Gophers tap Swedish pipeline for international hockey talent
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s rare for Gophers men’s hockey coach Don Lucia to go outside the state borders to acquire talent for his roster. In fact, there have been years in which Lucia’s entire roster hailed from the state of Minnesota.
It’s been even rarer for Lucia’s teams to have any international talent.
In Lucia’s first 15 seasons as the Gophers coach, he had a total of just two players from Europe play for him. Both players — Thomas Vanek of Austria and Erik Haula of Finland — are now forwards for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. This year’s Gophers roster is a rarity. Minnesota has a pair of Swedes this season in freshmen Leon Bristedt and Robin Hoglund, marking the first time in Lucia’s tenure that Minnesota has had two Europeans on the same team.
"I understood that it’s a big deal bringing people to the program outside of the state and even a bigger deal bringing them from outside of the country," said Bristedt, a top-line forward. "I knew that, but I’m really honored to be one of those players and be able to be here."
Bristedt’s path to Minnesota was different than those of Vanek, Haula and Hoglund. All three came to the United States for high school or junior hockey before jumping into the college game. Bristedt, meanwhile, arrived on campus in August as a 19-year-old who had lived his entire life in Sweden. He first started getting noticed in the United States a few years back when he played in a tournament in Windsor, Canada. That’s when colleges started gaining interest, even though Bristedt admits he didn’t realize just how big college hockey really was.
The transition was natural in many ways for the 5-foot-8 Stockholm native. The weather and climate in Minneapolis isn’t much different than what he was used to back home, so a recent snowstorm didn’t catch him off guard. The food, though, isn’t quite the same in the United States. More fried foods, he says. And he doesn’t have a kitchen in his current campus apartment, so Bristedt hasn’t been able to cook — something he enjoyed doing when he lived by himself for a few years in Sweden.
There are other cultural differences Bristedt has had to pick up since arriving in America. Sometimes, those lessons are learned hard way.
"I learn something every day," he said. "The first practice here I came in and I talked to my coach by first name. That’s how we do it in Sweden. I was pretty fast taught that I should call him ‘Coach.’"
Hoglund, meanwhile, spent the last two years playing in the North American Hockey League. He played for the Janesville Jets last season and was also with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Soo Eagles. Prior to that, Hoglund spent a year in the United States Hockey League in Sioux City, S.D.
Two years Bristedt’s senior, Hoglund came to the United States because he knew he wanted to go the college route. He finished his last year of high school in the U.S. and was recruited by several Division I colleges. Hoglund originally committed to Notre Dame but ultimately decided it wasn’t a good fit. So after talking with the coaches at Minnesota and realizing he might be a good fit with the Gophers, he made his decision.
"Obviously this worked out for me here. It turned out much better than I thought it would," said Hoglund, a physical forward who has seen action in two games so far this season. "I’m super fortunate that I’m here. I’m taking it one day at a time, just trying to get better and developing."
It just so happens the Gophers’ two current European-born players have been practicing in the same building as the two that came before them. The Wild spent a few days this week skating at Ridder Arena, the home rink of the Gophers women’s team, and used the visitor’s locker room at Mariucci Arena. On Wednesday, the hallways at the rink were crowded with both Gophers and Wild players as they navigated to and from their respective practices.
Lucia happened to poke his head into the Wild’s practice on Monday at Ridder Arena and has kept tabs on his former players. Vanek, the first European to play for Lucia, is in his first season with Minnesota after playing for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens.
When Vanek first left Austria to play junior hockey in the United States, he never envisioned he’d one day be on a college hockey team.
"I didn’t even know college hockey existed," Vanek said. "Back home, obviously we have universities and colleges, but there’s no hockey associated with that. College hockey was something I learned once I moved to Sioux Falls. I realized how big it is."
Like Vanek before him, Haula had time to adjust to life in America before he got to Dinkytown. The speedy forward left Finland to play at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the hockey-factory prep school a half-hour south of Minneapolis in Faribault, Minn. After just one year at Shattuck he played a season in the USHL before eventually suiting up for the maroon and gold.
"Being around Minnesota and learning about the program with friends, I had multiple guys on my team at Shattuck who had been growing up with Gopher hockey. That was kind of the path," Haula said. "In general there’s not that many people who make the transition of coming over here. It’s not that common in European players. But I think it’s starting to grow."
I’m super fortunate that I’m here. I’m taking it one day at a time, just trying to get better and developing.
It’s even growing at the University of Minnesota, a school located in the State of Hockey that has rarely needed to look outside its own borders to find a plethora of hockey talent. It worked out in the past with Vanek and Haula, who both excelled with the Gophers. Now Lucia is hoping the team’s latest imports can have a similar impact.
Bristedt already showed a flash of that potential last weekend when he scored his first career goal against Notre Dame. After skating into the offensive zone, Bristedt fired a shot from the faceoff circle over the goalie’s right shoulder.
"We see that in practice. We just hadn’t seen that in a game," Lucia said. "You see the skill level that he has, the plays that he can make. It was just a matter of time before he could get that first goal."
Bristedt committed to the Gophers before Hoglund. Once both Swedes were on board, they decided they should meet each other before arriving in Minnesota. So Hoglund made the five-hour drive this summer from Gothenburg to Stockholm and spent a few days with Bristedt and his family. The future teammates talked a bit of hockey and trained together, as well, in preparation for the transition that awaited both of them.
"We’re good friends and all that stuff. It’s a good fit," Hoglund said of Bristedt. "He’s a good Swede to have on the team, that’s for sure."
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