Dear eight-year-old Henrik,
Tomorrow, the direction of your life is going to change.
For the past two years, you have loved to ice skate. First, you skated on the little sand pit that your Kindergarten teachers froze over in the winter. Then, once you got really brave, you skated on the frozen ponds of Åre, the tiny skiing village where you live. Well, it’s not tiny to you now, but just wait, because life is going to take you to some very interesting places, and that journey starts tomorrow.
Tomorrow, you’ll get to play organized hockey for the first time at a real rink. You and your twin brother, Joel, won’t be able to contain your excitement. Your poor mom … settle down, please.
When you get out on the ice tomorrow with the 15 other players, you’ll see this one kid all decked out in his goalie equipment, and he will look so awesome. The old-school brown leather pads, the big glove, the waffle paddle, the cool mask. Something about the gear is fascinating to you. You’ll look at the kid’s pads in awe.
In 1989 in rural Sweden, this kid is the coolest person you have ever seen.
Then your coach will point to the empty net at the other end of the ice and ask the question that will change your life.
“Who wants to play goalie?”
You won’t have the courage to raise your hand. Luckily, your brother knows how badly you want to be a goalie.
So he will grab your arm and raise it for you.
And that’s it, kid. You are now a goalie. Go put on your pads. A life of pain and misery (and a whole lot of fun) awaits you.
Should I warn you about what’s going to happen? I probably should.
When your parents finally get you all strapped into the oversized pads and they point you in the direction of the net, you will feel like your hero Pekka Lindmark, the goalie for the Swedish national team.
All I need is the mustache, you’ll think.
When you finally make it to the net, you’ll do what you’ve seen Pekka do countless times on TV. You’ll tap both posts with your stick, then you’ll square up. You’ll glide to the top of your crease, bend your knees, then glide backward toward the net.
And keep gliding.
And keep gliding and gliding.
Eventually, you’ll hit the back of the net and topple over. You’ve fallen, and you can’t get up.
Nobody told you how heavy the pads were going to be. As you’re laying there on the ice, completely helpless, your own brother will skate down on a breakaway and bury the puck in the open net.
He’ll skate away with a big smile on his face, arms in the air, while you lay there staring at the puck in the back of the net.
Remember this feeling. It never gets any easier.
This is just your first practice. In your first game, you’ll let in 12 goals. Nowhere to go but up, right? Well, in your second game, you’ll let in 18.
Don’t get discouraged. Believe it or not, this is the start of something beautiful. You have found something that you truly love. No matter how many goals you let in, the feeling of making just one save makes it all worth it. That’s how you know you’re on the right path.
Nobody told you and your brother to love hockey. It doesn’t make any practical sense. You’re from a tiny skiing town of 1,200 people. Your dad is a ski instructor. You don’t live close to a rink. Nobody goes pro from Åre.
But you know what? In life, you don’t choose what you love. You just love it.
In the winter, you and Joel will play thousands of hours of one-on-one on the frozen lake by your house, switching on and off doing the commentary for the imaginary game you’re playing.
Sweden vs. Finland.
Malmö vs. Frölunda (your favorite Swedish Hockey League team)
You and Joel are players and announcers at the same time.
When you make a save on him, it will sound something like this:
Since there’s only three channels on TV, this is how you and Joel entertain yourselves. This is also how you will get better and better as a goalie, competing against your brother in the middle of nowhere, with nobody watching except for the imaginary crowd in your head.
There’s no magic recipe for becoming your hero Pekka Lindmark. You don’t need shiny new pads (you won’t get your own pair until you’re 18 anyway). You don’t need expensive camps. You don’t even need to be very good yet. The only thing that matters right now is that you keep having fun.
You can compete like crazy against your brother. But never stop having fun. Be dedicated to having fun.
Starting tomorrow, your parents will begin their journey, too. They will drive you and your brother hours and hours across Sweden to play hockey. They’ll drive through huge snowstorms. They’ll drive after long days at work. And their reward at the end of those drives will be to sit in cold rinks for hours — helping you get dressed, then watching you play, then helping you get undressed.
