Nygard aims for the top
by Henrik Manninen|11 DEC 2022
Having already played for Norway´s men´s national team, recently turned 17-year-old Michael Nygard now hopes to fire Norway´s U20 back among the top ten nations at the World Juniors.
photo: Norwegian Ice Hockey Association / Megapiksel
Norway most recently competed at the top-level World Juniors in 2014. Top-ranked and backed by its home fans, they now target gold at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A. Expecting to be playing a key role in gunning Norway back among the top ten junior nations will be 17-year-old forward Michael Nygard.

“Playing at home will be fun and we are going for it. I believe our chances are good to get promoted to the top division. We have a very young team where many of us have been part of the national team that won promotion to the top division with the U18s last season,” said Nygard.

Such a precocious talent is Nygard that his U20 World Championship debut will arrive after representing Norway’s men’s national team. Just over a month after turning 17, a belated birthday present arrived as Nygard made his senior debut for Norway. Unfazed by the big occasion Nygard slotted into the second line during his first start against Latvia on 10 November. Two days later, Nygard was selected as Norway’s best player in a 4-0 win against Denmark.

“I wasn’t expecting to play for our men’s national team quite so soon, but I have worked hard for it and it was fun. I got into a lot of scoring positions so I thought I did play well,” said Nygard.

A product of the Norwegian traditional powerhouse Valerenga Oslo, the Oslo-born teenager was more or less brought up inside the Norwegian capital’s hockey temple, Jordal Amfi. Nygard’s father, Kjell Richard, enjoyed a long playing career for Valerenga and skated in seven World Championships for Norway and credits his father for the strong support throughout his development.

“My dad taught me how to skate and was the coach of my teams until U12. He has always been supportive and very important in my career and is my role model. But there are others too that I look up to such as Alex Ovechkin,” he said.

A right-shooting forward with an eye for a goal, Nygard made his debut for Valeranga’s senior team in Norway’s top senior league last season aged 16. But instead of staying put at a club, he knew in and out, Nygard decided to leap east. Penning a deal with Mora in Sweden, he explains his decision as being a natural next step in his ascent upwards.

“I moved to Mora this August as I thought that it would be better for my development to play another year as a junior in Sweden than in the top men’s division in Norway. It’s been an exciting few months in Sweden. To move to a new place and live by yourself, play in a new team against new opponents. This is the first time I play for another club,” he said.

A four-hour drive from Oslo, small-town Mora has of late turned into a stronghold for Norwegian hockey talent. Having featured two Norwegians last season, Mora’s U20 team has since increased its tally to five for the 2022/23 season. Instrumental in the recruitment drive has been Mora U20 head coach Daniel Hermansson, a former SHL forward who also skated in Norway during his active career.

Halfway into Nygard’s debut season in Swedish hockey, Hermansson has been mightily impressed by the Norwegian prospect’s overall attitude and hunger.

“He trains well and wants to play and compete all the time. After getting accustomed to our style of play he has been involved in a lot of games. He has played a lot for Mora’s men’s team in Allsvenskan (Sweden’s second level), a few U18 games, and all the games of the U20,” said Hermansson as he outlines some of Nygard’s skills that set him apart from his peers.

“Apart from being very competitive, he has the ability to beat his man one-on-one in a way most players are unable to. He is good with taking the puck from the boards and getting into the thick of things. He wins battles in a way that most players don’t. He constantly wants to improve and pushes himself each day in an exemplary fashion and these qualities will take him far.”

Just how far remains to be seen. But speaking to Hermansson it becomes clear that Nygard is far from being just another run-of-the-mill forward prospect. “He possesses such qualities that if he continues his development and can stay injury free, he could play in the NHL in three years,” predicted Hermansson.

Nygard himself shrugs at the suggestion while keeping his feet firmly on the ground: “I know I need to improve everything in my game. Become quicker, stronger and keep working hard. But it is a dream to play in the NHL and if would be nice to get a chance there,” said Nygard.

The 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A is played in Varner Arena in Asker outside of Stockholm between from 11 to 17 December. Norway’s challengers in the round-robin tournament played are Denmark, France, Hungary, Kazakhstan and Slovenia. The winner moves up to play at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden.