Typically when European hockey players make the leap to North America the first obstacle that comes to mind is adapting to a new style of play. There is an adjustment period, sure. The rinks are smaller which amplifies the pace of everything taking place on the ice. In places such as Sweden, Finland, or Russia the rinks can be that slight bit longer and wider which provides more freedom to skate and and stickhandle. Some make the adjustment quick. Some struggle. And some end up making the leap straight back to European ice.
This season the Milwaukee Admirals had four players making their North American debuts: Pontus Åberg, Johan Alm, Viktor Arvidsson, and Kevin Fiala. They were surrounded by players such as Magnus Hellberg, Miikka Salomäki, and Marek Mazanec who have worked through the adjustment process with the Admirals previously. Getting used to the game alone is a hefty process with varying individual results. Getting used to life away from the rink is a different process entirely.
Hellberg is the most seasoned European player on the Admirals roster when it comes to life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This past season was his third official campaign in the AHL with the Admirals and he has evolved off the ice as much as he has on it.
In Hellberg’s first season with the Admirals he was roommates with fellow Swede and first timer to North America Patrick Cehlin. Players such as Mattias Ekholm, Taylor Beck, and Michael Latta went out of their way to give Hellberg the help he needed to settle in and feel comfortable in his new surroundings.
“I think everybody has to try to do their part,” said Magnus Hellberg of the adaptation process. “Everybody wants to try to do the same thing. We want to win hockey games and be a good group of guys. It’s your second family and you spend a lot of time together so I think it just comes natural.”
While some forwards can adapt to the North American game quickly depending on their style it’s the goaltenders who face perhaps the biggest learning curve to the smaller ice surface. A player like Salomäki in a smaller rink earned the moniker of a “bull in a china shop” from Admirals head coach Dean Evason last season for how relentless and heavy his game is. A player like Arvidsson, who loves to put pucks to the net, has a shorter distance to go to the net in the AHL than he would in Sweden. Hellberg? Not only did he have to overcome the speed the North American game provides but also the different philosophy that comes with it.
“People go so much harder to the net here,” said Hellberg. “They actually shoot more for rebounds. You have to think where you put the rebounds. You have to fight through a lot more traffic than you have to do at home. Obviously the ice is much bigger home so they have more time and they maybe skate around and hold the puck more but here it’s more like a straight game where people put the puck to the net and just go hard. It took awhile to managed some of the aspects of that.”
If having to adjust your brain to a new level of speed and philosophy of attack isn’t enough to put on one’s plate than adapting to the new surroundings itself can be overwhelming. As loud as his play was on the ice for the Admirals last season Salomäki’s off-ice behavior was anything but as he was shy to the new language.
“It was bad when I came here,” laughed Salomäki of his ability to speak English. “I was so shy. When you come here you need to speak English all the time so that how you learn it. We need to study it back home but it is so different to study it than to speak it. It’s getting better all the time. It’s not perfect yet but it is getting better all the time.”
The lone Finn of the Admirals isn’t alone with that sentiment by any stretch of the imagination.
“I’m better at understanding than talking,” smiled Pontus Åberg. “That’s why I don’t talk as much and the guys think I’m grumpy. I just don’t like to talk I’d rather just listen. It’s just way easier.”
The Swedish contingent of the Admirals appear to have a leg up on most when they make the trek to North America. Players such as Hellberg and Åberg both mentioned how much the English language is a part of Swedish culture and that they begin learning the language at an early age.
“Coming from Sweden the English language is so built into our society,” said Hellberg. “We’re a part of it when we grow up so we don’t really think about it but TV shows, online, you name it. And obviously if you play hockey you always watch the NHL when you were growing up and the commentators maybe spoke English. A lot of hockey talk is in English. All the hockey rules and stuff like that. So I think you just get used to it. You start learning English when you’re probably ten in Sweden. That’s when you start to learn it.”
“Since I was six or seven,” commented Åberg of when he started learning the English language. “We start off in school really early because English is the biggest language to speak. That helps us to come over here as well.”
While this process might be prevalent in Sweden the same can’t be said of all European countries. Mazanec, a second year member of the Admirals and native of the Czech Republic, didn’t start picking up the language anywhere near as early as his fellow battery-mate in goal. At times last season he would decline interviews not out of hostility but out of shyness to the language barrier. As time has rolled along that simply isn’t the case because his ability and comfort level with English has greatly improved.
“I know for [Mazanec], coming from Czech, they don’t have the same system with the English language in Czech,” said Hellberg. “When he first got over his English was not that good but it is understandable because they don’t teach it there. He’s become a lot better if you compare him now to when he first got here. Everyone who comes over here picks it up pretty fast.”
