ZURICH – From U.S. college to the NHL and the World Championship – that’s a route not normally taken by European players. Chicago Blackhawks’ Swedish forward Viktor Stålberg is one of the very few. “For me college was getting the best from two worlds,” says Stålberg to IIHF.com.
The most successful European players who have become NHL and international stars have gone the traditional way of developing at home and taking the step to the NHL when ready. There are 31 Europeans in the NHL who have played 1,000 or more NHL games and only one of them (Slovakia’s Zdeno Chara) played in the Canadian junior leagues before going to the NHL. And Chara played all in all 49 games in the CHL.
Developing your skill at a NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has never been a route of preference for Europeans and there are many reasons for it. One would be the very strict amateur rules. You don’t make a penny and before you enroll you may not play even one single exhibition game on European professional level without risking forfeiting your college eligibility. Many European talents are tested on their pro teams at 17 or 18.
And there are of course academic requirements. You need to handle the language English very well, you need to pass tests and once school starts you need to commit to studying, passing exams parallel to hockey.
But this is the traditional way for most American players and also quite many Canadians. And the number of players in the National Hockey League who went to college and developed there prior to embarking on a pro career either in North America or Europe is increasing basically every year.
During the 2011-12 season, 30.5 percent of all NHL players came from college. That’s 301 players to be exact and over the last ten years the number of collegians in the NHL has grown by almost 35 percent.
Viktor Stålberg took this route, mainly because he saw this as the best remaining option as his career didn’t go in the direction of a Mats Sundin, a Peter Forsberg or a Henrik Zetterberg.
After finally having an impressive junior season with Frölunda Gothenburg at 19, Viktor Stålberg was drafted by Toronto in spring of 2006 and that autumn he left for the University of Vermont.
After three college years, he signed with the Leafs but after a good rookie season which was split between the NHL and AHL, Stålberg was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Last season, his second in Chicago, the winger had a career-high 22 goals and 21 assists in 79 games and was selected to the Swedish national team for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Sweden and Finland.
A national team rookie at 25, Stålberg had three goals and one assist in eight championship games. IIHF.com caught with Viktor in his home town Gothenburg where he played for Frölunda during the NHL-lockout (before signing with KHL Atlant Mytishi in mid-November).
The number of former college players in the NHL and also in Europe is pretty impressive. Do you feel that college hockey isn’t given enough credit for developing so many good players?
Yes, maybe by the average hockey fan, but not by those inside the hockey community. Most of them know that this is a good development path. For Canadians, junior hockey will always be the main road to a pro career, but in Europe very few know about the opportunities presented by college hockey.
Maybe it’s because many of the best players in the NHL either come from Canadian junior or from the European system, while many players who came out of college play lesser roles on their pro teams.
Well, how about this: Four out of six players on the Olympic All-Star Team in Vancouver 2010 were former collegians (Ryan Miller, Brian Rafalski, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, editor’s note). That’s the best of the best.
Yes, (laugh), maybe even me who played college probably underestimate the quality of development you get in college. Toews and Parise are two of the hottest players in the NHL today. Another teammate of mine in Chicago, Patrick Sharp, a very good scorer, also played at University of Vermont. For me, college was the perfect way to go.
Why was college hockey the best fit for you?
College is the only place where you can combine high-quality hockey training and world class academic education and where the system allows you to devote time to both. There are no such opportunities in Europe, at least. And this is what I realized I wanted to do when I was 18-19.
Give us an idea how you found out about NCAA, which for many European juniors very seldom is an option.
Long story, I try to give the short version. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t develop as fast as many of my teammates and I was pretty small. I was never a star on the under-16 or under-18 level and was never invited to any junior national team camps. At 18, I was not welcome at Frölunda anymore and I wasn’t accepted at their high-school hockey program. So I had to go to another, smaller club in the Gothenburg area.
During this period some of my teammates went to the U.S. to play division III college hockey where you maybe can get a part of your education paid with a scholarship. So I had pretty much made up my mind that I would also like to try that as my career wasn’t really going anywhere. But when I was 19, I grew and improved and was invited back to Frölunda and I had a great season with their under-20 team. I even got to practise with their pro team and was invited to the junior national team.
