However, since IIHF tournaments and other big public events have been cancelled, the 47-year-old Espoo-born hockey legend has found solace in heavy metal music. A long-time headbanger, Lehtinen attended the Tuska metal festival in Helsinki each June from 1999 to 2019. This summer, the 2018 IIHF Hall of Fame inductee had to settle for checking out old Metallica shows on YouTube and watching live streams of Amorphis performing death metal songs about Finnish mythology.
2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the gold medal Lehtinen captured at the 1995 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Sweden. That was the first time Finland ever won the Worlds.
It was an unusual journey to glory. National teams played without NHLers, since the NHL’s 48-game schedule was still wrapping up after a lockout wiped out the first half of the season.
In general, the Finns’ confidence was growing, as they’d claimed silver medals at Lehtinen’s first two Worlds in 1992 and 1994, plus bronze at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Yet they stumbled in their opener at Stockholm’s Globen Arena, where Czech goaltender Roman Turek backstopped his team to a 3-0 shutout.
“I think in the big picture, it was good we lost that game,” said Lehtinen, a five-time Olympian. “Looking at what happened the year before, you know we lost the final to Canada in a shootout [2-1, on Luc Robitaille’s goal]. So we were so close. In the Olympics, we knew we could go all the way, and we knew the same thing going into 1995. Against the Czechs, it was a little bit of a rough start. But we were ready to carry on, ready to go after that.”
For Finnish fans, the defining memory of 1995 remains the heroics of their top line. Lehtinen, 21, played right wing, with Saku Koivu, 20, at centre, and Ville Peltonen, 21, on left wing. The youngsters were nicknamed the “Tupu, Hupu, Lupu” line, an affectionate nod to the Finnish names for Donald Duck’s enterprising nephews.
Koivu and Lehtinen were coming off a successful run as TPS Turku linemates. Koivu, a future Montreal Canadiens captain, had led the SM-Liiga with 74 points and won the regular-season and playoff MVP awards. Lehtinen, known for his rigorous workouts, had topped the playoffs in goals (eight) for the second straight year. Turku, Finland’s oldest city, celebrated its seventh hockey championship.
“We started to play together in junior tournaments a few years before,” Lehtinen explained. “We kind of played the same game, even though we were different types of players. Everybody pushed each other in the right direction. We were aiming for a high level, whatever we did, whether it was working out or practicing or games. We wanted to get better every day.”
“We kind of turned everything around in that game,” Lehtinen said.
Leadership was key for the 1995 group. This was the third of five Worlds where hard-working defenceman Timo Jutila captained Finland, and Lehtinen still fondly recalls Jutila’s ability to bring players together, both young and old.
The Tappara Tampere veteran also provided a valuable line of communication to head coach Curt “Curre” Lindstrom. That said, Lindstrom, a 54-year-old Swede who had taken over the national team reins from Pentti Matikainen in 1994, was significantly less authoritarian than either TPS’s Vladimir Yurzinov or Lehtinen’s future Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock.
“Curre brought the mentality that you could just be yourself,” Lehtinen said. “Of course, he had a structure, but he gave the players a lot of freedom to do what they wanted. Our line – just the three of us – would work together, discussing what we should do on the ice. I think Curre was ahead of his time, more like how coaches are nowadays.”
Lindstrom, who previously served on Sweden’s coaching staff from 1984 to 1988, slotted in a colourful off-ice activity during the group stage.
After Lehtinen scored the last Finnish goal in a 7-2 thumping of Austria on 29 April, the Finns headed to the waterfront Grand Hotel Saltsjobaden, about 25 minutes southeast of the Swedish capital. Lindstrom divvied the players up into teams, and they set out into the Stockholm archipelago on sailboats. Each boat was captained by an Olympic or world sailing champion.
Alas, the Baltic weather did not cooperate.
“I was young – for the older veteran guys, I think it was a little tougher,” Lehtinen recalled with a laugh. “It was like zero degrees Celsius and it was snowing when we went sailing. But mentally, it was good. You got a little break, something different. Curre wanted to do that. The year before, we went horseback riding. He wanted something to get your mind off hockey.”
