Editor’s note: This story also appears in the February edition of Preston Hollow People.
Kari Lehtonen could feel the clock ticking on his Olympic dreams. At age 30, he knew this might be his final opportunity to play hockey for his native Finland at the highest level.
So the Dallas Stars goaltender, who lives in Preston Hollow, felt both pride and relief when he was chosen to represent his country at the Winter Olympics this month in Sochi, Russia.
“When I was younger, I always felt like I would have more chances. Then I was hurt one time, and when this season began, I set that as one of my goals,” Lehtonen said. “I’m getting older now and they only come every four years. So I really wanted to make it on the team.”
Lehtonen will represent Finland for the ninth time in international competition and the first time at the Olympics. The native of Helsinki helped lead Finland to a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships.
The current Finland roster includes several of Lehtonen’s friends who he hasn’t played with since his last attempt at international competition.
“We had a really group of players in my age group. We kind of grew up together. I think seven or eight of us made it to the [National Hockey League], and that’s the core of the team now at the Olympics. That’s very exciting.”
He has a 20-15-8 record this season with the Stars, with a 2.55 goals-against average. Lehtonen has 201 career victories, placing him second all-time among goaltenders born in Finland.
“He was up against some really stiff competition. Finland has probably the deepest goaltending pool out of any country right now,” said Stars backup goaltender Dan Ellis. “He’s our MVP. He handles all the pressure really well. He’s a lighthearted guy, but he’s a competitor, and he keeps us in every game.”
The other goalies on the Finnish roster will include Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins. The first Olympic game for Finland will be on Feb. 13 against Austria at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
As the only country to earn four hockey medals at the last five Olympics, Finland has been one of the most consistent teams during the past two decades. The Finns took a bronze medal in 2010 in Vancouver. Finland has won seven hockey medals in history, but never gold.
Lehtonen traces his Olympic dreams to his childhood, when he became a fan of not just hockey, but sports in general.
“I loved to watch all the sports in the summer and winter games,” he said. “That’s where it started. I thought it would be fun to one time experience that.”
So while his NHL commitment will cause him to miss the opening ceremonies on Feb. 7, he still intends to use some free time in Sochi to cheer on his Finnish counterparts in other sports, while still giving his full commitment to the hockey team.
“I want to do both. If there’s an afternoon off, I’m sure I will try to go see some events,” Lehtonen said. “It’s going to be good to get out from thinking about hockey.”
Two of Lehtonen’s Stars teammates also will be at the Olympics, as Jamie Benn will compete for Canada and Valeri Nichushkin for Russia. Stars head coach Lindy Ruff will be an assistant coach for the Canadian squad.
“You get this one chance,” Ruff said of the Olympic experience. “They love each other for 10 or 11 days, and then they go back to hating each other. That’s just the way it works. That’s the great thing about our sport.”
The Stars and the rest of the NHL will take their traditional two-week break to accommodate the Olympics beginning Feb. 9.