Ville Leino’s artistry on the ice earned him an extended callup to the Detroit Red Wings.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins broadcaster Bob Kaser has made the observation that there have been times this season when it appeared as though Ville Leino were playing chess when the rest of the league was playing checkers.
The comparison seems fitting, not because Leino is an accomplished chess player (he is not), but because the reference to the centuries-old game is befitting of Leino’s personality and his appreciation for the so-called finer things in life.
You aren’t likely to find many hockey players who enjoy art, film, opera, photography and wine quite like Leino, whose Renaissance tastes take him to places like Paris and Rome in the off-season.
“I like all forms of art,” said Leino, who will talk about a concert DVD or a black-and-white photography exhibition in his Finland homeland with the kind of excitement usually reserved for describing game-winning goals.
His passion for music recently led him to start learning to play the guitar.
“I’ve been wanting to play for six years, maybe longer,” said Leino, who bought both an electric and an acoustic guitar. “I’ve only been playing for a couple of months, but now I’ll never quit.”
Leino bought a Fender Stratocaster first, then returned to the store to try an acoustic guitar. “I think playing the acoustic guitar is harder because you hear it a lot more clearly when you’re not playing the chord right. It doesn’t forgive you as much.”
He’s learning chords from YouTube and other Internet sites like ultimate-guitar.com. His early efforts have been shown on the video board at Van Andel Arena.
“I can usually listen to the music and know which chords to strum,” Leino said. “It’s pretty easy for me because I’ve always listened to a lot of music.”
His current favorite act is My Morning Jacket. “They’re a really good band,” he said. “Their music is something different, something original. It’s not always easy to find new kinds of music.”
Leino, who names Ryan Adams, the Black Keys and Jose Gonzalez as other musical artists he’s currently enjoying, watches a lot of concert DVDs. In fact, he makes an appearance in one.
He was present when Genesis recorded its When in Rome DVD. He was one of the 500,000 people in Circus Maximus during the free concert on July 14, 2007.
“I asked the taxi driver, ‘What’s the fuss about today?’ and he said there was a free concert by Genesis, so I took my stuff to the hotel and I went right there. It was a 3-1/2 hour show.”
Leino admits that he enjoys many different styles of music, even opera.
His hometown, Savonlinna, hosts a major opera festival every summer. The festival takes place at the medieval St. Olaf's Castle, which was built in 1475.
“It is world famous, one of the biggest in Europe,” Leino said. “I like opera. There are parts that are really nice, very dramatic with lots of choirs. Some of the singing is pretty impressive.”
Leino grew up in Savonlinna, playing soccer and volleyball. It wasn’t until some friends started playing hockey that he considered trying the sport.
“My family wasn’t too sure about hockey – they were thinking it was a rough sport,” he said. “My friends who were playing hockey were friends of my family, too, and they helped convince them to let me try it.”
As a result, Leino was a late-bloomer. “It was hard because I needed to play a lot, but when you are younger in Finland, you don’t get to play as much as you want.
"It’s hard to be a creative player if you don’t play as much.”
His late start meant his development was somewhat stunted, that he had more to learn in less time. “The other guys were stronger, so I had to find ways to get around them,” he said.
“When I got to the point where I was as strong as they were, I started to feel pretty good because I could do the other stuff that made me a better player.”
His abilities started to shine through three years ago. In 2006, he led Hameenlinna to the Finnish Elite League championship and last season he was the league’s MVP after recording 28 goals and 49 assists in 55 games for Jokerit Helsinki.
“We had a good team and I had really good linemates, too,” Leino said. “The coach played me a lot and everything just went better and better, and things just snowballed.”
Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill and Finnish scout Ari Vuori felt Leino was an ideal fit for Detroit's puck-possession system. The Wings signed him to a one-year deal.
“I’d been thinking about when it would be right to come over and it felt like the natural time to try to play here,” Leino said. “Obviously, I could have gone to another team and played more, but I’m interested in a long career in the NHL.
“If you can make it in Detroit, you’ll be here for a long time.”
