Pettersson ready for next step
by Lucas Aykroyd|05 MAY 2018
Sweden's Elias Pettersson played nearly 16 minutes in his IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship debut versus Belarus.
“He’s a great guy on and off the ice” is one of the classic hockey player cliches about a good teammate. But in Elias Pettersson’s case, even the media will attest that’s true.

Just look at what the 19-year-old Vaxjo Lakers ace did after making his IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship debut in Sweden’s 5-0 win over Belarus. In international hockey, players troop through a post-game mixed zone to do interviews with TV, radio, print and Internet reporters. If you’re grumpy, in low demand, or in a hurry to get to the showers, it’s easy to blow the press off.

Yet after doing his duty in front of the cameras and a throng of eager Swedish journalists, Pettersson turned when he heard his name called – just as he was about to exit the mixed zone. And despite being named the MVP of both the Swedish Hockey League’s regular season with 56 points and the playoffs with another 19 points (tops both times) en route to the championship, the gifted playmaker graciously answered another 10 questions for the IIHF web site.

Vancouver Canucks fans just lost a pair of humble superstars when Daniel and Henrik Sedin announced their retirements at age 37. But they may be getting another one in Pettersson, and they’re in a frenzy of excitement and speculation about whether he’ll come to North America in the fall. The former Timra player is still a teenager, but he has an easy-going, self-deprecating manner and a low-key sense of humor.

“It went OK,” said Pettersson after debuting on Friday. “I wanted to do so much out there, and I fell on my knees sometimes and lost my balance. But it was fun out there. I’m looking forward to the next game.”
Coach Rikard Gronborg put him on the second power play unit, and he played 15:23 against Belarus (5:03 in the first period, 2:47 in the second, and 7:33 in the third). Starting the game on a line with Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames) and Gustav Nyqvist (Detroit Red Wings), he didn’t look out of place with those veterans – especially when he controlled the puck in his favorite spot on the half-wall. (Much like a certain Henrik Sedin.)

Pettersson also looked sharp making a drop pass on the rush to Adam Larsson, who put it off Belarus goalie Ivan Kulbakov’s head in a little reverse tribute to Tommy Salo’s woes at the 2002 Olympics.

Some wondered what kind of minutes Pettersson would get with the defending World Champions after his silver-medal World Junior teammate Rasmus Dahlin barely played at the Olympics. There, Sweden lost its quarter-final to eventual silver-medalists Germany.

However, Pettersson said the coaching staff’s message to him was straightforward: “Just go out there and have fun, play your game. You play with two skilled players. Do what you have done all year and have fun.”

The skinny whiz kid, who beat Kent Nilsson’s 1976 record for the most Swedish league points by a junior player, got positive reviews from his teammates.

“I thought he played great,” said Nyqvist. “We had a couple of good shifts where we created some chaos in there. Because of the penalty kill – we took a lot of penalties there – our line got sat there for a little bit. That’s what happens sometimes during games.”

“I think he’s really strong on the puck and doing a good job without the puck as well,” said high-scoring defenceman John Klingberg (Dallas Stars). “I think he’s also kind of feeling it out and trying to get to know guys. I expect he’ll be even better.”

Before the opener, Pettersson engaged in a friendly competition with Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers) to see if he could fire the puck harder than the 25-year-old who gained immortality at the 2013 World Juniors in Calgary with the overtime winner in the gold medal game against Russia.

Zibanejad won with 159 kilometres per hour, but it was close. Pettersson’s best was 157.

“It was after practice and we set up the [radar gun],” said Pettersson. “We started and we just kept going. Neither of us wanted to lose. We pushed each other to shoot harder and Zibanejad came out on top.”

“He’s really talented,” Zibanejad said. “You see the intentions he has and what he does with the puck and without the puck. I’m super-excited to see how he’ll transform and develop throughout the tournament, but also career-wise. He’s a really, really good player, and it’s fun to play on the same team and see him up close.”

Pettersson responded well when Belarus tried to key on him physically. He was rubbed out by Alexander Kitarov – a 30-year-old assistant captain who stands 190 cm and 96 kg – during an early shift in the Belarusian zone. Later in the first period, Kitarov tried to plaster Pettersson again in the same spot, and the young Swede put the puck through his legs and danced around him.

“That’s just part of the game,” Pettersson said. “I didn’t feel targeted today. But I’m used to it. It’s no problem.”

The Sundsvall-born forward said his parents were on hand to cheer him on, but he hasn’t been in touch with the Canucks at this tournament yet, although “probably” he will be. 

Asked if he’d spoken with Dahlin since the Buffalo Sabres won the number one overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft lottery and secured the right to draft the phenom who’s being compared to Erik Karlsson and Nicklas Lidstrom, Pettersson responded: “No, I have not. His phone probably has people calling all the time!”

And what about Sweden’s next game against the Czechs?

“I think it will be a harder game for us,” Pettersson said. “I don’t know. I have to think about that game. I think we’ll need to make quicker decisions with the puck and show more speed through the neutral zone. Hopefully we’ll come out with the win.”

Tre Kronor and Vancouver fans are also hoping he makes more headlines here in Copenhagen.