Magnus Hellberg: From Sweden With Love

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

The 2011 NHL Draft was held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. At the time it wasn’t certain whether or not Magnus Hellberg would be in attendance for the draft or not. He was two-years older than most goaltenders of his draft class and was under the assumption that he would be a late-round pick – at best.

Only four days prior to the day of the draft Hellberg made a phone call to his agent to get him to Minnesota so that he could enjoy the experience of being there. No expectations. No idea which teams could be looking to add him. No clue where he would be selected.

In the 2nd Round, with the 38th Overall Selection, the Nashville Predators made Hellberg the first goaltender that was selected in the 2011 NHL Draft. To think that this moment almost didn’t happen. Only seven years prior he nearly stopped playing the game that he loved.

Hellberg was nearing his admittance to Gymnasieskola – the American equivalent of the final three years of high school in Sweden. Yet, he wasn’t able to get into his school of choice in his native Uppsala, Sweden. This meant the hockey program of choice, where his friends were getting set to join, was no longer an option for him. Instead, he would join the rival club Wings HC Arlanda in nearby Märsta, Sweden – twenty minutes from his hometown. He was disconnected from his friends and found himself in a new environment where he knew no one.

“For a couple of days there I wasn’t happy,” said Magnus Hellberg. “I thought about quitting hockey. But, at the same time, I thought why should they tell me that I can’t do whatever I love to do?”

Hellberg pushed through those tough times with Wings HC for two-years as a part of their junior academy. It wouldn’t be until the 2009-10 season that the real eye-opener would take place for him when he was called up to Almtuna’s senior team in the second tier of Swedish hockey, the Allsvenskan.

“One of the senior guys on the team got traded,” said Hellberg. “They brought me up to back-up in the playoffs. And I think that was huge for me because I got one and a half months of practicing with the senior guys. So I got a feeling of how senior hockey at the end of that year.”

(Photo Credit: Thomas Wallberg)
(Photo Credit: Thomas Wallberg)

The next season Almtuna signed Hellberg to a one-year contract. The dollar amount of the deal wasn’t even up to snuff with what he was making whilst in school with Wings HC. While the money may have meant taking up extra work with a construction company. What really factored in huge was the senior team playing experience that season. In 2010-11, he played for 31 league games and responded to the challenge by leading all juniors and ranking second among all Allvenskan netminders with a 2.04 goals against average and a 0.936 save percentage. It might not have been the richest of contracts for him. But that season with Almtuna is precisely what put Magnus Hellberg on NHL team radars ahead of the 2011 NHL Draft.

After his selection by the Nashville Predators Hellberg signed with Frölunda HC in the top tier of Swedish hockey. He played 17 games for the team with a 2.48 goals against average and a 0.908 save percentage.

(Photo Credit: Carl Sandin)
(Photo Credit: Carl Sandin)

He also had a brief stint in Frölunda’s Junior-20 squad and went out on loan to Örebro of the Allsvenskan. It would be his last season of playing hockey in his native Sweden. On 18 June, 2012, Hellberg signed an entry level contract with the Predators. He would report to the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL for his first taste of North American hockey to start his 2012-13 season.

“It was a transition for sure,” said Hellberg of his move to North America. “Different game of hockey, different living here, but I think I got into it after a couple of months.”

His first career start with the Admirals came on the road against the Houston Aeros on 21 October, 2012. It wasn’t the most dazzling of debuts. He allowed 2 goals in the game’s opening 3 minutes of play.

“We struggled to not pull him in the first game that he played, said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason. “I think a lot of people were surprised we didn’t pull him in that first game.”

While Hellberg might have won the first four decisions that he factored into. It wasn’t an easy start to his North American rookie campaign. He then went on a losing skid of six-games from December to January. From that point forward. He was just about unstoppable.

February 2012… Hellberg won 6 games from 8 appearances with a 1.36 goals against average, 0.950 save percentage, and 2 shutouts. March 2012… 5 wins from 9 appearances, 1.96 goals against, 0.921 save percentage, 1 shutout. April 2012… 7 wins from 10 appearances, 1.81 goals against average, 0.937 save percentage, and 3 shutouts.

(Photo Credit: Scott Paulus)

What trumped the AHL weekly and monthly awards he garnered during that span was what he was accomplishing for the Admirals in the playoff race. From the moment he got hot in Februrary the team got on Hellberg’s back and he carried them to the eighth and final playoff spot. One better, the Admirals clinched that final playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. The Admirals were at the tail end of three games in three days to end the 2012-13 season. Hellberg started each of those three games and recorded back-to-back shutouts on the road in the final two-legs to put the Admirals in the Calder Cup Playoffs for their eleventh-consecutive appearance.

Despite the fact the Admirals were eliminated by the Texas Stars, in an opening round 1 vs. 8 seed match-up, all the momentum in the world was behind Hellberg heading into his second professional playing season in North America. Yet, his sophomore stint would become one he’d like to forget.

In Nashville’s pre-season rookie development camp in 2013 Hellberg would suffer a lower-body injury. It took him out of the camp right as it started and set him on a rocky path to start his 2013-14 season. One that he never really was able to recover from.

By the end of the 2013 calendar, Hellberg had a record of 4-8-4-1 from 17 appearances with a 2.78 goals against average, 0.915 save percentage, and 1 shutout. The wins just weren’t coming.

Despite this poor start to the season. There was faint moment to view life at the National Hockey League level. The goaltending role in Nashville became open season for all netminders in the system with the news regarding Pekka Rinne‘s setback from off-season hip surgery. And, on 24 October, 2013, Hellberg received his first career NHL call up.

(Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey)
(Photo Credit: Mark Humphrey)

His NHL call up may not have lasted all that long, just over one week, but he made his debut with a cameo appearance in relief of Carter Hutton in a 6-1 home defeat to the St. Louis Blues. Hellberg played in 12:12 of ice time and allowed 1 power-play goal from 4 shots.

Shortly after his brief stay with Nashville he traded places with his Milwaukee Admiral battery-mate Marek Mazanec. Hellberg’s difficulties to earn wins continued and he would eventually lose time in net due to the success of Scott Darling. As this was taking place, Mazanec would be thriving at the NHL level by taking home the NHL’s Rookie of the Month Award for his efforts in November 2013.

After a lower-body injury in practice sidelined Darling – it appeared as though Hellberg was setting himself up for a rebound to his season. The Admirals were gearing up for seven games in nine days starting with a road game against the San Antonio Rampage on 16 January, 2014. In that very game, late in overtime, Hellberg would suffer a high ankle sprain that would keep him out of action until 21 March, 2014 with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. He would not play another game with the Admirals in the AHL for the rest of the 2013-14 season.

“Last year is something I don’t really want to talk about,” laughed Hellberg. “I try to forget it but, obviously, it’s when you have adversity when you learn. You learn from your mistakes. You get stronger as a person and that shows your true character.”

If the start to his current 2014-15 season is anything to go by – Hellberg certainly learned plenty from last year. He started the season off as the back-up to Mazanec and was given limited opportunities in the first hand-full of games. That was before he gave the coaching staff no choice but to roll with the hot hand because Hellberg won each of his first six-starts of the season. Despite his perfect start coming to an end in overtime against the Iowa Wild on 23 October, 2014, he still tops the entire AHL in goals against average (0.96) and save percentage (0.961).

“I think his game has improved from last year,” said teammate and fellow goaltender Marek Mazanec. “He really worked hard in the summer. He went to Finland for some goalie camps. And I can see his vision is better. He can track the puck better and his hands are faster. He did a good job.”

While last season may have put some doubt in the minds of people when it comes to Hellberg as to his performance on the ice. One thing that never gets questioned is his personality off it. His relationship with his goaltending partner serves as a perfect example.

“He’s a good guy,” said Mazanec. “I think he’s one of the best goalie partners I can have.”

Mazanec was entering his first full-season of professional hockey in North America last season and had several adjustments he needed to make on and, most importantly, off the ice. His roommate would be the man he fought for ice time with between the pipes, Hellberg. When it came to the language barrier for Mazanec – Hellberg would help. When it came to transportation – Hellberg would help.

His caring nature off the ice an extension of his loving family back home in Sweden. The Hellberg family is a tight-knit group who had to stick together during a nearly tragic summer. Hellberg’s grandfather was in a serious car accident that left him in a respirator for two-weeks and cost him one of his legs. Twice, he nearly passed.

“It was a lot of visits to the hospital,” said Hellberg. “It’s obviously just something you usually read in the newspapers but you don’t think it’s going to happen to one you love. It was tough to see him lying there in the hospital bed all messed up.”

Hellberg’s word to describe his grandfather best: Warrior. His grandfather didn’t complain once. The medical staff expected him to take two-weeks before he could walk properly again with his prosthetic leg. The next day he walked fifty meters. The next day, one-hundred meters. The day after, one-hundred and fifty meters. As a tribute to his grandpa’s continual fight – Hellberg had airbrushing maestro David Gunnarsson of DaveArt add a motif of him on his latest Milwaukee Admirals goaltending mask so that he could be with him on the ice each and every game.

This same caring attitude can be seen by the way Hellberg interacts with the fans. Very recently, the Milwaukee Admirals held their annual “Camera Night” in which all players would come out to the ice and take pictures with fans after the game. It took a few people to finally get him to give into the time constraints of the affair before heading back to the Admirals locker room.

“I felt really bad,” said Hellberg. “I wanted to try to get a photo with every fan that was standing there and waited after the game. Our staff pulled me away. Which I didn’t really want but, at the same time, I try to make everybody happy but it’s pretty hard sometimes. I’m going to try to make up for it. It’s a long season.”

(Photo Credit: @Mulle45 // Twitter)
(Photo Credit: @Mulle45 // Twitter)

His connection with the fans also recently came to attention when Hellberg’s game-worn camouflage specialty jersey – for the Admirals “Military Appreciation Night” – sold for upwards of $7000 during the fan participated jersey auction. The winning bid was placed during the second intermission of a game that would go onto be Hellberg’s eighth career AHL shutout with the Admirals.

“I don’t know what to say,” smiled Hellberg when asked about the fans of Milwaukee. “It’s pretty awesome. I always try to interact with fans. I know how important they are. I mean without the fans there is not the game of hockey. Fans are the people who make this sport run. It’s just awesome to have them every game here. I try to interact with them and feel that they are important because they are.”

Like any player at this level of hockey – the end goal for Hellberg is to achieve long term success at the NHL level. His cameo appearance was over a year ago. And the drive to return and stay in an NHL lineup is certainly on the long-term agenda for him. Yet, last season taught him of the importance of staying grounded and managing expectations.

“I just try to take things one game at a time,” said Hellberg. “I think that’s one of my main things this season to try to stay in the present and focus on one game at a time. If you play good that stuff will come along either way. It doesn’t help if you try to think of it too much. So I think I just have a more relaxed mindset this year. I try to take one day at a time. It might be a cliche but it’s true.”

Magnus Hellberg Feature Interview:

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