by Sam Fryman and Alan Fuehring | AHL On The Beat
Simon Holmstrom takes the ice at Webster Bank Arena with the type of confidence that betrays his actual age. He’s only 18 -– and holds the distinction of being the youngest player to ever suit up for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers -– but he doesn’t act like it.
Holmstrom is typically one of the last players off the ice on practice days, constantly working on his wrist shot that scouts say is among his most lethal weapons. He certainly has the talent, skill and drive that led to the New York Islanders selecting him 23rd overall in last June’s NHL Draft, but the teenager knows he has to work harder than ever to reach the next level, hence the extra hours at the rink.
He’s quiet, but not shy. When asked whether he has the confidence to play in North America this season, Holmstrom was blunt.
“Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have come here,” Holmstrom said. “I don’t think the staff and the organization would let me come here if they knew I wasn’t ready for it.”
The Islanders chose Holmstrom with their first pick in Vancouver last summer, making the Tranas, Sweden, native one of four Swedes taken in the opening round. It was the thrill of a lifetime for the youngster.
“I think I went through all of the emotions,” Holmstrom said, grinning widely. “From nervous and anxious to pure excitement. It was an amazing experience and something I’ll never forget.”
One of the biggest reasons that the Islanders selected Holmstrom was due to his silky-smooth skating ability and quick hands for scoring. But they also chose him for his speed, with the NHL, AHL and other leagues all over the world shifting to a faster game. The quickness of the North American style hasn’t surprised Holmstrom and continues to work on adjusting to a more physical game.
“It’s already a pretty high-speed game there [in Sweden], but here everyone’s a lot bigger and really strong so that’s the biggest part to figure out,” Holmstrom said.
Holmstrom earned his first point with the Sound Tigers on Oct. 12 in a high-tempo road game against the Charlotte Checkers, assisting on fellow Islanders prospect Arnaud Durandeau’s first professional goal. As was the case in training camp, the young forward is taking it all in stride and applying any lessons he can the game that consumes his time.
“First and foremost, he’s a great kid,” head coach Brent Thompson said. “He’s a likeable guy who wants to learn and wants to get better. Overall you see some really positive things as far as his vision.”
Thompson is confident that Holmstrom can develop into a top-six role as the year goes on, even though there will undoubtedly be some growing pains.
“He makes those subtle little passes that a lot of people probably don’t notice, but our team and our staff notice all the time,” Thompson said. “He fits in very well with our group. The guys kind of look at him like he’s their little brother.”
Hockey is all that Holmstrom has ever wanted to be involved in. Simon’s father Jonas also grew up around the game, playing for his hometown team, Tranas AIF, in Sweden’s top division for a decade. Jonas scored nearly 350 career points before becoming an assistant coach in the Swedish Hockey League for Simon’s club each of last two years.
While his dad is the biggest mentor and motivator at home, Holmstrom has found many leaders and friends to lean on with the Sound Tigers as well. One player that is very familiar with Holmstrom’s international move is 23-year-old defenseman Sebastian Aho, who came over from Sweden prior to the 2017-18 campaign.
“He doesn’t need much advice from me,” Aho said. “On the ice, everybody can see how good of a player he is. He’s already got the raw talent and desire that it takes to play well over here. I’m excited to see him develop and take steps forward every day.”
Perhaps Aho can better assist off the ice, helping to ease the transition to living in North America. After all, Holmstrom is still closer to his high school graduation than being able to rent a car -– and moving across the Atlantic is a transition for a player of any age.
“But of course, I try to always be there for him and help out and explain things that he doesn’t really understand yet,” Aho added. “It’s easier when we both speak the same language.”
Many of Holmstrom’s veteran teammates have encouraged the teenager to just be himself and focus on building relationships within the team. He’s also been instructed to get out and explore the northeast, trying new foods and adapting to the American culture –- although American food has certainly been one of the biggest adjustments early on.
“I’m a big burger guy, so maybe I’ll have to try some good burgers,” Holmstrom said. “Maybe that will turn out to be a good luck charm.”
That’s all secondary for Holmstrom, who won’t need Big Mac luck if he continues to put in the hours at the rink. His focus is set firmly on becoming a strong, steady force in Bridgeport’s forward core.