It can’t be easy for a goalie in the moments before a big game, waiting to take the ice and knowing your net is about to become the target for five goal-thirsty players on the other team.
But Kari Lehtonen has managed to keep the puck out of the net, and the opposition on its feet, with impressive saves and his ability to stare down some of the tournament’s top scorers. Fans can’t seem to get over his size (191cm) which Lehtonen says he uses to his advantage.
"I think I have good size and I know how to use it when covering the net. This would be my biggest asset," he says. "On the other side, I need to add more weight and gain more experience. The experience will come with more games, but a goalie’s maturity doesn't come so fast."
It is no secret that Finland is producing quality goaltenders, but Lehtonen just might be the best. He has lightning-quick reflexes and has already proven to be a clutch player not just at this year’s tournament but at the senior level as well.
Lehtonen began playing hockey when he was five. He was influenced by his older brother, though surprisingly he started out as a forward, not a goalie. "I was two or three years younger than the other kids in my first year and it just wasn’t fun," Lehtonen said. "I guess deciding to become a goalie has worked out for me."
As a child he grew up idolizing countryman Jarmo Myllys, but in the last few years he has had a Canadian role model "I admire the style of Patrick Roy. He is a perfect goalie and I try to learn from him. I watch the Avalanche games to see him in action."
The young Lehtonen first earned fame during the U-18 Championships in 2000, when his domination of the favourite Russian squad led to a shocking 2-1 victory by the underdog Finns. Lehtonen has gotten off to a spectacular start this year in the Finnish Elite League. He backed up Ari Ahonen in 2001 WJC and earned a tie in a game versus Canada.
Lehtonen led the Finnish squad to the bronze medal at the 2002 WJC in Pardubice, Czech Republic and was named the top goaltender in the tournament that year. He led Finland to first place last month at the Karlaja Cup in Helsinki, posting a 1.13 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage and winning all four games he played.
In this year’s U-20, Finland has had its moments. After a solid 4-0 win over Germany, the Finns struggled for a win against long-time rivals Sweden (3-2) and they could only manage a 2-2 tie against the Czech Republic.
Rumours circling the rink suggest that Finland has been outplayed and owe its wins to goaltender Kari Lehtonen, whose strong mental constitution has helped carry the team. And a little luck never hurt anyone, either. Lehtonen says that he has a number of key rituals to help keep the puck out of the net. "Yeah, I try to do the same things I did when my team has won for the last game. I also use always the same warmup, but that wouldn't be a huge superstition."
Lehtonen is a calm individual with a cool demeanour. His ability to anticipate plays paired with his excellent sense of timing make him a very confident goaltender. The second overall pick in 2002 to Atlanta, Lehtonen is the highest drafted European goalie ever picked. He will remain in Finland for 2002-03 before making the transition to North America, likely in 2003-04.
"Finland is a contender just because of its goaltending," said Thrashers general manager Don Waddell. "This is a real showcase for Lehtonen in North America. It's a big tournament, and he's drawing a lot of attention. This is where you are going to see the young players at the highest level."
Reacting to his high draft position, Lehtonen smiles. "Of course, it's very nice to be highly ranked and to be drafted in the first round," he says. "There have been only two or three goalies to be drafted in the first round."
Lehtonen has a preference of where he wants to play once the NHL chapter of his life begins. If he could control his destiny, he would be selected today by a Canadian-based team. "There is something special about Canadian teams," Lehtonen said. "It is a country of hockey. In the U.S., there is much more baseball and football. In Canada, hockey is always the first sport."
Lehtonen has enjoyed playing in Halifax. In the final game of the round robin, he made some key saves, but he could not stop the Canadian 5-3 victory. In the sold out crowd, maple leaf flags and shirts were abundant, but there was one person waving the Finnish flag.
Born in Finland, Lila Lainio is a big supporter of the Finnish team. She says that she admires how the boys are playing--with a lot of heart. "They have determination; we are small," she says. "But we are mighty."
After the game, Lehtonen drinks a milkshake while answering reporters’ questions. He’s relaxed and is ready for the next game, and he smiles when told about the fan in the crowd. "It is disappointing to lose tonight," he says. "But this was not an important game; we will be ready for the next one."
Lehtonen says that he has a world junior bronze and silver; now it is time for the gold. He wants to bring the championship home. "I want to bring it home to Finland to show my family." And if Lehtonen continues to protect the net the way he has been, he might just have the chance.
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