(The athletic programs of division III colleges are of considerably lower quality than division I, as by NCAA regulations they “shall not award financial aid to any student on the basis of athletic leadership, ability, participation or performance”. Editor’s note)
So how did you find your way to the University of Vermont, one of the best division I programs, after you had made up your mind to enroll at division III?
During this 2005-06 break-out season (53 points in 41 junior games) I started to get offers from top colleges and Vermont flew me over to see their facilities and to talk about my plans. I liked what I saw and around Christmas that season had made up my mind to go to Vermont. When scouts got to know that I had decided to play college, I got calls from other division I colleges, but for me Vermont was the only real option.
Things went so well at Frölunda that they wanted me to play games with the pro team, but I declined because I didn’t want to lose my college eligibility. If I had played one game with Frölunda’s pro team I would have lost NCAA eligibility.
Going to college in the U.S. is not something you just do. You must be academically inclined, I guess.
I was good in school and I was always serious about so I knew I had the ability to cope with the academic part of going to college. But yes, you need to cope with the language and you need to pass your tests. To be fully honest, if you are good in sports it helps you to get in, but you still need to show that you take school seriously. Language was a challenge in the beginning, but Swedes in general are pretty good in English.
What is the best thing about playing college hockey?
Not many players make it all the way to pro, but those who don’t get an education and a diploma which can secure your future and this combination is probably the overall best thing about playing college hockey. It gives the best of both worlds.
If you have a full scholarship, your education, food and housing is being taken care of. One year’s tuition at a school like Vermont costs $40,000. I took business administration, finance. I managed to balance hockey and school pretty well. I passed my exams.
What about the hockey part?
You practise a lot, both on and off the ice. One and a half hour’s ice practice is followed by one hour in the weight room, three times week. You work on your fundamentals and your strength. You play games Friday and Saturday. The quality of hockey is good. The road trips are not too long, so you don’t spend so much time on buses. And all the facilities are top class.
What is the biggest difference comparing to Sweden?
Probably the more competitive mentality, especially from the coaching staff. In Sweden you can sometimes get away with things, and not being criticized. I remember in my first year at Vermont, I made a turn-over and the other team scored the winning goal and the coach gave it to me in front of the whole team.
A full college program is four years. You left after three. Why?
I felt that I had no challenges left on that level and I would not develop had I stayed there. I felt I was ready for the next step.
What are your thoughts about one day finishing the last year to get that diploma?
I keep that door open. I feel it’s not something I must do. I still think I would be able to get a decent job after hockey without that diploma. I thought that I would be able to set aside time to this during the summers in Sweden, but it’s not easy when you get used to doing certain things during off season. Let’s see how it works out. It would have been nice to have that diploma, but there is no pressure.
How did you adapt to the NHL coming straight out of college?
Not many players manage to take that step immediately. For me it was almost too good to be true. Here I am, a rookie from Vermont, being introduced prior to Toronto’s home opener at the Air Canada Centre against Montreal. But it was still a big step. Players are stronger, faster and you play so many more games in the NHL. That was maybe the biggest adjustment from college, playing all those games.
At 25, you played your first games for the Swedish national team at the IIHF World Championship on home ice in Stockholm. How was that?
Very special. For most players the World Championship is a stepping stone to the NHL. For me it was the other way around. I am happy how I performed, despite that I hadn’t played on a big rink for 6-7 years. But obviously things could have gone better for our team. Losing in the quarterfinal was not what we wanted.
One and a half year left to the Sochi Olympics.
The Olympics is probably the biggest thing you can take part in as an athlete, so it would be a dream to be selected. At the same time Sweden produces so many good players right now, the pool is so deep and the competition for the spots will be fierce. There is nothing more I can do than playing as well as I can to make the team.
Footnote: Viktor’s four year younger brother, Sebastian, also played three years at the University of Vermont (2009-2012) before signing as free-agent with the San Jose Sharks in March 2012.
Part 1: College hockey – the secret’s out
Part 2: Sweden’s Viktor Stålberg: “College was my only real option”
Part 3: Coach Peter Elander: “It’s the NHL of women’s hockey”