More adversity awaited. Lehtinen’s roommate, Hannu Virta, caught a cold. The former Buffalo Sabres defenceman missed the final round-robin game on 30 April. The Finns fell behind 4-1 versus the unheralded but underrated Americans, whose unused third goalie was a University of Vermont student named Tim Thomas. However, Koivu scored twice on Pat Jablonski and Finland escaped with a 4-4 tie.
In the elimination round, Finnish goalie Jarmo Myllys elevated his game at the right time. The 29-year-old ex-NHLer, coming off his first season with Lulea HF, posted two shutouts in a row. Finland’s quarter-final opponent was France, which had shocked Canada 4-1 in its opener, but Lehtinen got his second goal of the tournament in a 5-0 romp. In the semi-final, the Finns turned the tables on the Czechs with a 3-0 win, as Peltonen, Raimo Helminen and Mika Nieminen scored on Turek.
“I think it was about our whole team game and how everybody stuck together,” Lehtinen said. “Of course, goaltending is a huge part. It doesn’t matter which winning team you’re talking about. You have to have that. Our offence was good, but there were a lot of guys who played good two-way hockey.”
Going into the dream Nordic final against Sweden, Finland’s confidence was peaking. But the host nation was also craving its third gold in five years after a 3-2 semi-final win over Canada on Daniel Alfredsson’s sudden-death marker.
YLE, Finland’s national broadcaster, got a TV audience of 2.2 million – almost half the population – for the final. Peltonen led the way with a hat trick in Finland’s 4-1 victory. Lehtinen set up Peltonen’s eventual winner in the second period, and can still visualize the play.
“I was coming up in the neutral zone and passed the puck to him on the left side,” Lehtinen said. “From there, he shot and it went in.”
The “Tupu, Hupu, Lupu” line combined for an impressive 28 points (13+15=28), and all three members were voted to the tournament all-star team, along with Jutila and Myllys. Koivu took Best Forward honours and Myllys was named Best Goalie.
There were plenty of reasons to sing. The Finnish fans expropriated the bouncy Swedish fight song, Nick Borgen’s “Den Glider In,” and gleefully belted it out. When the players returned to Helsinki for the victory party, they hit the stage in white sweatshirts in the Market Square and sang it in front of an ecstatic crowd of 100,000. The national team even reconvened to record backing vocals on Finnish singer Kirka’s cover version of “Den Glider En.”
Lehtinen takes his music seriously. This is, after all, a man who arranged to meet Slayer backstage after a 2007 concert and present each member with a personalized Dallas jersey. So inquiring minds want to know: does he know all the words to “Den Glider In” today?
“No! I should know, but I don’t know all the words, even though we sang it many times that summer and everything.”
Since 1995, Finland has captured two more world titles – both in Bratislava – in 2011 and 2019. Towering captain Marko Anttila and goalie Kevin Lankinen emerged as heroes last year as the underdog Finns toppled Sweden, Russia, and Canada in the playoffs. Lehtinen, who took over as GM in 2015, was overjoyed, but admitted that the feeling is totally different when you’re upstairs watching in a suit.
“When it was over, maybe last year I enjoyed the whole thing more. You can watch a little bit from the outside and you can see the bigger picture. I have to tell you, up there during the games, it’s more nerve-wracking because you can see too much. You’re sweating and getting more grey hair watching those games! But seeing the players celebrating and going back to Finland, that was great. I enjoyed that most of all.”
This 1999 Stanley Cup winner with Dallas was able to enjoy the Finnish summer after his end-of-season meetings with the national team coaching staff. Lehtinen appreciated the opportunity to spend extra time with his wife Jaana, his 19-year-old twin daughters Anna and Sofia, and his 16-year-old son Joel. They hung out at their summer place an hour from Espoo and relaxed in the sauna. And naturally, Lehtinen fired up some classic 80s thrash metal in his headphones.
2020 hasn’t gone the way anyone planned, but life can still be good. The spirit of 1995 is still alive.