BUDAPEST – Meeting Mario Lemieux, and having dinner with Wayne Gretzky. Not every hockey player gets to enjoy these kinds of experiences, but for Victoria Samuelsson, daughter of former NHL player Ulf Samuelsson and forward for Sweden’s women’s U18 national team, this was all part of growing up in a hockey family.
The 17-year-old, who was born in Sweden but grew up in the States, is now competing in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship. Samuelsson, whose father won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, spent her childhood years in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Arizona, following her dad’s career.
Samuelsson credits her brothers with getting her into the sport. The eldest, Philip (22) was selected by Pittsburgh in the second round (No. 61) of the 2009 NHL Draft and is currently playing the in the American Hockey League. Middle brother Henrik (20) plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings and was selected in the first round (No. 27) by the Phoenix Coyotes. With Dad an assistant coach with the New York Rangers, Victoria gets three NHL teams to cheer for.
“I tried every other sport before I got into hockey,” said Samuelsson. “I didn’t like any of them. Then my brothers recommended that I try hockey, and I fell in love with it right away. We used to play ball hockey a lot, I wasn’t really active at first but they would always drag me out to play.”
She started on a girls’ team at eight years old, playing defenceman for a few years then moving to forward because she “got to skate faster and shoot a lot.” As the third child in a hockey family, it is not surprising that eventually she would gravitate towards the sport.
“I remember those times when all of us were up really early for practice, or especially when we all had tournaments,” said Samuelsson. “If Dad was home he would usually be the one to get us up. When we got a dog his favourite strategy was to open the door and let the dog come in and jump on our beds.”
In Arizona Samuelsson played for three years before moving to a boys’ team for two more. While it was a challenge for her at first she said that the time spent playing in the boys’ league was important for honing her skills in many areas of the game.
“It teaches you a lot, to keep your head up and use your speed and your body more, which is good because there’s not a lot of that in girls’ hockey and it gets you farther along in your development,” she said. “I practised with my brothers so I was at least a little bit used to it, but in the first game I was a little afraid at first of getting hit but that quickly went away.”
At the time Victoria’s father was an assistant coach for the Coyotes, and she recalls a few times when the head coach, one Wayne Gretzky, would come over for dinner with the family.
“My dad coached with him in Phoenix so he was always over eating with us,” she said. “It didn’t speak to him too much then because we were always running around and hardly ever at the table because we couldn’t sit still (laughs).”
“I was fortunate that I got to meet a lot of players, they’re all nice guys,” she said. “I got to watch a game with Mario Lemieux when Philip played his first NHL game, it was just an honour to be in the same room with him. He was such a fantastic player.”
Her father was unsurprised that Victoria chose the hockey road.
“Hockey has always been a part of Victoria’s life. She was born at the end of my career and she got to follow her big brothers on all the fun tournaments they played,” said her father. “So she got exposed to all the great times we had and the team bonding and friendships we made. I think she just saw how much enjoyment there is on top of all the hard work.”
Aiming to further her own hockey career, Samuelsson moved to Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, where she played with the MODO’s girls’ team, a big change in both environment and temperature when compared to Arizona.
She spent three seasons in Sweden with MODO Ornskoldsvik, honing her game and in the process earning eligibility to play for her country of birth. Her father helped out occasionally with coaching for the first two years she was there.
“He’s a really good coach,” she said. “He’s hard but he’s hard for a reason because he wants to help you out in the future. He gives a lot of good feedback and talked to me after games telling me what I did well and what I needed to work on.”
She also credits her time in the U.S. with helping her polish her technique, something she attributes to playing on smaller ice for much of her childhood.
“A lot of the girls are stronger I find on the smaller ice, because the field of play is smaller more is happening and there’s less skating,” she said. “On the big ice you’re just skating and I think that we need to work on those individual battles and technique and getting quick shots off.”
In her three years at MODO she witnessed firsthand the improvement in the women’s hockey program and credits it with her own improvement.
“Absolutely, compared to the first year when I was there when all we did was dump and chase, now we were being taught to look for the pass and play the puck more, it’s amazing to see how much the quality of play has gone up in that time I was there,” she said.
“There’s more people watching too which is encouraging, in my first year there would be at most 40 people in the stands, and in my last game, the final of the year, we have over 3,500.”
In her last two year she enjoyed more gym time and access to MODO’s senior personal trainer, who would set up summer programs so the girls could work out in the offseason. She was even tabbed as a potential prospect for the senior Olympic national team in Sochi, but didn’t end up making the final cut.
While a trip to Sochi would have been a dream come true for Samuelsson, she has reset her sites on making the senior team next year, and beyond to PyeongChang 2018. But first comes school, and following the U18 Women’s World she will head back to the U.S. and start looking at college with the intent of pursuing a business degree.
“To make the Olympics she needs to continue to improve and have a few good years at the college level,” said Ulf.
But first things first, Sweden’s U18 team has just come off a tough 5-1 loss to Russia after winning its opening game, and Samuelsson draws on her dad’s advice when thinking about the challenge of getting her team back into the playoffs and contend for another medal.
“After a bad game he said not to think about it too much because there’s nothing you can do at that point. Think about it for a little bit and then move on.”
Sweden takes on, interestingly enough, the USA in its final preliminary round game tomorrow.