GÄVLE, Sweden – A few ago, Brynäs Gävle was the hottest team in Sweden, thanks to an 18-year-old player that took the league by storm, going from a fourth-liner to winning the World Championship in Riga in just a matter of months.
Then Nicklas Bäckström left Gävle for the NHL, and Brynäs had to fight for survival in the Elitserien in the relegation round (ot the qualification series as it is called in Sweden).
Jacob Markström had just turned 18 when he was called up from the Brynäs junior system in February 2008. The team was last in the standings, the youngest coach in the Elitserien was about to get fired, and the oldest one, Leif Boork, the man who had started the season as the head coach but was fired in October 2007, returned.
There, in the middle of it all, was Jacob. He played seven games in the regular season in February, posted a goals against average of 3.12 on par with the other two goalies of the team. Markus Korhonen had a GAA of 2.98, Daniel Sperrle 3.12.
On the eve of the qualification series, Korhonen fell ill and Boork recalled Marsktröm, whom he had sent back to the juniors when he returned, and then even decided to go with the kid in the first game.
Brynäs won the game.
In the next game, Markström faced Ed Belfour, brought to Sweden to take Leksand back to the Elitserien. Markström made 30 saves, Belfour 21, as Brynäs beat Leksand 3-2. Markström ended up playing nine of the ten games in the series, with the league-best save percentage, 93.12, and two shutouts.
Leif Boork, who called Nicklas Bäckström a new Forsberg, now made a reference to another young future NHL superstar he had once coached. Pelle Lindbergh.
“Jacob Markström is a fantastic guy who’s got his feet on the ground,” Boork said. Boork’s gone now, Markström far from it. Very few experts believed in Brynäs in September, but the team now ranks first in the standings and Markström is on top of the goaltending stats in all categories. After the nine games he’s played, Markström is number one in save percentage (94.95), in goals against average (1.54) and in shutouts (2).
“I’ve always thought hockey is a lot of fun, and right now it’s really, really fun,” Markström said.
And now, Brynäs Gävle is the hottest team in Sweden again, topping the standings after 12 games.
“We have a young and new team, and we have a good time together. I came in late last season, so I can’t really compare what’s different now. We had a good off-season, worked hard, and there’s a really good atmosphere in the locker room now,” he says.
Getting the ball rolling is important. There are several examples of teams that were expected to do well but didn’t in recent years. Well, Brynäs was the favourite to win the Swedish championship in September 2007.
“Self-confidence is very important in hockey,” says Markström, who doesn’t seem to have a problem with confidence.
“He’s mentally very, very strong,” said Boork.
Things happen quickly in hockey. It’s mind-boggling to think that Markström, Florida’s first pick (31st overall) in 2008, didn’t get serious about goaltending until he was 13.
That’s only five years ago.
“Sometimes I was a goalie, sometimes a skater. I think I was 13 when I decided to focus on goaltending,” he said.
“It’s a huge challenge and responsibility to be alone there. I just thought it was fun,” he added.
And about nine years ago, when Brynäs won their latest Swedish title, Markström was nine, and the Brynäs goalie was a 20-year-old by the name of Johan Holmqvist. That summer, Markström attended 'Honken’s' hockey school.
Last week, they faced each other in an Elitserien game between Brynäs Gävle and Frölunda Gothenburg.
“It was special, sure. I was raised in Gävle and have followed his career closely, and all of a sudden, he’s at the other end of the rink. Then, when the puck drops, there’s no time to focus on anything but stopping the shots, but it was nice afterwards,” Markström says of the meeting that ended in a 1-1 tie.
Down the road, Markström has the World U20 Championship to look forward to. He’s such a shoo-in for the Swedish team that head coach Per Mårts didn’t even invite him to a November camp. Besides, he may be busy with the men’s national team at the Karjala Cup in Helsinki at that time.
Markström is a prototype of a great modern goalie: tall, fast, solid. The team’s goaltending coach Pecka Alcén has described his protégés - Markström and 20-year-old Anders Lindbäck – as ideal to work with. They’re tall, ambitious, and move well.
“Goalies go on the ice before everybody else to work with Pecka, and he’s there for every practice to coach us. We work on something almost every day,” says Markström.
He has called Alcén 'another dad' to describe their close relationship.
And it’s easy to understand Alcén. Markström moves well, he’s fast, reads the game well, and is hardly ever out of position. And yes, at 194 centimetres, he’s tall.
Like his big brother, Tim, who’s just shy of two meters tall and the football goalie of Umeå FC in Division 1 in Sweden. That’s who’s on Jacob Markström’s head when you see him tending Brynäs goal.
On the outside, that is, as motif of Jacob’s mask.
On the inside, who knows. Maybe just the next shot.
- Modo’s Niklas Sundström, leads the league in scoring. He has 5+11=16 points in 12 games, on pace to beat his own record, 45 points, from 2006-07.
- Only six months until the final game, which you can tell by the number of new imports entering the league. Because of Sweden’s tax regulations, 'artists' who spend less than six months in the country receive tax breaks, encouraging Elitserien teams to wait until mid-October before brining in their most expensive players. Linköping signed Ivan Majesky, HV71 added Kris Beech and Nick Angell. Luleå brought Lubos Bartecko in a few days earlier, in an effort to kick-start the team.