It was the kind of answer that summed up Jere Lehtinen. Asked about being one of only four players to ever win the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward three times or more, Lehtinen, the ultimate team player, quickly turned the subject to team.
“It means a lot, but I don’t want to take individual trophies too much because it is the team that wins and loses,” said Lehtinen. “Those trophies showed how our teams were at those times, how we played as a whole team.”
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, a member of those great Dallas teams of the late 1990’s, said Lehtinen was a big part of the equation back then and his influence still reverberates through the organization now.
“A lot of things that we have in place that we are very proud of in our Dallas Stars organization are because of Jere Lehtinen,” said Nieuwendyk. “Kids like Loui Eriksson and Brenden Morrow learned what being professional was all about - the hard work and work ethic every day - and they learned that from Jere Lehtinen.”
Lehtinen officially announced his retirement on Wednesday. He was at the Dallas Stars practice facility in Frisco Thursday afternoon, catching up with some of his former Dallas Stars teammates and other members of the organization, chatting and taking pictures with some fans and talking to the media about his career and why he decided to call it a career after 14 NHL seasons.
“It’s tough to make the call, but a week ago I realized I was 100 percent ready to do it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. It’s sad, but I am kind of happy that I am going to turn the page. Tomorrow is a new day. I hope I am going to stay involved in hockey and I am going to do that because I love the game so much.”
Injuries took a toll on Lehtinen. He missed more than 90 games over his final three seasons. Nieuwendyk, who left the door open for Lehtinen to return this season if he wanted to, said there would be a place in the Stars organization for the 37-year-old when he is ready to decide what’s next. The Stars are, after all, the team Lehtinen played for his entire NHL career.
“I’ve been so lucky to play here all my career, 14 years,” Lehtinen said. “I am so proud to have stayed here and that the organization gave me the chance to stay here. Overall, there were good times and bad times with the injuries and they supported me. Until this day, they are still there.
“I want to thank the organization and all the players I played with here, the coaches and trainers. Everybody treated me great since I got here in 1995. That’s why it’s even tougher to let it go,” Lehtinen said. “Of course, the whole town of Dallas has been great for me. It’s the same thing with the fans. They supported me. Today they still support me and that’s special. You can’t put it in words.”
Lehtinen was part of something special during his playing days as a Star, helping the team win the Stanley Cup in 1999. He scored ten goals that playoff year. Only Nieuwendyk scored more. In the Cup-clinching game in Buffalo he scored the Stars’ only goal in regulation and then assisted on Brett Hull’s Cup-winner in the third overtime.
“The Stanley Cup, of course, that’s the best memory,” Lehtinen said as he reflected on his time in Dallas. “The whole playoffs, but especially that last game in Buffalo. That’s a memorable moment, but also the first time I got here and my first NHL game in Winnipeg.”
That first game was October 7, 1995. His last was April 10, 2010 in Minnesota. There were 875 games played, 243 goals, 271 assists, seven seasons where he scored 20 or more goals, including two where he topped 30. And there were another 27 goals and 22 assists in 108 playoff games. There were the three Selke Trophies. He was a finalist three other times.
There was more to Lehtinen than stats and awards. He was the master of game’s details. Some have called him the king of little things.
“There’s a special category of guys who don’t cheat the game. The play honestly, they play the game the right way, do the right things with the puck and do the right things away from the puck,” said Nieuwendyk. “That’s a select group of players, in my opinion, and [Jere’s] the head of the class.”
Making a mark on the ice wasn’t limited to his NHL career for Lehtinen. Before he came to North America there was hockey in Finland, where Lehtinen started skating at four-years-old. He became a star in Finland as a member of the “Huey, Dewey and Louie” line (along with Saku Koivu and Ville Peltonen) that led the Finns to gold at the 1995 World Championship. He helped Finland win four medals in hockey – three bronze and one silver – at the Olympics.
As a youngster growing up he admired fellow Finn Jari Kurri, a member of those great Edmonton Oiler teams of the 1980’s.
“That’s where it started. I started to follow him and TV started to show the Edmonton Oilers when they won the Stanley Cup, “Lehtinen said. “He was kind of my idol and then later on Teemu Selanne because he was playing in Finland. Those two guys showed me what it takes to get here.”
And once Lehtinen got here he proved to be a model of consistent excellence and an example to players and an organization.
“He was the guy that when I got here the coaches –Doug Jarvis or Ken Hitchcock or Rick Wilson – would always say when you’re not playing, watch that guy,” said Morrow, who arrived in the fall of 1999. “I think he had a lot to do with the team’s success, playing the game the right way, not cheating and stopping and starting. It’s a harder way to play and it’s the right way.”
While Lehtinen ponders what comes after playing, he’s enjoying time with his family. He’s still a team player, the master of details and the king of little things.
“Spending time with the family, that’s been great,” he said. “This fall there’s been no hockey, no travel and it’s been great to spend time with the kids, get to know their hobbies, see what they do every day. It’s been fun and I think they appreciate that I am around more.”