📝 by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
Last September in Traverse City prospects camp, Oskar Back skated to the boards for a run-down of a drill with Texas Stars head coach Neil Graham. The coach went a mile a minute explaining a high-tempo drill.
“It was like boom, boom, boom, boom,” said Back of the instructions. He gave a quizzical look to fellow Swede Fredrik Karlstrom, who shared the sentiment, and the two began their North American hockey journey together as the whistle sounded.
Now just over halfway through the season, the two Texas Stars forwards are finding more consistency in their game day-by-day to continue their path toward the NHL.
Not Your Typical Swede
Fredrik Karlstrom, “Freddy” in the locker room, breaks the mold on the stereotype of a Scandinavian hockey player. Graham describes the 24-year-old as “outgoing, bubbly, and probably a lot more charismatic in that way.” It’s clear when talking to him that he is much more open and gregarious than one would expect.
Due to the pandemic, Karlstrom’s start in the AHL was delayed by a year. He spent the last season in Vaxjo, playing on the first line as they won a Swedish Hockey League championship.
“I grew as a person,” Karlstrom noted. “And also took that last step I needed to take in Sweden.”
Everyone talks about the transition to the smaller ice coming over to North America, but Karlstrom expanded on how that affects the game he plays.
“It was skates everywhere,” he said. “With the transitions and how the game is played, it goes a lot back and forth.”
Additionally, Karlstrom wasn’t getting a lot of ice time to start the year and felt that every time he was out there, the physicality was amped up. Lack of ice time meant fewer opportunities to get into the groove on his game.
With a number of injuries to the top-six group in Texas, Graham and his staff have challenged Karlstrom to step up and earn more through his play. Karlstrom responded.
“You get more comfortable with your teammates, the style, the defensive toughness of this level where you have to engage physically and you have to be willing to block a shot, you have to win board battles,” Graham said. “He’s doing that much more consistently. And in turn, I think you’re starting to see a more consistent outcome for him as well.”
“At the beginning of the year, it was kind of hard for me to get into the game,” Karlstrom added. “Now, I know more mentally what is going to happen, and I can focus on what I am going to do on the ice instead of being frustrated that I’m not coming in.”
The confidence in himself and the coaches’ extra push are bearing fruit. He is closing in on 20 points on the season with nearly half of those scored in just the last 10 games.
“You can grab that advantage to get more ice time, and I think I did that,” Karlstrom said. “It feels like I get into the game more now than before. Also with the adjustments, it’s been a couple of months now, and I feel like I’m getting more and more acclimated to the game here.”
A Trusted Blue-Collar Professional
Oskar Back is a lunch-pail forward. The 21-year-old center earns high praise from Graham for the high-effort game he plays.
“He’s exhibited excellent poise with the puck,” Graham said. “He is one of our few players that always presents a target to his teammates. He is always an option to receive a pass, and he wants the puck. That isn’t a trait that you see with every player, especially young players.
“Obviously everyone wants it in the O-zone. He wants the puck in the middle of the ice on a breakout. He wants the puck in the neutral zone.”
That willingness to play anywhere has put him on the ice in a lot of challenging situations for a rookie with tons of ice time on the penalty kill and in late-game, must-win faceoffs.
“Ever since I was young, I could play all parts of the game,” said Back. “And then when I came up to the SHL, [the team] obviously already had their power-play guys. So I took more responsibility on defense there and got to play more defensive-zone drives. I listened to the coach and I bought into that. I took pride in doing that, and it has grown to become a part of my job on the ice.”
As Back has adjusted to North America, he’s gained more confidence, making plays that he “wouldn’t have given himself credit for” previously, according to Graham. Back scored in four straight games last week and has eclipsed 20 points on the season.
“It’s a very high-tempo game,” said Back. “That was very different from Sweden where it’s a very structured league. When the season came, it felt better and better, and I got into it pretty quickly. But it’s been a long process of learning to play [this style].”
Finding Their Way in the Lone Star State
Neither player had been much outside Sweden when they came to Cedar Park, Texas, to play this season. Back played last year just 30 minutes from his parents’ home and would regularly be back at the kitchen table for family dinner.
“This is very different,” said Back. “I only get to call them on FaceTime. Also, it’s easy when you’re home to get your mind off hockey. I have friends that don’t really care about hockey at home. Here my friends are my teammates as well, so it’s always in the back of your head. It’s been mentally challenging as well.”
The density and unpredictability of the AHL schedule took both players by surprise.
“It’s obviously more games over here and more travel, so it’s harder to get the same type of workout in during the week,” Karlstrom said. “It’s more [about] taking care of your body and staying healthy and fresh. Get the rest and good food every day, and when the schedule allows a good heavy workout, it’s crucial that you do it.”
“It’s back-to-back games and then we go on an eight-day road trip,” Back agreed. “I knew what I was expecting, but I feel like you have to have experienced it and lived it to really know what it’s about.”
All in all, both players are loving being in Texas. Both noted completely separately from each other how much they appreciate the sunlight they’re getting in the dead of winter, as well as the winter temperatures being as warm as summer back in Sweden.
“It’s a lot of sun in Texas,” said Karlstrom. “I feel pretty fresh every morning, and I can get that D vitamin every day.”
“If you ask anyone in our dressing room, it wouldn’t be tough to find positive things to say about those two in terms of their character and the way they are as teammates and as people,” said Graham. “They’re both terrific humans. You have two excellent guys in the locker room and watching their growth has been fun as a coach. I’ve got a lot of time for both players.”
And if their trajectory continues, it will only be a matter of time before both will be soaking up the rays in Dallas.
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.