The Simple Play

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The sun is a lot stronger in Arizona than it is in Sweden. I found that out pretty early into my first season — on Oct. 16, 2010 to be exact.

As a rookie, I was in and out of the lineup all year. That morning, before our game against Detroit, I was told that I’d be a healthy scratch. So after the gameday skate, I went home and did what any Swede would do during a fall heat wave: I went to the pool to soak up some sun.

When you’re Swedish, this can be dangerous.

I was feeling pretty comfortable when my phone rang — it was one of our assistant coaches:

“Hey, Oliver, you’re in the lineup against the Wings tonight. O.K.?”

I played it cool.

“Uhhh … yeah, sounds good.”

As soon as I hung up the phone, I got a little nervous. The Wings? That means Nicklas Lidström, I thought. The guy was my idol growing up, and now, that night, I was going to share the same ice with him.

I got up and went inside to change clothes and call my family to tell them the news. When I saw myself in the mirror, my face was all red.

Ahhhh, seriously?

Rookie mistake.

gettyimages-105620258This was my introduction to the Arizona sun. I was going to have to play the biggest game of my life with a sunburn.

On the drive over to the arena, I was all excited, but I could feel the burn every time my shoulders touched the seat. I remember putting on my shoulder pads in the dressing room, and it hurt so bad.

This would never happen in Sweden, I thought.

Warmup was awesome. We were out on the ice first, and I remember there were so many Wings fans down by where Detroit would be coming out. When Lidstrom skated out, I could tell by the sound, I didn’t even need to look. I did anyway. There he was, number 5, just like I imagined.

I went up against him a few times that night, and I remember how good he was with his stick. That’s one of the most underrated talents of elite defensemen — the stick-on-stick work. He was the best at it. Every time I tried to receive a pass near him, or get by him, his blade would be on my blade, blocking any move.

Nick wasn’t particularly fast and he didn’t hit that hard, but he was always in the right place — always. It’s hard to notice when you watch from the stands, or on TV, but ask any player who went up against him, and that’s what you’ll hear.

He assisted on the game-winner in overtime that night, and that play showed off perhaps the strongest part of his game: making the simple play.

Watch how he fakes a shot from just inside the blue line. Instead of firing into two defenders, he passes the puck down low, into the left corner. What he does next is why his teammates love him. See how he drives into the empty space in the slot, tying up the point-defender’s stick so he can’t disrupt the pass that comes back out to Niklas Kronwall, who has replaced Nick up high, and who now has a shooting lane for his game-winner. That’s incredible vision and know-how. Nick did that his entire career. He only got one point for that play, but it should have been worth three. He was the catalyst behind that whole movement.

After the game, I walked by him outside the dressing rooms. I wanted to say something more, but all I could muster was, “Hey.”

He just nodded and walked on. Damn, he’s so cool.

It was surreal to see him in person, and it took me back to my days as a kid in Sweden, watching VCR tapes of Wings games after school.

The Detroit teams of that era had several Swedes — Nick, Nicklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmström and Henrik Zetterberg. Because of the Swedish connection, we actually got a lot of Wings games on TV in Sweden, but when I was in middle school they were on too late for me to stay up. My mom would have to set up the VCR to record overnight, and I would run home after school to watch the tape.

I’d sit in front of our TV and try to memorize every move Nick made. Later that night at hockey practice I would try to mimic him — it was harder than it looked.

o-e-l

The thing was, I played center for a while when I was younger. My dad coached my team at the time, and he told me that he wanted me to see the ice from a different perspective. When I eventually moved up to play with the older guys and  went back to being a defenseman, I realized how much my time as a forward had helped my vision.

I saw the ice as a forward, and could anticipate where and when our attackers wanted to receive passes. I knew how to help them, because I remembered how I had felt when I was a center.

But I always knew I’d end up as a defenseman, because it runs in my family. My grandfather played D as well, and he represented Sweden at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

My mom and her sister played first-division soccer in Sweden. Sports are in my blood. Defense is in my mind.

Watching Nick just made me want to be a defenseman even more. I think it had that effect on a bunch of Swedish kids. I mean, look at some of the top D-men in the NHL right now:

Karlsson.

