#AHLOTB: Swedish stars invade WBS

by Nick Hart | AHL On The Beat Archive

Sweden is known for Vikings, fashion and furniture. "Sacrifice" is a word not necessarily synonymous with the Scandinavian paradise.

However, sacrifice is exactly what one of Sweden’s finest exports has become all too accustomed with — that export being hockey players.

Countless hockey legends have come from the land of the Tre Kronor, and Sweden boasts nine members of hockey’s hallowed Triple Gold Club, players who have captured a World Championship, an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup. In order to achieve those goals, every single Swedish player had to make the same sacrifice.

A sacrifice made to chase a dream.

They all left home to come to North America and play against the best competition the world has to offer.

It’s the same sacrifice Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins newcomers Niclas Andersen and Oskar Sundqvist had to make.

Swedish hockey players are not alone in making the big move in pursuit of hockey glory. Just ask fellow Penguins Dominik Uher and rookie Dominik Simon, natives of the Czech Republic.

Moreover, Simon has the advantage of a countryman with years of American experience in Uher to take him under his wing. Even though Andersen is six years older than Sundqvist, both players are feeling out North America for the first time, and bonding over the shared experience.

Andersen knew what he was getting himself into when he decided to move away from his homeland. He knew it wouldn’t be an easy transition, but the support offered by his new teammates has kept things from becoming too overwhelming.

“When you move from your home, you’re moving from your safety,” Andersen said. “You’re moving from your family, your friends, what gives you comfort. So when you move somewhere, it helps when people around you help.”

The simple benefit of being able to talk in your native tongue — whether it be about how to improve on the last play, what the coach wants you to do, or what the heck happened on Bar Rescue last nigh — is a tremendous coup to a stranger in a strange land.

“You have that guy you can talk Swedish with, you know?” Sundqvist said. “That’s great to have.”

“It’s good when you have another Swede with the team,” Andersen added. “It’s fun to talk about things that happened at home and you can talk in your native language and figure things out if you need to.”

Still, even though they’re serving as a built-in Swedish support system for one another, nothing could prepare Sundqvist and Andersen for the culture shock to come courtesy of the United States of America.

“The biggest difference is probably the food over here,” said Sundqvist. “The groceries, it’s not the same. We’re starting to get used to it now and everything’s been very good actually, but it’s very different.”

Andersen actually had two years’ experience playing outside of Sweden as a part of Eastern Europe’s Kontinental Hockey League to get used to living without his familiar cuisine. Though he concedes that the U.S. mirrors Sweden much more than Russia did when he first moved to play for Cherepovets, he still has a ways to go before he has a full grasp on all things Americana.

“The biggest thing I notice is around here you take the car everywhere. I’m not used to that,” Andersen said. “Back home, you take a bike or you walk to go somewhere. One day, I tried to walk from the rink to get something to eat, and then when I got out there, there weren’t really any sidewalks. I think I got some horns out there, people [honking] at me from the cars because I was walking in the driving lane.”

Andersen says he didn’t know Sundqvist all that well before meeting him at Pittsburgh’s camp in August. He knew the 21-year-old vaguely through a friend of a friend, but the two never had much of an opportunity to get to know one another well.

On the ice, that was a completely different story.

Last year in the Swedish Hockey League’s playoffs, Andersen’s Brynas squad won the best-of-three play-in round after a dramatic Game Three victory. The prize for victory: the right to challenge a perennial powerhouse in two-time reigning playoff champion and first-overall seed Skelleftea, a team that featured Sundqvist.

Though Skelleftea made quick work of their opponent, defeating Brynas in four games, Sundqvist couldn’t help but be impressed by the steady, shot-blocking defenseman wearing the “C” for the other team.

“[Andersen] meant a lot for his team,” Sundqvist said. “He played really big minutes, especially against our top line. I thought a little bit during last year’s season that by playing so many minutes and doing so well, Andersen would get an offer from Russia or here in the U.S.”

Prophetically predicted by his future teammate, that’s exactly what happened for Andersen, as he signed an NHL deal with Pittsburgh in June.

As it turns out, the admiration Sundqvist developed for Andersen during that playoff series went both ways.

“Oskar is a really good player,” Andersen said. “Even though he’s young, you can see his skills are really good, and he’s been playing big games in the playoffs, and his teams win with him. He’s an experienced guy, but with a low age.”

Andersen was a fourth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2006. He attended training camps, but never earned a contract from L.A. That never bothered the young defenseman, because he had a plan for his own development that took him back home.

“I made the decision to go to the Swedish Elite League and have a spot on that team right then,” Andersen said, “and that was the best thing for my development to get to the NHL. So I played a couple years in Sweden and then played two years in Russia, and I thought that would be the right way to come to the NHL.

“My goal, the thing I want to achieve, is the NHL. It’s been that way all the time, it’s just different ways to get there.”

Sundqvist, a third-round pick of Pittsburgh’s in 2012, hasn’t had to do quite as much world-traveling as Andersen, but he knows there’s plenty of work ahead for him if he wants to achieve his ultimate goals.

“(Pittsburgh and I) had a really good talk last year before camp when I went back to Sweden,” Sundqvist said, “and I think we made up our minds then and said that next year was the time to come over. I was not ready last year, that’s the truth. I feel that I’m ready this year, and I’m going to make that push here in Wilkes-Barre.”

Both Swedes left home and went to strange, new places so that one day they can play in the NHL. Now, they find themselves in the best place they can be to making their sacrifice worthwhile: the AHL.

As long as they can find sidewalks so they don’t stray into traffic, the just might make it yet.