, right now, coaching with the Alliance Bulldogs Youth Hockey Association and is the current coach-in-chief of the Texas Amateur Hockey Association, so he’s basically the head coach for all of Texas and Oklahoma.
“And that’s why we’re honoring him, but he’s also a hockey hero, because part of Hockey Weekend Across America, on Sunday, is honor your local hockey heroes. And that’s why we chose Jouni - there’s so many people we can thank, all of our youth volunteer coaches. We’re going to honor them in our game program and on our website, but we wanted to pick out one person to kind of represent all of those people and Jouni has certainly put in the time and effort to better the youth hockey programs, not only for the Dallas Stars, but for the DFW hockey community and the entire state of Texas.”
For Lehtola himself, a humble man originally from Finland, hearing that he would be honored in such a manner was an intensely emotional experience.
“I got a call last week that they would honor me for my contributions to Dallas youth hockey,” he confirmed. “It feels amazing to get a recognition like that and when I told my daughter - a 13-year-old - last week, I just broke into tears. A very emotional feeling, thinking back on all the late nights and early mornings and sacrifices made, sometimes at the cost of my own family at home, to be out there for the kids. I get very emotional, still do. It’s quite an honor, it really is.”
It is certainly a well-deserved honor. Lehtola got youth hockey started here in Dallas back in 1993, getting hired by the Stars, who took over the only existing hockey facility in the area - the rink at Valley Ranch - during the club’s first training camp.
“When the Stars moved here, it was actually the second day of the training camp when I ventured out to Valley Ranch and saw a couple of official-looking gentlemen there and ended up going up to what turned out to be (then General Manager) Bob Gainey and introduced myself,” Lehtola recalled. “And he said, ‘I think we’ll have something for you.’ He said to talk to Doug Armstrong (then the Assistant GM). And so I talked to Doug Armstrong, at first I did some stats, just data entry for them, and then moved on to getting full-time hired in charge of getting this beast on the road, the local youth hockey.”
Beginning work at what is now the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Valley Ranch, Lehtola faced some early obstacles in getting the program off the ground.
“I know the Stars had to renovate the rink when they first got here,” Andresen noted. “There were days where they were working with three walls and the other wall just had plastic on it and they were dressed in shorts and t-shirts in 105-degree heat trying to keep the office running. Basically, when they were renovating the rink at Valley Ranch, they had trailers out front as locker rooms, and they’re out there hosing down rubber, so the players can walk in their skates from the trailer locker rooms to the ice surface.
“Basically, (Lehtola) started the program from scratch, getting kids at the bottom levels interested in playing hockey, capitalizing on the Stars moving to town, trying to get kids playing hockey, so that they’d build more fans for people to come to watch hockey games. That was pretty much the vision of (then-Stars President Jim) Lites back then, to build the fan base by participation and involvement in hockey and Jouni was the first guy with the mission to help build the fan base through those avenues.”
“We started in the offices, there with no air-conditioning,” Lehtola recalled. “Ed Reusch (now the Stars Vice President in charge of the Dr Pepper StarCenters) and I worked hard, late, early mornings til late at night, getting the youth and amateur hockey system going, and then growing it, and then I pretty much specialized in youth hockey.”
Despite the sometimes difficult conditions in the early days, within a few years, Lehtola had built a thriving program, using a set-up fairly rare in the U.S., where the one entity controlled both the facilities and the hockey program.
“When the Stars bought the ice rink in Valley Ranch, in ‘93, there was an existing youth hockey association that ran the youth hockey program in Dallas and it was under Jouni’s leadership that we took over running the hockey programs ourselves in-house,” Reusch recounted. “And then it was a couple of years later, when the programs were better established, that the travel hockey associations began to spring up.”
Lehtola likes the arrangement of the Stars running both the program and the rink because it allows both aspects of the sport to be working hand-in-hand towards the same goals.
“I’ve been involved in so many other sports and I’ve seen how, unfortunately, that over-anxious parents could really ruin it, not only for their own kids, but for the whole teams and organizations,” Lehtola said. “When there’s a governing body in control, as the Stars running the rinks, running the leagues and leading the organizations, there’s very few questions left unanswered as to who is in charge. There are not too many Chiefs there who are all on the same page and know which direction the Indians need to go. That helps out tremendously with our organizational structure.”
“Around the country, most ice rinks are not that involved in the running of the program, they just rent the ice to somebody else who is running the program,” Reusch pointed out. “It’s really made us different in the United States. There’s no other NHL team that’s involved in youth hockey the way as the Dallas Stars are. And that’s because of the Valley Ranch rink and the way that we run the in-house hockey program. We take the kids to a certain point, and then we turn them over to the travel associations, and we have some very good travel associations in Dallas that do a great job.”
