For years, the face of ice hockey in the northern European nation of Sweden has been Ottawa Senators’ captain Daniel Alfredsson. He and recently retired defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom have been at the forefront of the efforts to develop the sport in Sweden since their arrival in the NHL in the early 1990′s. Alfredsson’s ten points in eight games at the 2006 games would lead Sweden to their second gold medal in Olympic Ice Hockey history. During his time in Ottawa, Alfredsson has surpassed the 1,000-mark in both points and games played, while setting a franchise record for most playoff game appearances (111). As you can imagine, being able to play with and learn from a player like Alfredsson, who has been such a national icon for the sport of hockey, would have been the dream of any young man in Sweden. This was no different in the case of Landsbro-native Erik Karlsson.
“Obviously he’s the main character in our country for this sport. He’s someone that I’ve been watching for a long time before I came here. To be able to do these things with him is very special.” – Erik Karlsson
Growing up in a a small town Swedish suburb, Erik Karlsson was born to be a hockey player. Bursting onto the scene in March of 2008 with Frolunda HC of the Elitserien League, the six-foot defenseman made an immediate impact for his team, scoring an overtime game-winner in his debut. Karlsson would go on to have one of the best seasons of any Elitserien League rookie in recent memory, leading his team to an Anton Cup championship.
Karlsson would play out the final year of his Swedish Elite League contract in the 2008-2009 season before jumping ship to come to North America in the fall of 2009. After making just twelve appearances with the Sens’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton, it was clear that Karlsson deserved a spot on the big club sooner rather than later.
Once called up to the NHL squad, Karlsson’s development would continue on the upswing, posting a 26-point (5G/21A) rookie season (60 GP) and a 45-point (13G/32A) sophomore campaign (75 GP). It wasn’t until 2011-’12 — his third season in the NHL — that the Landsbro, Sweden native would truly emerge as an ice hockey superstar in Canada’s capital city.
Scoring seventy-eight points (19G/59A) in eighty-one games this season, the twenty-two year-old blueliner has shown exactly why Senators’ general manager Bryan Murray traded up in the 2008 Draft (from 18th to 15th) to ensure he’d be able to bring Karlsson to Ottawa. Emerging as the NHL’s only point-per-game rearguard, Karlsson held a staggering 25-point lead over second place Brian Campbell (Florida Panthers) and Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg Jets) in the race for the league’s scoring crown, amongst defensemen. The six-foot, 180-pounder attributes his rise to NHL super-stardom to both the overall success of his team and his own hard work and training over the off-season.
“It’s a lot of things. The team is playing well for one thing and experience is another key factor. I’ve been working hard over the summer with my personal coach back home and he’s been doing a great job making sure I’m ready for a full season and teaching me how I can be prepared for every game and keep my body in shape.”
Skating alongside eighteen-year veteran Sergei Gonchar, Karlsson was blessed with yet another opportunity to learn from a player who has just about seen everything the NHL can throw at him. In a sense, Gonchar is the perfect role model for his younger defense partner. In his prime, Gonchar was one of the game’s most prolific offensive defenseman; something he’s helped mold Karlsson into during his time spent with Ottawa. The Sens’ twenty-two year old phenom was was quick to attribute much of his recent success to the teachings of his older, more experienced defense partner.
“I mean, he’s been a great player in this league for a very long time. He’s been a huge impact on my game ever since he came here. It’s hard to single out one or two things (that he does well) but it’s just the way he is around the rink and in the locker room and the way he plays the game and sees it on the ice.” — Erik Karlsson
Karlsson’s efforts most certainly did not go unnoticed this season as he was selected as a starter in his first career all-star game this January. Making it even more memorable for Karlsson was the fact that this year’s contest would be played in his own backyard, at Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place. He and four Senators teammates (Daniel Alfredsson, Colin Greening, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek) were selected to take part in the annual mid-season showcase of the NHL’s top talents. Being selected to represent your team the all-star game will always be a moment that a player will never forget, but to do so alongside four of your teammates and in front of your home fans is truly something special.
“Obviously it’s a great thing to be a part of and something that you remember for a very long time. And to be able to do it at home and with a lot of guys from our team is something special and definitely something that will stick to our memory.” – Erik Karlsson
To cap off Karlsson’s dream season, he was given one of the highest honors an NHL defenseman can receive, being nominated alongside perennial all-stars Zdeno Chara (Boston Bruins) and Shea Weber (Nashville Predators) for the James Norris Memorial Trophy. The award is given each year to the National Hockey League’s top “defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.”
In all likelihood, Karlsson won’t be bringing home the hardware from this year’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. If that is the case, it will be mostly irrelevant to the fans of the Ottawa Senators, because in the end, they know what they have; a legitimate NHL superstar and franchise cornerstone to man the blueline in Canada’s capital city for the next decade-plus.
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About the Author: Boston Bruins writer for Hockey Independent. Have written for The Hockey Guys and SB Nation Boston. Follow me on Twitter @_BWoodward or shoot me an email at BWoodward.HI@gmail.com.