PHILADELPHIA -- Ville Leino can barely open the door.
Both sides of the doorway are stacked, from floor to ceiling, with empty shoe boxes. The foyer, leading into his fifth-floor apartment tucked in the heart of Old City, is ruled with pairs of shoes of every purpose, style and color.
"It's a European thing," Leino jokes.
The reflection of both a Sixers game playing on the plasma screen on the wall and the serene lights of the looming Philadelphia skyline bounce off a coffee table adorned with black-and-white photograph books of Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.
More than a hundred vinyl records are crammed in the neighboring bookcase, with two guitars close by.
And somehow, for a native of Finland, Swedish Fish is the snack of choice.
It is the home of one of Philadelphia's most eligible bachelors, but also the home of one of the city's most insanely talented hockey players.
In fact, there is no hint of hockey -- or even the Flyers. There are no hockey sticks, no autographed jerseys, no framed photos authenticating the glory he has produced on NHL ice. There are no empty Gatorade bottles, half-eaten protein bars or complex recovery shakes, which line the stomachs of most professional athletes.
Leino is not defined simply by his trade.
"I'm not scared to be different or special," he says.
His openness and self-awareness is not only unique to Finnish natives, who Leino says want him to be "too humble" and "too normal," but his originality also stands out against his teammates, too.
To understand Leino as an artist, though, is to understand the craft he carefully carves out for a living on slab of ice in South Phildelphia.
"You should do whatever makes you feel good," Leino says. "For me, I bet a lot of people look at me and look at my clothes and think they are superficial. But I feel you only have one chance to give a first impression to someone. For me, it's kind of like, 'Look good, feel good, play good.'
"I think that's in life, too. You should feel good about yourself -- and if that means good clothes and you feel comfortable -- you should do it."
Off the ice, that's the message. Leino has always been himself. He admits to owning more than 30 pairs of sunglasses. He could talk for hours about his favorite bands, Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket and The Black Keys. Leino said that he owns somewhere between "10,000 to 20,000" songs on his computer -- though he has yet to find an iPod that can hold them all.
"There are things in life that I want to do," he says, "and as long as I'm not doing anything stupid or trying to get in anyone's way, I want to do what I want to do, and not anything else."
Leino did not practice that same "know thyself" principle on the ice that he has embraced off it until around this time last season.
It's hard to fathom now, but Leino spent the first four games of last year's opening round against New Jersey in the press box as a healthy scratch. Over the final 19 games of the playoffs, Leino went on to tie Dino Ciccarelli's NHL playoff record of 21 points by a rookie.
That success seemed unlikely when he was acquired from Detroit on Feb. 6, 2010, in exchange for Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, a throw-away defenseman who hasn't seen the light of day in the NHL again.
He immediately clashed with Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. Leino played in just 13 of the Flyers' 26 remaining regular-season games, collecting only two goals and two assists.
"Peter and I didn't start out very well together," Leino says. "It's not his fault. I don't blame him for that. But I can't play in that simple way that others can. I can't be that guy who just dumps the puck in, because I won't get anything done.
"I don't enjoy that. I won't get excited. Because that's not what I am."
And that's when Leino decided, after already wearing out his welcome under Mike Babcock in Detroit, that if he was going to fail, he was going to do it like the Sinatra song. "My way."
"I thought about (failing) a lot," he concedes. "But I said if I fail, I'll fail as myself and the player that I've developed and the player I've always been -- not the player that tried to please somebody.
"Before, I tried to do things that made coaches happy. That's the Finn in me. Because I don't want to piss anyone off or give a bad impression. But that's not what I am -- I decided I wasn't going to change for anyone else."
Leino has always been that way -- and that's why he has reached a near-cult status back in Finland. There always have been big-name Finns in the NHL. You can go down the list from Jari Kurri to Esa Tikkanen to Saku Koivu.
Today, in Finland, Leino dominates the headlines nearly as much as Teemu Selanne.
Given the fact that Leino, still making a name for himself leaguewide, hasn't accomplished nearly a fraction of Selanne's accolades -- the Stanley Cup, the NHL rookie scoring records, the Winter Olympic points record, the 10 All-Star Game appearances -- is simply a testament to his personality.
"We are a humble people," says Vesa Rantanen, the North American-based hockey columnist for Finland's version of Sports Illustrated, called Veikkaaja. "We are generally shy people. It's different for a guy to say he likes the attention, likes the rock-star mentality. That's not part of Finnish culture."
Rantanen suspects the humble attitude of Finns comes from his country's history, always smaller in stature and wealth than neighboring Sweden and Russia.
"For us (Finns), putting your head down, being humble and working hard works for us," Rantanen says. "If you are rich, you are supposed to hide it well. Ville doesn't (care). Look at some of the Finns around the league, Joni Pitkanen (the former Flyer now with Carolina) can barely order food in English after eight years in America. When there are two Finns on a team, most of them huddle together.
