One obscure argument to ending the lockout is that Freeway Faceoff is much more alliterative and marketable than Swedish National Road 70 Faceoff.
But until that agreement is reached, the greatest collection of premier in-season Southern California hockey talent can be found when Mora IK matches up against Sodertalje SK in Sweden’s second-tier Hockey Allsvenskan, which has emerged as a popular stopping ground for locked-out NHL stars.
On Tuesday, Cam Fowler’s Sodertalje club traveled four hours north on a national road to Dalarna County and FM Mattsson Arena before emerging as 3-2 winners over Mora IK, the club of Anaheim Ducks teammate Bobby Ryan and Los Angeles Kings rival Anze Kopitar.
It was a Sodertalje win that came with a price, at least for one defenseman.
“I wired a wrist shot off his foot, so he’s a little unhappy with me,” Ryan said of Fowler. “I’ve got to go apologize.”
One subject that needs no apology is Ryan’s level of play since joining Mora two weeks ago. The right wing, coming off a fourth straight 30-goal season in Anaheim, has immediately rekindled his scoring touch while skating on the same line as a player he’d ordinarily be going to battle against in one of the Western Conference’s fiercer rivalries.
“It’s nice to be on this side of the ice with him a little bit, instead of trying to shut him down, because he’s made me a minus quite a few times,” Ryan said of Kopitar, who helped lead the Kings to their first Stanley Cup championship in 2012.
Instead, Kopitar has assists on three of Ryan’s four goals in the three games they’ve played together. Trailing by two late Tuesday, Kopitar had a fraction of a second with the puck and used it to feed a well-positioned Ryan at the top of the right circle for a power play one-timer that took the sniper down to his knee to finish off.
It’s not really any surprise that the two skilled players have found their chemistry quickly on a larger ice surface (Olympic rinks are almost 15 feet wider than NHL regulation) that illuminates Ryan’s speed and allows more room for artistry.
“Our power play is pretty different when [Ryan’s] playing for us,” said head coach Patrik Wener.
The skill set Ryan brings to central Sweden appears to be greatly in concert with his team’s efforts and schemes.
“It’s much more of a skilled and patient game, that’s for sure,” Ryan said. “That’s always been something that I’ve tried to at least use in the NHL. It’s translated pretty well over here. Obviously the systems are different, but I think with the big ice and more time to build up speed and things like that, you’re able to come through the neutral zone and have some more options. I don’t think tonight was much of an indication, but there certainly have been a lot of chances for us.”
Mora has floated among the top four to eight teams for much of the Allsvenskan season, and Kopitar’s 26 points (in 23 games) rank him sixth among league scorers. Looking to expand the scoring depth of his club and continue to build on the team’s success in landing locked-out talent — Marian and Marcel Hossa, Shawn Horcoff, Dan Cleary and Andreas Lilja played for Mora in the top-tiered Elitserien during the 2004-05 work stoppage — club director Peter Hermodsson and a coach chatted with Kopitar last month to find out if he “knew any other goal scorers,” according to Kopitar, who might be interested in joining the team.
Word travels fast during the lockout. After Kopitar asked his agent about Ryan’s status, he went to sleep and woke up the next day to an email from Ryan inquiring about Mora. From there, it was only a matter of finalizing contractual minutiae.
“He’s definitely fun to play with,” Kopitar said. “You just appreciate more, I think, the guy when you play with him instead of against him. He’s definitely a big world-class player.”
But Gasper is currently on the mend — he’s eyeing a weekend return from a minor knee injury — and Ryan has inserted himself alongside Kopitar seamlessly. The respect runs both ways for the two traditional rivals.
“To see him six times a year, and getting to know him and playing against him for all those years, he does a lot of special things — away from the puck, as well,” Ryan said of Kopitar. “He’s definitely a player that when he touches the puck, you’re up and ready for something special. He delivers a lot of the time.”
Until the collective bargaining agreement is reached, they’ll attempt to drive Mora up the standings so that it has a favorable position in advance of the Kvalserien, a round robin tournament in March that pits two Elitserien and four Alsvenskan teams against each other in an effort to determine which two teams will play in the Elitserien the following season. In its current position, Mora would have to emerge from the Forkvalserien, a pre-tourney pool of four teams, to even gain entry in the six-team Kvalserien.
“We’ve been playing OK,” Kopitar said. “We’ve been playing some good games and some not-so-good games. I think consistency is key, just like it is in any other team. It brings me back a couple years when we were the same thing with LA. It’s just consistency, and older guys leading the charge.”
Shortly after Kopitar’s arrival in town, Mora IK was expecting to also secure the services of Kings defenseman Davis Drewiske, who at the last moment decided to remain in Southern California during the lockout.
Living at roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska is a challenge for any professional athlete, but if there’s anyone who can weather the surroundings of a sub-arctic boreal forest, it has to be someone who lives part-time in Idaho, right?
“I haven’t seen much of Idaho in the winters,” Ryan said. “But I’ve never felt cold like this. It gets to minus-25, but it’s just a different kind of cold. It goes straight to the bone.”