As the program grew and more kids participated, the Stars began building more rinks and now have eight Dr Pepper StarCenters around the Metroplex, with a total of 15 ice sheets, and they are some of the best facilities in the country. That has only served to further improve the youth hockey system, both in terms of the number of kids playing and the skill levels of those kids.
“And of course, from there, it evolved and more rinks got built and more associations starting evolving and only the travel and select teams that are playing out of the StarCenters now (run their own programs),” Lehtola said. “The Stars still run their house programs. They’re real grass-roots programs. It was a really neat way of getting the hockey started here, all under the Stars, and let’s face it, that’s the single most important reason why youth hockey is where it is right now.”
Many people give Lehtola himself a good portion of the credit for that, both in the way he helped get the program started and in the coaching methods that he’s used over the years, emphasizing skill development and by using hockey to teach lessons that go beyond the ice rink.
“Jouni’s one of the pioneers, he was one of the first instructors here,” noted Dwight Mullins, coach of the NAHL’s Texas Tornado, who play out of the Frisco Dr Pepper StarCenter, and formerly a coach in the Dallas Stars Selects organization. “Jouni has youth hockey perspective to a T. He’s a teacher, he puts skill development first. He’s not afraid to be innovative or to maybe go against some trends. He has a very strong knowledge of the game. He’s very disciplined and structured and he’s just a fantastic teacher for kids, especially at young ages.”
“Every year, he’s coached select hockey for different associations, and his philosophy is teaching kids life lessons through hockey,” Andresen said. “He’s not just about winning hockey games. He’s a very fine hockey coach, he can teach X’s and O’s like nobody, but what he brings to the table is teaching life lessons - discipline, sportsmanship, a positive attitude, teamwork - all the ingredients that kids need for life lessons, not just hockey. All those character lessons are important for kids to learn nowadays, but so often get forgotten behind wins and losses.
“And that’s where Jouni and I bonded as friends, because we share that philosophy. For the very few kids who are going to be able to attain very high levels, that’s wonderful, but we need to gear what we do in our philosophies towards making these kids better people, not just better hockey players.”
In fact, Lehtola eventually turned his focus to coaching more and more - both coaching his son Carl, now 18, and other age groups - and now he is primarily responsible for teaching coaches and helping improve the overall quality of coaching available not only in the Metroplex, but the entire state of Texas.
“I’m the Texas Coaching Director for USA Hockey, so I run all the coaches clinics here,” Lehtola reported. “I’m in charge of coaches clinics in Texas, have different people running clinics in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and I personally run all the clinics in Dallas. I’m also Coaching Director for the Alliance Youth Hockey Association. I coach two teams, Squirts Prep team and Peewee Prep team. So, a lot of involvement.”
“When Jouni quit working for the Stars, he got involved with coaching with his son playing, and was one of the best coaches in the Metroplex and has been one of the key USA Hockey officials in the area now,” Reusch said. “He is primarily responsible for making sure that we have good, quality coaches in the Metroplex. Absolutely, he’s been very instrumental in nurturing the growth.”
Lehtola believes that the incredible heights reached by local kids at the highest skill levels - such as the Dallas Ice Jets Peewee AAA team winning the first Tier I National Championship for a team based in Texas in 2006 - is due to the vast improvement of local coaching.
“We have a tremendously healthy level of competition here,” he acknowledged. “Growing the sport anywhere, it has to start with quantity. And once quantity got there, the focus starts shifting into quality and developing the top-tier players. And really, I have to say - I’m a coach, but I give a lot of credit to the coaches, who have furthered their education and interests and developed themselves and thus, having been able to turn around and give all that knowledge back to the kids. So coaching has really taken off. The way I started was with a healthy competition between us coaches within organizations and competition against coaches in other organizations, constantly trying to invent new ways of playing, new ways of teaching the game and concepts to the kids.”
And Lehtola himself is a key reason for that. So for those fans planning to attend the Stars’ matchup with the Red Wings Sunday afternoon (remember, the start time was changed from 12:30 pm to 2:30) at the American Airlines Center, be sure to give Jouni a rousing ovation because he has been extremely influential in the development of the local hockey scene that many of you - and your kids - have benefitted from.
“And Jouni has never done it to make a living off of it, and so that’s a credit to him as well,” Mullins noted. “He gives a lot back to the kids. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for his opinion and for his perspective and for his dedication for helping kids enjoy and love our sport. I really think, deep down inside, he gets so much satisfaction and joy in teaching new things to new kids, that he knows what it’s all about.”
“He’s seen it all from every perspective, from the perspective of a parent, of a coach, of a USA Hockey official and at the Dallas Stars’ ice rink facility,” Reusch added. “So he’s been a really good influence on hockey in the community.”