Leino worked out this past summer with Red Wings forward and fellow Finn Valtteri Filppula, skating under the guidance of Janne Hänninen, a former Finnish speed skater and three-time Olympian (1998, 2002 and 2006) who specializes in shorter distances.
A skilled puck handler with good vision on the ice, Leino is not exactly fleet of foot. By working with Hänninen, the trainer of Finland’s national speed skating team, Leino hoped to gain an extra step or two.
“Skating is something I’ve been working on every summer,” Leino said. “When I was younger, I was always a little slower than the other guys, but I think I’m getting better and stronger every year.”
He realizes that he wasn’t going to become lightning fast overnight.
“Obviously, there is a lot to learn and we’re making a lot of changes, but you can’t do everything in one summer. So we’re doing one thing at a time, like lowering my body position so I have better balance and can use the strength in my legs.”
One of the last cuts in the Red Wings’ training camp last fall, Leino did his best to find his footing in Grand Rapids, where he was the Griffins’ leading scorer during the first half of the season.
It finally led to his recall to Detroit on Jan. 29. He became the 102nd Griffin to play in the NHL a day later when he scored a highlight-reel goal against the Washington Capitals.
Leino demonstrated his athleticism when he scored on his first shot, utilizing a nifty spin-o-rama move. Driving the net on a 2-on-1 with Marian Hossa, he spun around to avoid a poke-check, then whipped in a backhand shot with his back to goaltender Jose Theodore.
“I was trying to pass but when I couldn’t, I turned and shot it,'' Leino said. "Those kind of things you do with instinct. It kind of felt like there was an opening.”
Leino quickly adapted to his new team, demonstrating his versatility by playing with Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper on a checking line as well as Pavel Datsyuk and Hossa on a scoring line.
“You feel pretty safe playing there because everyone is a good player. It’s pretty easy,” Leino said. “Everything’s pretty fast, but the passing lanes are always open and you know where to pass the puck and that good scorers will make the play. Every day in Detroit I feel better.”
Leino figures to stay in Detroit until at least late March, when the Red Wings hope that Tomas Holmstrom will return from his sports hernia surgery.
“I’m just enjoying playing hockey here and not thinking too much about the other point of view,” he said.
In the meantime, Leino is enjoying the first-class amenities of playing in the NHL. Flying on the Red Wings’ team airplane is a lot more comfortable than the five-hour bus rides he experienced in the AHL. “It’s definitely better,” he said.
Not that he wasn’t enjoying himself in Grand Rapids.
“It’s a nice town and everyone in the organization is nice, too,” he said. “Everything is as good as it could be in the AHL, and that has helped. If I had been in (another city), it would have been different.”
“I’ve been happy that I made that decision to come here to play. Everything is new and I’ve experienced a lot.”
Leino bought a house in Helsinki last year. It is where he now intends to live after he finishes his playing career in North America.
“I love Helsinki – it’s a nice European city,” he said, “with good restaurants, nice parks, the ocean. You can find anything you need, and it has a big downtown like Chicago.”
He visited Paris for the first time last year, hitting all of the sites, from the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre. “I loved everything about Paris,” he said.
When he’s not playing hockey or music, Leino watches a lot of movies. He figures his DVD collection is well over 700 titles. He loves classics like The Godfather and Casablanca, as well as more recent films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Edith Piaf or There Will Be Blood.
He also has more than 200 live music DVDs. “The best DVD ever is by (ex-Pink Floyd guitarist) David Gilmour,” Leino said. “The lights and the sound are amazing, and I really like how the music is played.”
Leino also likes classic cars. “There are so many nice old cars but some of them cost way too much for me. I want to buy one next year, something that would be really nice to drive around in the summer.”
He has his eye on a ‘60s Mercedes Convertible, something that he could afford if he re-signs with the Red Wings. He hopes that he will be able to convince the organization he’s worth keeping.
“I like classics in everything – from movies to cars to sports teams,” he said. “Playing for an Original Six team like the Red Wings is great. When you think about the Red Wings and guys like (Steve) Yzerman, (Sergei) Fedorov and Scotty Bowman, you’re talking about a legendary team."