Moreover, this year it was Mikko Lehtonen's first appearance in an All-Star Game as those events aren't a thing in Finland or the SHL, the leagues where he played before signing with Jokerit. "It's a fun event for the players and the fans, so it would be good to have them. I don't know why they don't do that." First, Lehtonen represented the Bobrov Division in the Skill Show. "It was fun. It was great to take part in fun competitions and see players from different teams and get to know each other," Lehtonen says. "The atmosphere was great, and I enjoyed it." Naturally, most of Lehtonen's team were Russian players, and so was the coach. But the Finnish D-man didn't have any communication issues. "Most of the guys speak English, so it was pretty easy. It was fun talking with each other. Moreover, Dynamo Moscow's Juuso Hietanen was there to help, he knows some Russian, and he can translate. Hietanen is here for a long time, and it means a lot."
Lehtonen took part in the hardest shot and biathlon competitions. He didn't try a more flex stick. "I just used my regular stick – the one I use during the game. However, I think that I didn't have my strongest shot there." Moreover, Lehtonen usually relies more on his wrist shot. "It's faster, and you can aim the right place easier than with a slapshot. I think that a wrist shot is more comfortable for me to use on the blue line. I think the best thing is that it's faster than a slapshot."
Many coaches think that the slapshot will eventually disappear from the game as the pace today is through the roof. "Yeah," Lehtonen agrees. "Today, the game is so fast; the guys are constantly sagging the zone, there's always a player in front of you, so it's hard to find the time for a slapshot." Moreover, the Finn blueliner currently uses an 85 flex, a flexible stick, but that it comes with a cost: taking a slapshot is harder. "It's harder because this kind of flex is too flexible for slapshots, but it's perfect for wrist shots."
Lehtonen also appreciated the 3-on-3 format for the All-Star Game tournament. "I think it's nice because there aren't so many players on the ice. A lot of stuff happens, a lot of two-on-ones, three-on-ones, and those are fun. The purpose of these games is to have fun, but of course, we also want to win. It doesn't matter where you are playing; if you're playing hockey, you want to win. However, in this case, the point is more to show some skills for the fans." Lehtonen would appreciate having the KHL All-Stars clashing in Helsinki. "I hope that we can do it in Helsinki someday. This way, the Finnish fans can see how good players we have in this league. I think that the All-Star Game in Helsinki would be sold-out."
Having Jokerit in the KHL is a good catalyzer for having good players playing at home, but many top Liiga players sign with other KHL teams anyway. "I can't speak for other players, but in Finnish taxes are higher, and money can be one of the reasons. But in Jokerit, you have a great organization, a great city, great coaches and staff. Everything is fantastic here, so there isn't really a good reason to go elsewhere. I think Jokerit is a great place to play too, but it's hard to say. There are always special cases; it depends on the single player and what he thinks. Everyone takes his own decisions about where to go, but I think that any team in the league, being it in Helsinki, in Russia, or Riga, it's an excellent option to go."
Lehtonen also said that those were the reasons why he picked Jokerit. "As I said, in Jokerit, I can enjoy a good organization, good coaches, great staff. Being a Finnish player, it easy for me to be in Helsinki; there are a lot of Finnish people around you. It's easier to jump in the league as a Finnish player. We have a pretty good team this year, we can win, and so I like playing here a lot."
The Finnish D-man is having a terrific debut season in the KHL. "I don't know the reason behind it," Lehtonen tries to explain. "It all started with the World Championship. The last season was pretty good for me too. Then I gathered some more confidence from the World Championship. Then, after a good summer, I arrived in a good team. It's easier when you have fantastic teammates, and they make you a better player. There are many reasons, but I have a good feeling playing here in Jokerit, and the staff is trusting me too. They know how to deal with my strong and weak parts, so I feel comfortable."
The gold medal win for Finland was a significant event. "It was a boost for me, of course," Lehtonen explains. "It was a huge achievement for the team and me as well. I understood that I could play at a higher level, and I think that's why I got so much confidence for the next season to take a new step again." In Slovakia, Lehtonen was named to the tournament's All-Star team. "Of course, it was a big accomplishment for me," he said. "But I think that the main thing was that our team won the gold medal."
The Finn D-man still remembers the semifinal game against a stacked Team Russia, a game that the Finns won 1-0 thanks to a late goal by Marko Anttila. "The Russians had a really good team with really good players. But we were very determined, and scoring one goal was enough. We defended very well. If you play against such players, you have to be smart, and you can't allow yourself to be stupid on the ice and lose the puck in the wrong area. Our game plan was to play smart but still do everything without being scared of mistakes. After we scored, we realized that we could win this game and that we had to defend even more."
Naturally, Lehtonen was delighted to play side-to-side with the team's captain Marko Anttila. "He's a shy guy, but he is a real leader. Marko always has a kind word for everybody in the team; he helps young players. He is a fantastic captain and a totally professional guy. He's a fantastic model of dedication to the game, and he leads by example."
A crowd of 55,000 then gathered in Helsinki to salute Team Finland's victory in Slovakia. "Yeah, Finland is a hockey country, especially when it comes to the national team. Everybody is watching the game, so it was incredible when we got back to Finland, everybody was in the square to meet us and celebrating with us."
"It would be interesting to see how many fans would gather on the square if Jokerit wins the Gagarin Cup. I think it can be the same amount," Lehtonen predicts. "I think that as we have only one team in the KHL, each Finnish person cheers for us when we play against Russian teams and stuff like that, so I think that we could have many fans there too."
Lehtonen also explained that Jokerit's fanbase is growing. "I think Jokerit has more fans now than when it was playing in the Liiga," he says. "Many people want to see Russian stars and the best players in Europe. The KHL is the best league in Europe. I think that people want to see the best players, and the games are more interesting and different from what it was in the Liiga. Moreover, there is also the aspect of cheering for your home country. We have people who are Jokerit fans for a long time, but a lot of people come to cheer not only for Jokerit but for a Finnish team in the Russian league."
Traditionally, Jokerit has a hard time against Dynamo Moscow in the playoffs. Last year, in spite of the home advantage, Jokerit lost the first-round series 2-4. "We have a good team this year, a great group of guys. I think everybody feels that our system is pretty good. We won a lot of games against teams like CSKA, Dynamo, and SKA. I don't see anything that can prevent us from going deep in the playoffs this season, and we have a good chance." This season, Jokerit imposed SKA its worst-ever loss in the KHL when they lost 6-0 on Jan. 3. "I think it was a great game for us, but it's only one match. SKA can also have bad days. They weren't good in that game; we enjoyed the win, we celebrated, but then quickly moved on." Jokerit now feels SKA their top rivals in the league. "It's like that; I think because the teams are so close. It's fun to play against them, and it's great for the fans too. The games are so intense, and we play like a good rivalry."