This story is the first of a new series which will feature people in Chicago's hockey community
CHICAGO -- The first hockey league Markus Lehto joined as a 7-year-old in Finland was made up of teams based off the NHL.
Forty-plus years later, Lehto laughs when thinking about his first loose tie to Chicago. Since then, he’s solidified that connection.
Lehto’s first trip to the United States from Helsinki was to play for a Chicago traveling team as a teenager. Nearly 20 years after that, he and Bill Zito created Acme World Sports, a hockey agency, and placed an office in Chicago. It depends on the day now, but Lehto can either be found in the agency’s office in Chicago’s River West neighborhood, in their office in Finland or at any hockey rink in between.
“It’s a pretty funny coincidence,” Lehto said about his Chicago bond. “I first played on the Blackhawks, then midget hockey in Chicago and then have a Chicago-based business. Now it’s like a hometown.”
Chicago was once the city Zito and Lehto shared as co-founders of Acme World Sports. They joined forces in 1995 to establish the agency and over nearly 18 years developed it into one of the world’s top hockey agencies with multiple offices and a long list of clientele from North America and Europe.
Zito, who Lehto refers to as a brother, left the agency in August of 2013 to chase a dream and took a position with the Columbus Blue Jackets as an assistant general manager. Lehto understood Zito’s decision and supported him.
The agency could have slipped and lost clients with Zito’s departure, but Lehto made sure that didn’t happen. Over the last year, Acme World Sports has continued to thrive. Lehto and his staff, which includes Chicago native Pete Rutili, recently had nine clients, including first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen and six American players, selected in the 2014 NHL draft.
The agency’s notable clients include Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, San Jose Sharks forward Adam Burish, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Valtteri Filppula, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman James Wisniewski, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi and Blackhawks prospects Teuvo Teravainen and Alex Broadhurst.
“One of the things we were very proud of us was no one left when everything happened quickly,” Zito said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a testament to Markus. That’s a testament to how we operated the agency, and the way he operates it.”
Lehto’s job as an agent varies when dealing with younger and older players. The experienced players don’t need as much from him. But with the younger ones, he tries to provide what he never received when he came up the ranks.
“I think one part of the agent’s job is to be able to educate the client and the player about pro hockey,” Lehto said. “For example with [19-year-old] Teuvo, it’s pretty clear moving from the European culture to North America it takes time to get used to it. We are helping with that. He needs to understand what kind of hockey the NHL is. Coaches help with this, but the smaller details I can work with Teuvo to prepare for it physically and mentally.
“I know Teuvo is ready to play in the NHL. But is he going to play in 82 games with the Blackhawks, in the playoffs, is he going to get that spot with tough players to pass in the hierarchy? That remains to be seen. He needs to understand that, ‘Hey I’m going to fight for that spot, and I’m going to take it. If I don’t get it right way, yes, it means I’m going to be in the American League and I’m going to be the best player I can be, and I’ll get the NHL spot in November, December or January. That’s where the support comes in.”
Zito believes a player can't receive much better support than from Lehto.
“Markus is a guy you want to be,” Zito said. “I want my son to have his characteristics. I hope one day my boy is as good a human being as Markus. He’s a high character, honest guy. He’s astounding. He’s a brilliant hockey man. He’s a guy you can really rely on just as you go through your career.”