One of the major benefits to the game of hockey is that it is almost a language of itself. The game is played worldwide and much of the dialogue of the game is easily translatable For these European players who have joined the Admirals they’ve all experienced life with foreign players on the teams that they’ve played with beforehand.
“When you’ve got a game-plan it’s not that hard to learn,” said Åberg. “You don’t have to speak their language. The game is the game you don’t have to speak the right language to learn how to play hockey.”
“I had a Canadian coach that coached me in Sweden for two years when I played juniors in Arlanda Wings,” Hellberg reflected. “That helped me a lot too because he only spoke English. So that kind of translated me to get used to the vibe here because I always felt like I was on an American or Canadian team because he was always talking in English with me or swearing in English and doing everything like that.”
When it boils down to the game itself the process is entirely individual. Certain players will adapt to it quicker than others based on their playing style. Physical players will enjoy the smaller confines. Skill players might sink or swim with a faster game and defense on the ice. A good way to put things into perspective is the difference between Åberg and Arvidsson this season. The two possess great skill, both have scored some of the flashiest goals from the Admirals this season, both enjoy passing and setting up their teammates for goals, and the two have worked the wings on the power-play. Åberg’s season concluded with 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists). Arvidsson’s season ended with a team leading 55 points (22 goals, 33 assists). They key to the latter Swede’s success on the season, apart from his obvious talent, was his consistency while battling through the new surroundings of the North American game.
“The game is completely different from back home,” said Viktor Arvidsson. “It’s a much more faster game and it’s a lot more hitting and stuff like that. I want to shoot a lot so it has been fun to play here. It’s a lot of chances. You are close to the net the whole time.”
“I started off good – played a lot then I got a concussion when I had a collision with Viktor Stålberg,” said Åberg. “After that, scratched four or five times. Life wasn’t that easy compared to the start of the season. I’ve been trying to battle through it. It’s hard to sit out and not play because that’s the reason why you’re coming over here. Maybe that made it a little harder to not play every game as I want to – get ice time as I want to. But it is obviously up to me to show that I should get the time on the ice as well.”
The injury bug may have stirred things up for Åberg early in the season but they were even worse for the Swedish defenseman Alm. He suffered an injury to his wrist that sidelined him from early-December to late-February. In total he missed thirty-two games from that injury alone. This meant he was spending more time off the ice than on it.
“Milwaukee is a good town to live in,” said Johan Alm of his time with the Admirals this season. “It’s good hockey over here too. I moved over here to play a little bit different kind of hockey – North American hockey. I think it has been a good year for me and it’s really fun to play here too.”
Away from the rink the Swedes have had plenty of time to bond and get to know one-another that much more. Alm and Arvidsson already knew each other rather well having both grown up Skellefteå. Having the added countryman to the mix only made things that much more like home. The man stepping up to show the newbies the ropes was Hellberg.
“I became a little bit of that leader this year,” smiled Hellberg. “I knew how it felt when I first got over here so I showed them around the city. They didn’t have a car when they moved here. I gave them a tour of the city, different places to live, how things work out here, what’s the rules in the locker room, unwritten rules, so they can ease into it.”
Hellberg, who was looking to live by himself this year in Milwaukee, opted to share an apartment with Åberg instead. Their place has become a place of many FIFA 15 battles this season.
“I can’t lose,” laughed Åberg. “That’s as simple as that. I’m the only one on this team who is in Division I on FIFA online. I never lost a game against Maggie, never lost against Arvi, never lost against Almer, so I guess I’m the best.”
In addition, the comradery has been just about what you would expect out of teammates. Hellberg is the head chef of the apartment while Åberg is the man on clean-up duties.
“I worried about the food before I moved here but the food is almost the same as in Sweden,” said Hellberg. “You have great grocery stores here. I shop at Whole Foods a lot. And I like to cook. I got myself covered on that point. I cook the food and Pontus does this dishes. That’s our rule this year. I like to cook. I do the food. I put food on the table. I joke sometimes and say he’s my son. We get along good.”
“Yeah, you could say that,” laughed Åberg of ‘father’ Hellberg. “He makes me dinner. I’ve been living by myself since I was sixteen but never really cooked before so it was good I had Maggie this year. He helped me with the food this year so, other than that, I’m not his son but food-wise I am.”
When reflecting back on the experience that this season has provided all European players of the Admirals agree that it has been a positive one. Their ultimate goal is to reach the National Hockey League but there are plenty of speed bumps and learning curves on and off the ice that needed to be met this season. The time spent in Milwaukee this year has provided a foundation from which to build on for the years ahead. They know the language. They know the city. And their knowledge of the North American game has been shaped with on-ice experience. For the players making the trip back for the 2015-16 season they will have confidence knowing the road ahead of them. All that will be left for them to do next is their ultimate goal of making it to the NHL.