By Holly Sias | AHL On The Beat
Imagine leaving the country where you grew up—the place you built a life, an identity—and flying thousands of miles to land in a city where you knew no one.
You barely speak the new language.
And now you are expected to adapt as a new citizen of that country—virtually on your own.
If the city you landed in is Rockford, Illinois, however, and your departing flight came from Sweden, you’re in luck.
Arriving at your first practice and approaching your first step toward the unknown, you hear the faint sound of your native language. And just like that, you know you’re home.
At least that’s the case for the Swedes who landed a spot on Rockford’s roster this season.
For the first time in IceHogs history, six players from Sweden call Rockford home. It’s by far the most Sweden-born players in the IceHogs’ locker room for any one season.
And while the cultural background of the IceHogs skaters is nearly evenly split between Canadian, American and Swedish skaters, the six Swedes have made their presence felt, claiming at least one spot at every position on the roster, including four defensemen, one forward and one goalie.
“We’ve had a lot of Swedes here over the years, they’re always hard working individuals, they always bring (their best effort) in the games,” said IceHogs head coach Ted Dent. “It’s been a good experience having all the Swedes here…They work extremely hard at their craft, are easy to get along with and are good teammates.”
Of their crew, Svedberg was originally the first to arrive in Rockford and is now skating in his fourth season with the IceHogs. The Gothenburg, Sweden native split time between Rockford and Chicago last season, where he skated in 27 games for the Blackhawks with four points (two goals, two assists) during his NHL debut.
He’s gone a long way since his arrival in a once-foreign country. And this season feels the most like being home.
“It’s been a little different because we have six (Swedish players) on the team right now…and we have one Finn who actually knows some Swedish,” Svedberg said. “So, five of our seven defensemen know a little Swedish, which usually isn’t the case here in America.”
With ages ranging from 21-29, each of the IceHogs’ Swedes are approaching a different stage of his career. But Svedberg says their common background helps formulate a family that can extend beyond the ice.
“I think we mesh pretty well,” Svedberg said. “We’re all a little different age…half our (group) is a lot older, half is a lot younger, so I think it’s a good mix.”
And every little comfort helps when the transition from Sweden to the States is 4,291 miles. That type of distance brings with it a new home, new team and, according to the Swedish defenseman, even a new style of hockey.
A style Svedberg has actually grown to prefer.
“The ice makes a huge difference; the ice here is smaller and it creates a different kind of game and that can make the (overall) transition a little hard,” Svedberg said. “But usually coming to smaller ice it’s a little easier because everything is tighter, you have less time and everything goes a little faster, and a lot of guys like that play.”
Fellow defenseman Carl Dalhstrom, 21, is the youngest of the group and newest to these adjustments. He was selected No. 51 overall in the second round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks, and came straight to Rockford from the Swedish Hockey League.
Dahlstrom established residence here in Rockford soon after Svedberg. He made his professional debut with the IceHogs on April 12, 2015, and is currently in his first full season at the AHL level.
Blueliners—Gustafsson returns for his second straight season while Norell has logged a few games in an IceHogs uniform—only spent time in Rockford at the very end of last season. Gustafsson split time between the Chicago Blackhawks and the IceHogs last season, while Norell represented Sweden at the World Junior Championships in 2014 and 2015 before joining the Hogs.
As for the newcomers to Rockford’s group of Swedes—Martin Lundberg and Lars Johansson—they are playing in the States for the first time in their careers. Upon arrival, the two rookies found a welcome relief in the IceHogs locker room with four teammates from their native country.
“Vik (Svedberg) and Gus (Gustafsson) have helped me a lot since they’ve been here a couple years,” forward Martin Lundberg said. “Especially in the beginning, they helped with everything. Like how to get a social security number and all that…It’s been nice having them here.”
Svedberg, as it turns out, was naturally suited to be the group’s leader. The 25-year-old towers at 6-foot-9 without his skates and has four seasons of experience with the IceHogs. As the veteran of the group, he’s taken on a leadership role amongst the Swedes.
“For young guys coming over here it can be a challenge being by yourself,” said Svedberg in reference to assuming his role as a mentor. “And I can imagine it’s easier having a couple guys here helping you out.”
Svedberg helps off-ice, with non-hockey daily-life tasks. And he’s quick to note that his role as the group’s leader isn’t so much a mentor of skills on the ice as it is to help with the basics of everyday life that are completely foreign to a 20-something year-old Swede moving to the States.
“I’ve been here for a couple years and I know where you find a home and all that stuff,” Svedberg said. “But in the locker room, I don’t think about (being a leader) too much. It’s more outside of the ice I’ve helped out.”
The strong Swedish ties on the roster have pulled the six skaters closer together. Svedberg said it’s been fun for “us guys” and even joked that he hopes they don’t talk too much Swedish around the locker room.
IceHogs head coach Ted Dent, however, took the notion a little more seriously.
Prior to the season, Dent headed off any possibility of clique-forming or segregation in the locker room based on background or nationality. The result, despite what one might anticipate with a locker room evenly split by three nationalities, is a team that learned early how to mesh together.
“We talked to the team early in the year, the group of the Swedes as well, to make sure they socialize with their teammates at the rink and away from the rink so they don’t segregate themselves, if you will,” said Dent. “So that is something we (focused on) and they’ve done a real good job being part of the team. They stick together, they hang out, but they also mingle with their teammates.”
With two months of hockey under their belt, the IceHogs skaters are learning how to play hockey together, and more importantly, how to communicate with each other.
“In the beginning it was the first time we were here and talking to all the new guys and we had to speak a little English and it was easier to speak to all the Swedes,” said Lundberg. “But I think now I’m more comfortable to speak English with everybody on the team and I think we’ve come together as a group.”
The “group” began as a small home-away-from-home for six Swedish skaters adjusting to a new life in the States.
“We come here and it’s an adventure,” said Svedberg. “You want to meet people from all around the world. We have a lot of different cultures (in the locker room) and it’s very fun to get to know people from other spots.”
What started as a locker room full of different cultures, has come together and formed the Rockford IceHogs 24-man roster.