After watching this man play hockey the last eight years or so, I've come to the conclusion that we rarely see a player more interesting and exciting than Flyers forward Ville Leino, now 27. Artist on and off the ice, Leino has always been someone who stands out.
It’s almost shocking to see him look so ordinary in the NHL today. He looks almost unrecognizable. Gone are the smooth rockstar hair, nicknames such as "Maestro" and "Magician", number 89 on his back, and probably his biggest trademark: bright white skates.
Now sporting a conservative haircut, conservative jersey number and conservative skates, Leino looks almost dull.
Leino says he has matured a lot during the years, but also claims there are things about him that will never change.
There’s still a lot of edge left in the artist formely known as Maestro.
"I got too much pressure to change my game", Leino recalls his time in Detroit.
"I gave in to the coach’s demands and I will never make that mistake again."
Now things are looking better again for Leino, but the start in Philadelphia wasn’t an easy one.
"He didn’t get a chance at first, but it wasn’t Ville’s fault", coach Peter Laviolette says. "But when he got a real chance to play with good players, he took that chance. And it took only a game or two for everyone to see that he had a lot to give."
Leino found his place on the line with Daniel Brière and Scott Hartnell.
"Sometimes things go in a pretty funny way", Brière says. "We all had a rough regular season. But when we were put together when there weren’t really many other options, everything started working right away. It was pretty much unbelievable."
"I was watching the series against the Devils and thought that I could play there", Leino recalls.
When Leino finally got his chance in the playoffs, it was a crucial point in his career. It was the point of no return since Leino had made up his mind about not changing his style ever again.
"I decided that whether it goes good or bad – even if it goes really bad – I will go down with my own style."
The rest was history as they say. Leino combined 21 points to make the new Flyers rookie record in the playoffs.
One of Leino’s finest moments came in the sixth Stanley Cup final. Second period, game tied 1-1. Leino receives a pass from Lukáš Krajíček, escapes from Blackawks defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to face goaltender Antti Niemi.
At the last possible moment Leino gets rid of the puck. Not shooting, but passing it to Brière who seems to have come from out of nowhere to put the puck in the net.
"It was just the kind of a moment, that you’re in this flow state where you always try to get into", Leino explains. "When I got the puck, I knew I’d deke to center. And at that point I also knew that the puck is in the net. I knew how Niemi would react because he couldn’t know that Brière was coming."
"And I was sure that Brière would score a goal."
If the way Leino looks like has changed, so has his attitude towards the offseason. Sure, Leino’s last summer was different because of the hip surgery that put him in crutches for weeks, but even that wouldn’t have stopped the old Leino from partying up at music festivals.
But today’s Leino spent most of the summer alone in Philadelphia instead, rehabbing the hip and working hard. Normal day included about five hours of rehab work.
"Let’s just say that a couple years back I wouldn’t have done the same."
"But maybe I’ve matured enough to be able to see the important matters. I wanted to be prepared for this season."
Speed issue a non-issue
Through Leino’s career, people have kept bringing up one thing in his game as the ultimate concern. Lack of speed.
Laviolette downplays the issue.
"The flaws Ville has that people bring up are certainly not that big. He’s a very competitive player and because of that and his hockey sense, he can compensate other things, like for example the fact that he’s not the fastest in direct skating."
"But he’s not slow either. He’s not fast in the same way as Jeff Carter for example, but that’s just okay because so isn’t Mike Richards and he’s a terrific player."
"He’s able to bring the puck in the zone, stay on the puck and create scoring chances. That’s why others around him play better."
"I know what he can do, so I trust him."
Big Ville Style
So what makes Leino an artist off the ice anymore these days?
Let’s just say that rock didn’t disappear from his character when the rockstar haircut did.
Leino’s apartment in the Olde City isn’t the typical messy bachelor hole a young hockey guy is expected to have. The decoration is stylish and musical influences come on top. Guitars, acoustic and electric, tons of vinyl records and big posters of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Beatles speak for themselves.
Maybe Leino has gotten rid of his white skates by now, but the man still has good 30-40 pairs of sneakers, most by designer John Varvatos.
"I like Varvatos. He’s got style and he rocks", Leino says with a quick smile.
Leino’s style collection also includes a bunch of sunglasses and watches. All so rock.
All so Leino.
"I’ve always enjoyed a more urban environment. I’ve never lived in the suburbs, except when I was in Detroit and I didn’t really enjoy it."
"Of course it would’ve helped matters if I had played better", Leino quickly adds and there’s a healthy dose of self irony in his smile.
Now things are going much better. After all the doubting and downplaying Leino has faced, he’s now gone this far.
Thanks to himself for not changing his style. Leino admits it feels good.
Leino would now also have a chance to get back at all those people who once considered him as just a cocky brat. Someone with loads of talent, but one with an even bigger ego.
