Watch any modern hockey game, and it is easy to be dazzled by all of the offensive sparkles on display. It is easy to forget the many contributions of the unsung humble defensive forward.
Much like Steve Rucchin was to Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, Jere Lehtinen was the ideal defensive counterweight to the Hall of Famers Brett Hull and Michael Modano. These three formed one of the best lines in the league during the late 90’s/early 00’s era.
Lehtinen, a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the game’s best two-way forward, was that and more.
“He’s like the perfect complement,” Hull said. “He’s probably in the top five most underrated or most unrecognized players to ever play in the NHL.” That all changed last week when the Dallas Stars honored Finland’s most complete player by retiring his number before a sellout crowd in Dallas.
Lehtinen played his entire NHL career (875 regular season and 108 playoff games) with the Stars which includes the epic run to the Stanley Cup in 1999. Lehtinen was, in some ways, the prototypical Finn; low-profile, industrious, and hard working. His coach in 1999, Ken Hitchcock, had this to say about him: “I don’t want to say the guy’s the perfect player, but I found him to be the perfect team player. In other words, if you wanted things done right, then just watch him. And I found he’s the only player since I’ve been in the NHL that I’ve never had to ‘coach’. … I just put him on the ice, and he played. … He coached himself. And he taught me more than I taught him.”
In Lehtinen’s house in Finland, there is a glass case in which he keeps his Stanley Cup ring, along with four Olympic medals – one silver and three bronze. That case is just one of the reasons that Hull feels that there should be more attention paid by the Hockey Hall of Fame to players like Lehtinen or, for that matter, another great defensive specialist like Guy Carbonneau or Eddie Westfall.
“It’s incredible. I’d like to get a movement going where some of these guys get some recognition for the Hall of Fame,” Hull said. “It’s unfair that it’s always just the numbers that get you in.”
The Stanley Cup, the Olympic medals, the Selke trophies and now, a jersey in the rafters with his name that will forever remind fans and players of his many contributions to the game. “It’s the highest honor you can get from an organization,” the man himself said. “It’s humbling. It’s a speechless kind of thing.”
Lehtinen admits to still struggling with English but he said he wrote his speech in English from his heart, and he battled through with the same spirit he used to have as a player.
“It was not easy,” he said. “I would have rather had a helmet on one more time.”
Good thing he didn’t. The fans wanted to see him and he needed an clear view of the reactions of his family gathered around him. Lehtinen had admitted prior to that night that he didn’t know if he would cry or not, but added “Sometimes, a man has to cry.”
While the banner inched toward the sky, those tears started running down the cheeks of Jere as he watched his NHL career encapsulated in one evening, “It all hit home pretty hard” he said. “I’m so happy my family was here. You need a family when you are a hockey player; they made so many sacrifices so I could chase my dream.”