Hedman.

Strålman.

Klingberg.

I could go on. Those are some really, really good players. I bet if you asked them who their hero was growing up, Nick would top nearly every one of their lists.

He wasn’t a star in the way that Crosby and Ovechkin are — he was a Swedish star. Quiet, patient, slick. It’s not to say that Sid and Ovie are all flash, but Nick’s play didn’t always make the highlights like theirs do.

So when I arrived in Arizona in 2010, I told the Coyotes’ coaching staff that I wanted to model my game after Lidstrom’s, and they immediately went and got me some tape on him. Thankfully it was digital, I didn’t have to rewind this time. But otherwise it was the same as always — I tried to memorize his every move and then do it at practice.

I tried to angle my skates when I pinned guys to the boards the same way he did. I tried to stick-lift the same way he did. I tried to look for the simple play, the same as him – which may sound easy, but may have been the most difficult thing of all.

It helped me a lot in my rookie season, and it earned me a spot in the SuperSkills competition at the 2011 All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C.

 I bet if you asked them who their hero was growing up, Nick would top nearly every one of their lists.

I remember walking into the Team Lidstrom locker room — because of course he was a captain that year — and seeing the names on the lockers: N. LIDSTRÖM, H. SEDIN … O. EKMAN-LARSSON. That was pretty cool, and even for a quiet guy like me it was hard not to be excited.

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I watched Nick put on his equipment, piece by piece, I was kind of like a stalker, but less creepy. He’d pick his head up and I’d look the other way, like I hadn’t been staring at him the whole time. We chatted a little bit. I wish I could remember what we talked about — it’s all kind of a blur. I’m sure I seemed like a little kid.

He was cool, down to earth. He definitely didn’t try to big-league me or anything. I could tell from the few hours I spent around him that he was the ultimate professional and leader. Detroit was very lucky to have him all those years.

If I become half the player and leader that he was, I will call my career a success.

Mike went as an “OEL” Tinder profile, and Brigitte went as a Mikkel Boedker profile.

In Phoenix, I’ve got some good leaders around me to keep me pointed in the right direction, starting with Shane Doan — or “Doaner” as he’s known in the desert.

He’s a great captain, one of the best ever in the NHL, and he’s the perfect influence on the young team we have right now. What a lot of people might overlook is that being a captain isn’t just about being loud or being the best player on the ice, it’s about bringing your team together. It’s about making everyone feel important, and Doaner is incredible at that.

It’s the things people might not notice that help a team bond. Last year, Doaner hosted a Halloween party, and it was great for everybody. We got to see how much his family and friends love him, and that he’s the same guy in our room as he is at home. Doaner was a great host that night.

Also, we had some fun.

Since you’re probably wondering, the best costume of the night went to Mike Smith and his wife, Brigitte.

Have you heard of this app, Tinder?

Mike went as an “OEL” Tinder profile, and Brigitte went as a Mikkel Boedker profile. It was amazing. I’m not sure if they recorded how many right-swipes they got, but I’m pretty sure my page would have won.

Between Doaner and some of the other veterans on the team, our young guys have strong leaders to look up to. This is my seventh season in the NHL, and it’s time for me to take on a greater leadership role. We’ve got an incredible group of young talent in our organization, and they’re all buying into the system. From Jakob Chychrun, who has looked ready for the NHL since the day he walked into camp in September, to Max Domi, our energizer bunny, we feel very good about the future.

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I remember how exciting our run to the Western Conference finals was in 2012. We’re working to get back there. I want to win a Stanley Cup — that’s the reason I play the game.

We’ll get there, Arizona. It’s just going to take a little time.

My parents want us to win too, because they still stay up late to watch every game. I mean every game — they haven’t missed a single one. Even if it’s on at four in the morning, they watch and then head off to work.

I can always expect a text from my mom, too. Usually it’s the same thing:

“Great game honey! You played so well!”

It doesn’t matter if I had been a –5 out there.  

It’s always the same text.

“You played so well!”

Sometimes I wonder if Nick’s mom used to call him after games, too. I wonder how he would reply to a text like that.

Probably just.…

“Thanks, mom.”

The simple play.

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