"I do think about it sometimes. And you can use it as motivation, too. Those who win can have all kinds of motives."
"But it’s pretty useless in the end", Leino says and a smile crawls back to his face.
"For the rest of my life, I’m going to do things that I enjoy – without bothering others. I always want to be able to say that I’ve lived my life the way I wanted. I’ve tried to go by that rule in life and in hockey."¨
"I think I’m in the right way."
Holding onto the puck and principles
Many believe there is no room for skill anymore when the game today is so fast. You have to be able to get rid of the puck so quickly that it raises a question whether there is need for puck carriers anymore. Where is the old time puck possession and will it ever come back? Leino says he’s been holding onto his principles, even if it’s been costly to him.
"That idea has been a little bit gone from Finnish hockey and also from the NHL. I’ve probably had a bit of a different kind of a point of view compared to many coaches. Fighting against that has probably destroyed some chances sometimes."
"But as long as you don’t give the puck to the opponent, you have a chance to create something. I still believe in that if the team has enough good players, you can be successful with puck possession."
"I’ve never counted odds and I don’t know any percentages elsewhere in life either. And I probably still wouldn’t have the best odds to make it in the NHL either."
Leino says he’s gone forward both as a person and as a player lately.
"The biggest growth happens as a person and in that way as a player."
"And I’ve never stayed still. I’ve always tried to work for developing as a player."
Likely the biggest development as a player has happened in Leino’s net presence. Back where Leino comes from, the role of the net presence player was always reserved to the dumbest and least talented player on the line.
"That’s the wrong type of pride of skill hockey in Tampere", the ex-Tampere Ilves player criticizes now.
"Goals are scored from in front of the net. Then you can look afterwards, who was dumb. The one who scores 30 goals, or the one who scores two."
Leino still isn’t fast, but he’s quick in his movements.
"Fortunately hockey isn’t a hundred meter sprint. I’m not fast in direct skating, but I dare to claim that in lateral movement and spinning in small spaces I’m one of the quickest on our team."
Hockey sense and being smart is what Leino’s game bases on.
"You have to be aware of who you’re playing against and what kind of chances they have with the puck. I have the kind of an attitude that I’m going to steal the puck, no matter what. It’s a competitive situation the same way as if I had the puck and someone tries to take it away from me."
"You can improve in all areas, but especially getting used to the speed of the game has helped. Jumping from the speed in the SM-Liiga to the NHL is pretty big, but when you have more time, you can use your skills."
No matter where he’s played, Leino has always stepped up in the playoffs.
"I enjoy he situation when the game is on the line. I can motivate myself well when the season is about to end and every moment matters."
"I don’t act up like I used to, but I have to admit it still makes my blood boil if I’m not out there on the ice when the game is on the line."
"In some way, everyone is in this tense state of mind in the playoffs, so many surprising decisions on the ice work easier. That’s my game; I try to find solutions to problems."
In the end, it’s all very simple.
"The meaning of hockey is to get the puck in the other guy’s net one way or another. My game is that I get to challenge opponents. And if I succeed, it opens up the game in a whole different way and also opens up more chances."
"The hardest thing is to find the balance. That you can be both cunning and creative, but not too loose."
"If you squeeze too hard, you can’t be loose. If you’re too loose, you get turnovers, lose one on one battles or try something too pretty when you have scoring chances."
Surprising or not, the artist doesn’t think hockey is art.
"I can’t say that hockey is art. But at it’s best, hockey is like brush strokes."
Pretty plays vs results
There’s an old legend about an ex-NHL great Alexander Mogilny, the player who made #89 better known in the NHL. Mogilny was once asked which one he’d rather take, a pretty play that ends up in a goal post or an ugly goal.
"Are you insane?", Mogilny replied. "The pretty play, of course."
Leino smiles when he hears the story.
"A few years ago I would’ve answered that the goal post after a pretty play, of course."
"But it is the goal now."
Leino is thinking more about the result nowadays, though he says he’d still like to hold onto the puck even longer.
"I’d probably do it and do it gladly, but you have to play for the team. You have to respect the team instead of pissing on their feet."
"You can never play the same way in the NHL as you can in the SM-Liiga."
Leino would take an ugly goal over a pretty post today, but nothing will ever beat a pretty goal.
"The biggest climax you can get is if you get to make one great deke one on one and then score a goal."
"Or making some great toe drag so that the crowd goes WOW!"
"This is still about playing for the crowd. First you play for the team, but the team plays for the fans."
"And maybe it would be wisest for me to say no, but every player does want to make the crowd go wow."
"I’ve always said that I’d like to be a rockstar."
And this rockstar isn’t looking back anymore. It’s his way or no way from now on.
"I’ve already fought that battle. Laviolette isn’t going to change me as a player."
This report was based off of a Finnish-language story in the publication Veikkaaja.