by Eric Mueller | AHL On The Beat
After four seasons with the Toronto Marlies, including a career-high 69 points (17 goals, 52 assists) in the 2013-14 campaign, and a brief stint with the Rockford IceHogs, 28-year-old forward Spencer Abbott was looking for a change after seeing only one NHL appearance thus far in his career.
That change sent him across the globe to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he played for Frolunda HC last year in the Swedish Hockey League.
“I just was looking for something different,” Abbott said of his choice to play a season abroad. “Try to press the reset button on my career.”
Leaving North America to play a season in Europe was a relatively easy decision for the sixth-year professional. Abbott said he had his mind made up after he ended the 2014-15 season in Rockford, and like his linemates, his family was “all on side” with the career journey.
With Frolunda, Abbott skated alongside current IceHogs goaltender Lars Johansson and helped the Indians capture the Swedish National Championship. Abbott notched 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists) in 42 games for fifth on the team.
“I didn’t know Abbs before he came over, but I think he played great in Frolunda,” Johansson said. “He was a great skilled hockey player there and he’s the same kind of guy here.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Abbott was the larger sheet of ice in European rinks, which forced him to adapt his style and work on his defensive play in his team’s half of the rink. He admitted to believing the game in Europe would be more offensive and suit him as a scorer.
“I’m more of an offensive guy so try and get my fundamentals down defensively and play better that way,” Abbott said. “I think for 50 games over there it helped me a lot and being a little bit more of a complete player and bringing that back here into the American League.”
His growth in play in the defensive zone didn’t go unnoticed by his coaches. Rockford head coach Ted Dent, who coached Abbott in 2014-15, said he has utilized Abbott on the penalty kill this season and can count on the forward to finish out the last 15 to 20 seconds while shorthanded.
“I just think he’s a more mature person and player than he was two years,” Dent said.
IceHogs assistant coach Derek King served as Abbott’s assistant coach in Toronto and said he too, has seen improvement in Abbott’s overall play in both zones.
“Before in Toronto, sometimes he was the guy getting taken off to throw out an extra center man on the D-zone faceoff just in case there was a loss and he wasn’t one who liked to play D-zone,” King said. “That’s something you have to work on to be able to play well and I think he’s done a good job of that.”
In his return to the IceHogs this season, Abbott started the year off with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in the first 25 games. King attributed the slow start to the size of North American rinks but said the adjustments Abbott has made wrenched up his play prior to the All-Star break.
That fine-tuning by Abbott resulted in a team-high six-game point streak (two goals, seven assists) from Dec. 26 to Jan. 8. In that span he was rewarded with a recall to the Chicago Blackhawks, making his second NHL appearance on Jan. 5, the same day he was named to his second career AHL All-Star team.
“It was a good few days for sure,” Abbott recalled of that span in January. “Being able to get another shot in the [NHL] was awesome. They are obviously a historic franchise with a lot of good players on their team and a lot of good history. It was just fun to be up there and be a part of it.”
In that contest, Abbott skated on the top line with three-time Stanley Cup winners Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.
“Those guys are going to compliment you well no matter how you play,” Abbott said. “It was fun, obviously they are going to be two Hall of Famers. It was a really cool experience.”
Sam Carrick, who played with Abbott in Toronto and now currently with Rockford, was excited to see his friend succeed and earn both the call-up to Chicago and the All-Star nod.
“I was definitely happy to see him get called up to the Blackhawks for that game,” Carrick said. “He decided to go overseas because he figured that his NHL days might have been over. When he came back here, he gave it another kick of the can and it’s great to see him get rewarded with a game like that.”
Abbott currently leads Rockford with 27 points and 11 goals. Familiarity with the IceHogs organization has definitely aided in his second season with Rockford. Along with the coaching staff, Abbott has reconnected with Carrick and Johansson along with a handful of players from the 2014-15 IceHogs team.
“I think he’s a comfort guy and he likes the fact that he knew what he was getting into here with our setup and our staff,” Dent said. “I think a combination of playing for me, knowing Kinger (Derek King), playing with Sammy [Carrick] and both being from the Ontario area helped ease the transition for him even if there was a transition.”
His year in Sweden has also endeared him to the large Swedish contingent in the locker room. The IceHogs team boasts a locker room of seven Swedes including three players who have played with Frolunda. Abbott also lived in current Rockford defenseman Viktor Svedberg’s apartment during his time in Gothenburg.
Johansson said that Abbott’s experiences living in Sweden have been something that the forward can bond over with his Swedish teammates.
“Of course when we talk about something that the other guys don’t know what it is, he knows it because he’s been there,” Johansson said. “It can be about food or culture or whatever. There’s absolutely a few things he picked up. Old teammates and coaches over there too so we can joke around a little bit.”
Abbott’s top goal is still to make it into the NHL and he has gained confidence in all phases of his game thanks to his time with Frolunda. Not known for being an overly talkative guy, King said Abbott lets his play speak volumes and act as a catalyst.
“I think this year I see a little more oomph in his play sometimes,” King said. “He has to show his leadership on the ice and he has to show up every night to play. When he’s on his game and he plays a little bit harder, grindy, greasier game, guys read off that and it elevates their games.”