When Lauri Lahesalu took his first shift of the 2023 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B in his hometown of Tallinn, Estonia, he became a member of an exclusive group of players to participate in 21 World Championships at various levels. The only other known member of that club is IIHF Hall-of-Famer Viktor Szelig from Hungary, who also played in 21.
But the 44-year-old isn’t interested in counting the tournaments or games. To him, just representing Estonia is a thrill that never gets old.
“I play every year like it’s my first and last,” he said.
Lahesalu’s first World Championship was way back in 1998, when he was 19, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It was Estonia’s first time in Pool B, which is now called Division I.
Thinking back to that tournament, he said: “There were more teams in the group then, so we played more games. I think we finished third, and it was one of the best finishes for Estonia.”
His memory is correct on both points. The group consisted of eight teams, with Estonia earning three wins and one tie in seven games to finish third. That placed them 19th in the world, the country's highest-ever finish. Currently, Estonia is 28th in the IIHF World Rankings.
For years Lahesalu was the captain of the Estonian national team, but that role now belongs to Robert Rooba. The 29-year-old winger has followed Lahesalu’s lead of carving out a successful career abroad, and is currently also captain of Finnish Liiga club JYP Jyvaskyla.
“I would say he’s the greatest defenceman in Estonian history,” said Rooba. “Making it in Finland and then around Europe, his career has been incredible. He’s a hard worker; a humble guy. He’s a great example for the young guys and, for me, he’s been a great example of how to be a captain. I’m glad he’s still with us and I’m glad he’s helping me put this team in the right direction.”
From over 100 games in so many international tournaments, Lahesalu has trouble pinpointing one that stands above all others.
“I don’t have just one memory,” he said. “It’s just like one big tournament to me and every game is very important. Overall, it’s been a great journey for me and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to play for such a long time.”
Born and raised in Tallinn, Lahesalu played abroad in Finland, Denmark and France from age 18 to 37. Since 2016, however, he has played only for the Estonian national team, averaging about 10 games per season.
“It’s very hard regarding my age and playing so few games per year,” Lahesalu admitted. “Physically, I feel good but dealing with the games can be very hard.”
To stay in shape, Lahesalu trains with local club HC Panter.
“I have to thank them for allowing me to practice with them. Otherwise, it would be impossible for me to get in shape.”
And the relationship is mutually beneficial.
“I try to bring something from my experience and so on. I have to bring something to earn my spot on the team,” he said.
Five members of HC Panter play for the Estonian national team, including forward Kevin Parras. The 28-year-old has known Lahesalu now for several years.
“He’s a phenomenon,” Parras marvelled. “Not playing professionally anymore but still keeping up the physical side at this level, the fact that he’s able to play is out of this world.”
Just as Rooba did, Parras emphasized Lahesalu’s work ethic, saying: “With every year he needs to put in even more work to be able to participate. He’s a machine.”
Another member of the HC Panter club is Kevin’s younger brother Jens Hubert Parras, who is a volunteer driver at the 2023 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B.
“He’s a great inspiration,” the 18-year-old said. “He helps out the young guys and has a lot of wisdom to give out. Even if he doesn’t play, he’s still an influence on everyone. He’s a defenceman but he knows the game very well and helps out everybody, including the forwards.”
But despite training with HC Panter two or three times per week and spending lots of time around the players, Lahesalu admitted: “I don’t have the motivation to play every week anymore.”
Instead, he prefers to spend his time out in the countryside, tending to his garden of tomatoes and cucumbers. Except when it’s World Championship time, of course.
This is the seventh straight year that Estonia has played in Division II Group B and that streak will continue into 2024. The team took five of six points from its first two games against Serbia and the Netherlands before losing to a pair of tougher opponents: 7-4 to Ukraine and 3-1 to tournament-leading Japan – a grinding, defensive battle that suited the veteran d-man’s style. Lahesalu was even named the team’s best player of the game.
Taking a brief moment to soak in the atmosphere post-game, he noted: “It’s nice to play in front of the home crowd, but at the same time it’s a little bit more pressure.”
Eventually, time catches up with everybody and Lahesalu will play his last World Championship at some point. Would playing at home, here in Tallinn, be a suitable ending to his career? Or will he pass Szelig and break new ground with a 22nd tournament next year?
“I don’t know. We’ll see.”