The World Junior Championship, which gets underway Monday in Canada, can be a proving ground for young players as they try to work their way to the National Hockey League. And it’s a tournament where Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen made his mark early in his hockey career.
Lehtonen played three years for Finland (2001-2003) at the World Juniors, and the 2002 tournament in Czech Republic was the one where he really stood out.
“It was my first tournament as the starter,” Lehtonen said. “It was my first season playing in the Finnish Elite League, too, so it was just a great year for me. “
Finland had taken the silver medal in 2001. Lehtonen was the backup in that tournament, playing in one game. The Finns were considered a favorite to medal again in 2002. They had an impressive roster with future NHL players like Jussi Jokinen, Mikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu, Sean Bergenheim and Joni Pitkanen.
And then there was Lehtonen, who was the top rated goaltender for that year’s NHL draft and had been impressive in the Under-18 World Junior Championship, leading Finland to a gold medal in 2000.
But the World Juniors, also known as the Under-20 World Junior Championship, was the big stage. And it was a big tournament for players who were in the mix to be drafted. A player’s stock could go up or down based on his performance at the World Juniors.
“You try not to think about it, but everybody knew it,” Lehtonen said. “That’s the hard part of that tournament. It’s so short; it’s two weeks or something like that. It’s just seven or eight games. If you have a bad stretch everybody thinks you’re not that good, but you are trying not to think about it and then after the tournament you’re ‘Whew, I’m happy that it went well.’ Especially that year, the year I was going to be drafted.”
Things went better than well for Lehtonen at the 2002 World Juniors. Lehtonen, 18-years-old at the time, was named the best goaltender at the tournament, posting a 1.17 goals against average and a .943 save percentage (116 saves on 123 shots) in six games.
The highlight of the tournament for Lehtonen was a 4-1 preliminary round victory over Canada in which he stopped 42 of 43 shots.
“That was the greatest feeling ever,” he said. “After that we felt we could go all the way.”
The Finns beat the Czechs 3-1 in the quarterfinals, but then in the semifinals they lost 2-1 in overtime to Russia, which went on to beat Canada in the gold medal game.
“It’s one of those things where sometimes you think about it and what could have been,” Lehtonen said.
Finland went on to beat Switzerland 4-1 to take the bronze medal. Lehtonen, considered the top goaltender for the 2002 NHL Entry Draft heading into the season, helped solidified that position with his performance at the 2002 World Juniors.
“It was one of those times where I started feeling that I could be a really good goalie,” Lehtonen said. “I saw myself playing against the best players of my age, and I was doing very well.”
Lehtonen capped off that season by helping Jokerit win the Finnish Elite League championship, and was named the playoff MVP. He was then selected 2nd overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers.
He played in his final World Juniors in 2003, leading Finland to another bronze medal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lehtonen had a 2.19 goals against average and a .923 save percentage in six games played.
“The building was packed, crazy media attention,” he said of the tournament held in Canada. “It was a good step forward in playing under pressure, and getting used to that. Lots of fun and good memories.”
Encountering an agitating Steve Ott
The World Junior Championship was Kari Lehtonen’s first encounter with the agitating abilities of current teammate Steve Ott, who was a member of Canada’s World Junior team in 2001 and 2002.
“He was agitating. I remember him shooting pucks at me,” said Lehtonen. “I played against him two years. I don’t remember which game it was, but he was shooting at me while I was trying to stretch during the warmups. He kept shooting pucks at me.”
Ott said he doesn’t specifically remember shooting pucks at Lehtonen, but did admit he could have done something along those lines.
“He probably doesn’t remember because he has done that dozens of time,” Lehtonen said with a smile.
2012 World Junior Championship
The 2012 World Junior Championship begins Monday in Calgary and Edmonton. Four Dallas Stars prospects will play in the tournament: Goaltender Jack Campbell (USA); defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (Canada); defenseman Patrik Nemeth (Sweden); defenseman John Klingberg (Sweden).