Three jewels in the Marlies’ crown

by Todd Crocker | AHL On The Beat Archive

The Toronto Maple Leafs have long and deep roots in pulling players out of Sweden. Back when Gerry McNamara began the Nordic scouting adventure it was a good bet some folks in hockey thought it was an expensive waste of time. Swedish players were thought not tough enough to play in the rough-and-tumble world of the NHL.

When Borje Salming became the product of that extra effort in 1973 and erased that preconception from the game single-handedly with his play, the Leafs would always dig deep on their research into Sweden.

Recently, Toronto Marlies rookies Viktor Loov and Tom Nilsson participated in a Leafs TV feature called 20 questions. Tellingly, when asked who their favorite player was, Loov said Mats Sundin and Nilsson offered Salming — despite the fact that neither one of them are old enough to have seen Salming play or much of Sundin’s career.

Heroes stand the test of time in Sweden and often grow larger well past their greatest moments. Take the man who invented dynamite whose name is now a brand name for world peace, Alfred Nobel.

This season, Loov and Nilsson are new to the AHL and join Petter Granberg to create the Marlies’ own "tre kronor" (Swedish for "three crowns") of defense. Granberg is from Gallivare, a town in the north of Sweden, and when you hail from a place north of the Arctic Circle you learn that an economy of words is completely necessary. There is a word that means, "I agree with you," and it simply sounds like an intake of breath. No one that far north stands on the street corner having lengthy gabs about anything when eyelids can freeze shut.

The immensely amiable Granberg doesn’t say a whole lot, but it isn’t because his English isn’t good. It’s really very good.

“I don’t say much in Swedish either,” Granberg offers.

“Man, he is fearless,” said Marlies forward Troy Bodie, who has seen his fair share of punishing defensemen in his career. “Doesn’t matter who it is, he plays the same pounding style.

“We were playing a two-on-two scenario down the wall and Frazer (McLaren) got into the corner and Granny (Granberg) just hammered in there. Didn’t care who it was, just saw his job to do. You gotta respect that.”

McLaren is large, with the reputation of physical play that is larger. You could read on Granberg’s face the old phrase, “just doing my job.” That look may have saved him from a more persuasive rebuttal.

It is so tempting to just hear the word “love” when Viktor Loov says his name. Call it the English-speaking habit of turning foreign words into their own words, but the pronunciation is closer to “luv” than it is to “loov.” And there was no love from Sweden just prior to the season it looked like Loov might be returning to Modo in the Swedish Hockey League.

But Loov was not interested in other people’s plans for his development.

“They needed to consider the human being — which in this case was me,” said Loov. “I want to play in the NHL and this (the AHL) is the best place to learn how to do that. I will do whatever they need me to.”

“Viktor is incredibly talented on the ice but the way he carries himself off ice is exactly what you would hope for in a player and a person,” said Brad Lynn, the Marlies’ director of hockey operations. “His success will be tied to that.”

Lynn has the massive task of being the one who handles the personality side of players more than most in the organization. He makes it clear he thinks Loov fits the sweater with the single crowned crest. The offensive-minded Loov, a native of Sodertalje, Sweden, has that infectious way about him and the kind of style that fits the Marlies mindset — of mayhem with madcap — perfectly.

The third “kronor” is Nilsson, who hasn’t been talked about as much but is the embodiment of what you get from the Marlies’ Swedish defensemen. He checks heavy and is almost defensively responsible to a fault — not that you would ever get a coach in the AHL to complain about a player being defensively responsible.

And he also seems to be, on the ice, like the guy who thinks he is whispering in the movie theater but is really just talking. At some point he drives opponents to distraction.

“Tommy makes himself known in the game,” said Marlies associate coach Derek King, a veteran of more than 800 games in the NHL. “It may not always translate for fans who might want big rushes or overpowering one-timers from the point, but for a coach or his teammates, he is doing the things that count toward wins. He can be successful being consistently good at making opponents hate to see his number in the lineup.”

“I just like to make sure I’m involved in the game,” said Nilsson in his usual off-handed, this-is-what-is-expected kind of way. The Mora, Sweden, native was highly noticeable with the Swedish team that won silver at the 2013 World Junior Championships. That is, if you are the nuanced hockey fan who is able to evaluate good defensive play.

After scoring his first goal in the AHL, Nilsson talked about it with excitement but also nonchalance.

“I think it was four-on-four, Smitty (Marlies captain Trevor Smith) got me the puck and I guess I just shot it in the net.”

His shrug and grin at the end of the story doesn’t tell you that he patiently waited for the man in front of him to commit and let a blistering shot go for the goal. It wasn’t what the Leafs saw in him when they drafted in the fourth round in 2011, but if he’s got that rod on his boat he might land the big fish.

Perhaps it fits for these three Marlies defensemen, the whole Alfred Nobel story. They each seem to have two very distinct sides to them: the off-ice, easy-going, well-respected, smiling, peaceful sorts and the on-ice explosion of power that can blow apart an offensive rush. In the spirit of Salming and Sundin, the Maple Leafs sure hope that there is some history that repeats itself out of Sverige.