"Ville doesn't need a Finn to pamper him and make him feel good. He speaks English openly. He is a cool character. He blends in easily."
Rantanen says part of Leino's popularity, too, comes from the fact that he played longer in Finland than most NHL regulars. Leino, 27, is a classic "late-bloomer," Rantanen says. And he took a non-traditional route to stardom, having not skated for the Finnish national team or gained fame in the NHL by winning the Stanley Cup.
"Ville has done neither," Rantanen says. "Yet he is instantly one of the most popular players. Any time his name is in a headline on our site, it is the most clicked-on article."
Leino admits that he has softened his off-ice image, especially since arriving in the United States from Finland in 2008 with Detroit. He no longer has flowing, rock-star hair -- and the flashy No. 89 he wore when capturing the scoring title of Finland's top league has been traded for a more subtle No. 22.
He no longer goes by the nicknames "Maestro" and "Magician."
"Deep down, I'm still the same person and I'm still doing the same stuff that I would have done at my home on my free time," Leino says. "I have the same hobbies and the same interests in life. But I've toned it down a lot since I've gotten older, I think I've grown as the years go by. I think it's a maturity thing. But I can still be proud at what I do."
This season, though productive, hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies for Leino. In 81 games, Leino posted 19 goals and 34 assists for 53 points, but he wasn't always free and clear of criticism.
Leino struggled over the final half of the regular season, scoring in just four of the Flyers' final 36 games. He was even benched for most of the third period of an April 3 matinee with the Rangers.
For Leino, most of the battle is mental. The same goes for his teammates, clearly, after fumbling their 57-day chokehold on the Eastern Conference in the season's final week.
But starting Thursday night, when the puck drops at the Wells Fargo Center for the Flyers' first-round series against the Buffalo Sabres, Leino will be back in the environment he and his teammates have craved since bowing out to Chicago in the Stanley Cup finals last June.
"Usually, it's the playoff time that takes the best out of people or the worst out of people," Leino says. "I think I've been pretty lucky that I've always been pretty good in playoff games."
Leino is one of those players who thrives on being on the ice in key situations. He wants the spotlight on him. He wants the attention.
"I love playing under pressure," he says. "If I'm not on the ice in those moments, I get pissed."
Leino might not be all that different than other professional hockey players in that sense, because every player had done that at some point or another to make it to that level. But the reason Leino says he is so successful in the game's biggest moments is because he thinks differently than any other player -- especially opponents.
"It's easier to make tough decisions with the puck in the playoffs," Leino surmises. "A lot of the other players aren't expecting that, because they're just thinking you'll make an easy decision under pressure."
Take, for instance, when Leino hung on to a puck in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals and skated through two Chicago defenders -- even when Simon Gagne was wide-open at the beginning of the play -- to eventually connect with Gagne again after shedding both defenders.
Or, when on a breakaway in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals in Montreal, Leino hung on to the puck for an extra deke to beat Jaroslav Halak.
Leino is emotionally and physically driven by the reaction of the crowd. He lives for that "ooh-and-aah" play -- from a blind backhand pass to a spin-a-rama -- that hushes an arena before causing it to erupt. It is verification that he is alive and breathing in the moment.
"I think those are the coolest moments in sports," Leino says. "You think to yourself, 'I made those people happy. I made something great happen.' When you don't score, it won't be in any highlight -- no matter how close you were to scoring.
"And when you score in a big moment, you realize, 'That's going to stay a forever moment.' "
Despite his desire for the limelight, Leino has been around long enough to understand that hockey is ultimately a team sport. He still has that part of Finnish culture in him. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a teammate in the Flyers' locker room who does not get along with him.
His teammates do not think twice about his individuality.
"Whatever baggage and ego you have, you've got to put them aside," Leino says. "You've got to care about each other and want to win for the guy sitting next to you. That's how you win championships. For me, I don't think it's that hard. Everybody has different skills. Everyone else paid their price, too."
A large, nautical-style spotlight stands in Leino's living room, next to the guitars and the vinyl. Perhaps it is a nod to his father, Hannu, a cargo-boat captain back in Finland -- or a unique decoration that only Leino might enjoy.
Or, it could be more than that -- a daily reminder of a life in the ultimate spotlight, where every move is visible.
"You can't think about what other people say about you," Leino says. "Especially when you are a public figure and you play professional sports."
In the spotlight, the effect can either be soothing and comforting or harsh. It is a double-edged sword, a tough line for a public figure to walk. Leino makes himself vulnerable by displaying his personality, both in his lifestyle and in his life's work.
To experience life any other way, though, wouldn't be Leino's way.
"I keep my eyes open," Leino says. "I always want to learn new things and have new experiences. I'm enjoying all of the little things, tasting all of the different foods and seeing different shows. I want to do the stuff I enjoy and find interesting. I feel at home."