Years later, when you think back on this time in your life as a grown man with a child of your own, you will finally appreciate what an incredible sacrifice your parents made for you and Joel.
You will remember all those nights driving home from practice in your father’s gray BMW, listening to his favorite Eros Ramazzotti CD while you and Joel try to finish your homework in the backseat.
And what does dad always say to you guys on those drives?
“Dream big. Picture yourself playing for Frölunda. Picture yourself playing for Sweden. Picture yourself pulling on the sweater.”
As a kid, it will seem like nothing special.
As an adult, it will seem very profound.
This is something that’s hard to understand now, but you’ll understand later. When your dad tells you to have big dreams, it’s not just some cliché. He knows that by giving you this inspiration, he might eventually have to say goodbye to you some day.
See, the people who help you pursue your dreams are the same people who have to say goodbye to you when you achieve those dreams. And the amazing thing is, they want nothing in return. That’s the true meaning of sacrifice.
You need to appreciate your time with Mom and Dad, because when you and Joel turn 16, you will both move away from home to play professionally for Frölunda in Gothenburg. When that time comes, it will be the biggest moment in your life since your coach asked, “Who wants to play goalie?”
When you go off to play for Frölunda, hockey will get pretty serious pretty fast. The pressure will go up every step of the way. I don’t want to spoil that journey for you, but what I will tell you is that you will even have to say goodbye to Sweden eventually.
At the age of 23, you will play on a hockey team without your brother for the first time in your life. It will be a much bigger stage than the frozen sand pit you skated on in kindergarten, and much bigger than the lake, and even much bigger than the Scandinavium arena in Gothenburg.
What’s the stage?
Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Going from your tiny town in Sweden to Gothenburg will be quite a change. But going from Gothenburg to NYC? Well, it will be crazy.
But eventually this fascinating place will become your second home. Yes, you have to leave your friends and family behind, but you are genuinely living a dream.
Your first fall in New York, you’ll be driving back to Manhattan from the morning skate in Tarrytown. When you hit the West Side Highway in the late afternoon, the sun will be low, the trees will be orange and red. Out the window on your right side will be the Hudson River. On your left side, the huge midtown skyscrapers. You’ll be playing some Swedish band on the radio, and your mind will drift to the people back home who got you to this moment.
You are on your way to Madison Square Garden. You will be between the pipes against one of your heroes. I can’t remember if it’s Marty Brodeur or Dominik Hašek on this night.
On this drive, as you’re taking it all in, you get goose bumps. Because you realize that this is exactly what you dreamed of. The surreal has become real.
Never lose that sense of excitement. Don’t ever take it for granted.
In fact, let me leave you with one final piece of advice. Tomorrow, when you put on that surprisingly heavy goalie equipment for the first time, right before you step out onto the ice, take a deep breath, block out all your thoughts and worries, and ask yourself a question:
“Why am I doing this?”
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
The answer will come to you very quickly.
“I’m doing this because it’s fun. I’m doing this because I love to compete. So let’s go out there and have a blast.”
Keep reminding yourself of this when things don’t go as planned, even when your stage is Madison Square Garden.
Being a goalie is 90% mental. If you are stuck in your own thoughts or dwelling on negativity you won’t have the mental focus necessary to compete and succeed. Nobody tells you this when you’re a kid, but the best way to get in the right mindset is to start by having fun. The rest you’ll figure out.
Your life will take you to many interesting places, and many big stages. But it doesn’t matter if you’re stepping out onto the frozen lake in Åre to battle with Joel, or stepping out onto the ice at Madison Square Garden in front of 18,000 people. It’s all the same game.
It’s just ice. It’s just a puck. Stopping it is fun.
So tap both your posts, square up to the net, come out to the top of your crease, then start gliding back into the net, just like Pekka Lindmark.
And if you happen to stumble and fall back on your ass, don’t worry about it. Just make sure you get back up.