Oliver Ekman-Larsson got nicknamed “Harry Potter” by his Phoenix Coyotes teammates due to looking like the fictional boy wizard. But unfortunately, the smooth-skating 22-year-old defenceman couldn’t magically cure an injured foot that kept him out of host Sweden’s gold medal run at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
Still, for a young guy, he’s already got a ton of IIHF medals under his belt. He claimed bronze at the 2010 World Juniors in Canada. He followed that up with another bronze at the 2010 World Championship in Germany and silver at the 2011 Worlds in Slovakia. All three of those medals came under Tre Kronor head coach Pär Mårts, whose hockey acumen Ekman-Larsson respects greatly.
“He wants the guys to play with the puck, and he talks a lot to the guys,” Ekman-Larsson told IIHF.com. “He’s a really good coach. I like playing for him.”
Ekman-Larsson has already demonstrated that he can handle whatever responsibilities the coach gives him. He’s one of those rare talents who’s comfortable in any situation: quarterbacking the power play, defending in a 5-on-3 situation, or breaking up an opposing odd-man rush with savvy stick positioning.
Logging more than 25 minutes a game with Phoenix has become standard for him as a top-pairing defenceman. He often plays alongside two-time World Championship medallist Zbynek Michalek of the Czech Republic. He scored 24 points in 48 games this season, an improved pace compared to 2011/2012, when he tallied 32 points in a full 82-game schedule.
Which areas improved the most for the 188-cm, 86-kg Karlskrona product in his third NHL campaign? “I’d say everything,” said Ekman-Larsson. “I try to get better every day, at every practice, and I think I’ve improved in the defensive zone and all over the ice.”
He certainly has the tool kit and the humble confidence to reap a Norris Trophy nomination someday. Although he won’t necessarily match Nicklas Lidström’s career numbers, in the next year or two he’ll likely stake out his turf as the highest-scoring Swedish NHL defenceman not named Erik Karlsson.
Ekman-Larsson treasures the fact that he got to compete against Lidström in the NHL. But of course, the IIHF Triple Gold Club member who scored the winning goal at the 2006 Olympics also made life rough on the Coyotes when they faced Detroit.
“I played against him for two years, and that was enough!” Ekman-Larsson said with a smile. “But he was such a good player. He was my idol when I was growing up. It was fun to play against him, and he had a great career.”
“OEL” is level-headed enough to realize that even though he signed a new $33-million contract with the Coyotes on March 15, he can’t get away from what’s made him successful so far.
“I’m happy to be part of this organization for six more years,” he said. “But I’m not going to change anything. I just have to keep on playing my game.”
His one indulgence after landing the deal? Buying his parents their dream car: an orange Lamborghini. “My parents have done so many good things for me, and that’s why I’m here,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I figured it would be nice just to give something back to them.”
Ekman-Larsson honed his game with Leksands IF before coming to North America. The popular, 1938-founded club in a tiny central Sweden town had been stuck in the second-tier Allsvenskan league since 2005/2006. But in early April, under the leadership of general manager and ex-Olympic goalie Tommy Salo, they finally earned promotion back to the Elitserien after placing second in the 10-game Kvalserien, a promotion/relegation competition between the bottom teams from Elitserien and the best teams from Allsvenskan.
“Good for them!” Ekman-Larsson enthused. “I’m really happy for Leksand. I played there for two years, and I know how hard it is to get back to the elite league there.”
He’s part of a wave of young Swedish stars unmatched since the early 1990s. What’s behind it all?
“First and foremost, the coaches in Sweden and the Swedish federation are doing a good job of developing young players,” he said. “I think that’s why we have so many good players over in North America and in Sweden too.”
Ekman-Larsson’s maternal grandfather, Kenneth Ekman, suited up on defence for four games at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, where Sweden came fourth. Ekman-Larsson could potentially follow in his grandfather’s footsteps at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
“I haven’t thought too much about that yet,” Ekman-Larsson admitted. “It’s next season, but if they want me to play, I’ll be happy to play.”