STOCKHOLM – Children have their first idols close. The first ones are their parents and siblings, and then when the venture outside of the house, the cool (bigger) kids at school and sports teams, and naturally, for hockey playing kids in Europe, the players on their hometown teams and then the national team and NHL stars, although things have changed somewhat in the 21st century, with the access to NHL games having gotten better. Even then, often children idols are NHLers that come from the same country as them.
No wonder then that Andreas Engqvist, a big, lanky kid who lived five minutes from the rink in a northern Stockholm suburb found an idol who also was a big, lanky kid from a northern Stockholm suburb. Also with a right-hand shot, who had also started his career elsewhere but ended up in Djurgarden Stockholm, one of the oldest hockey clubs in Sweden.
That they’re both right-hand shots and centres also made the comparison between them almost too easy to draw when Engqvist was coming up the ranks. That’s how a local scout described him to Djurgarden and maybe that’s why he had turned down a contract offer from AIK, the other big club in Stockholm.
Of course, by the time Engqvist made his men’s league debut with Spanga in Division 2 in 2003, Mats Sundin had been the Toronto Maple Leafs captain for six years, and had won three IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship titles with Sweden.
Four years after having signed with Djurgarden – or seven years ago – Engqvist led the team in playoff scoring with 13 points in 16 games as they went all the way to the final. They lost to HV71 Jonkoping in six games but five of the six games were decided in overtime. After the season Engqvist followed in Sundin’s footsteps, and left for the NHL when he signed with the Montreal Canadiens.
Since then, he’s played for five different teams in the NHL, the AHL, and the KHL, but now he’s back. Home.
In a country where players are still generally talked about as “turning pro” when they leave Sweden, it’s easy to think that returning to where it once started may not be an easy decision. Young players dream of the NHL, and failing to crack the line up on a team in the world’s best league, many of them look to the KHL and the Russian league’s high standard of hockey and big paychecks.
“I’ve played abroad for so long now that it felt right to return home. I still have several good years in front of me, I’m not even thirty yet,” he told IIHF.com recently.
“I understand that a move home can be interpreted as a step backward but I don’t think of it that way. I think the Swedish league holds top class in Europe, and, for example, the Champions Hockey League have proved that.”
Of course, for most non-Swedes, a move to the SHL is often a move forward, a stepping stone to even bigger leagues. When Brynas Gavle’s Ryan Gunderson first moved to Sweden to play in the second-tier division, his goal was to make it to the SHL as soon as possible. He called Victor Stalberg, his college buddy, to learn about Swedish hockey.
“He told me that if I played a good year in Allsvenskan, I’d get a chance to play in the SHL.”
The following season, Gunderson won the SHL championship with Brynas. Two years later, he was the alternate captain of the team, before signing with Jokerit Helsinki and then with Dynamo Minsk in the KHL before returning to Brynas last season.
“It was really important for me to return to Brynas, it was one of the first things that came up and a deal got done in a couple of days. I knew I wanted to return when I left, and when you win a championship somewhere, it becomes a special place,” he says.
“Having played there for three years, I just wanted to get comfortable and going, and not have to get used to a new city and a new rink.”
Gunderson understands the Swedes who also want to return to their hometowns at the end of their careers.
“I’ve noticed the papers always call them ‘NHL pros’, but we’re pros, too. The SHL is very professional so it’s a little strange mindset,” he says.
“A lot of guys who return love to play for their hometown teams whom they’ve grown up watching and they’re excited to be part of that again. Even the guys in the NHL, for example, I heard Backstrom has said that he’d like to finish with a year with Brynas. North American guys don’t necessarily have that hometown team the same way.”
Sports is a special profession in that it forces for people to consider their age when they’re still young. Even Engqvist, at 29, is talking about having “a few good years” in front of him.
And with a four-year contract it looks like he’s is back for good but you never know in hockey. However, it does make it easier for Engqvist to plan his life.
“I’ve never had a long-term contract like this before but it’s nice to be able to plan ahead a little. I hope they’ll want to have me even after this contract expires,” he says.
“It’ll be fun to play in front of my friends and family,” he adds.
And surely, somewhere in a Stockholm suburb, there’s a kid who wants to be just like him.
NOTE: The new season in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) begins on Saturday.