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Stralman and family get a happily ever after with the Lightning

TAMPA — The playhouse outside Anton Stralman's historic Hyde Park home is a hotbed of activity.

The Lightning defenseman's daughter, Liv, 8, who dubbed it the "goofy house," is hanging upside down from a trapeze bar. Son Leo, 3, is peeking through red binoculars that hide his entire face. Lowve, 6, pops up on the swingset after playing soccer with his dad under a humongous oak tree. Bella, 4, climbs up the rope ladder.

The Stralmans bought the wooden jungle gym five years ago when they last owned a house, back in Columbus, Ohio. The couple, which has moved 13 times since becoming high school sweethearts in Sweden a decade ago, has been hesitant to put down roots, much less drive nails into playground equipment.

But after signing a five-year, $22.5 million deal with the Lightning on July 1, 2014, Stralman, 29, spent six hours one October night assembling the playhouse next to the driveway of the 4,800 square-foot house.

Stralman, his only directions a cell phone photo of the finished product, used the headlights from his leased Mercedes, the battery going out before he was done at 11 p.m.

"It's a triumph to finally get it up," said Johanna, 29. "It took three years; now we finally have a home."

"No more moving," Stralman said. "No more boxes."

And, they hope, no more heartache. There's been plenty, including their first wedding — a sterile, shotgun-style ceremony in a near-empty Calgary apartment in 2009, ending a month-long fight for Johanna to get her visa and reunite the family in the United States. There was the time Johanna, alone and unprepared for a Canadian snowstorm, wore socks on her hands, putting towels on her stroller-bound kids to stay warm. Stralman, on his fourth NHL team in eight seasons, nearly had his career derailed, first by frustration, then by a mysterious illness.

But as Stralman's professional life flourishes with the Lightning and his marriage comes full circle, thanks to a dream, do-over wedding in a Swedish castle July 25, he says his family's humbling journey makes it even more rewarding.

"Finally," he says. "We have something to celebrate."

•••

The Stralmans' love story, naturally, begins with a cadaver.

Anton and Johanna met in the 10th grade at a health care high school, which was a hospital. Johanna was an autopsy assistant, and she met Anton for lunch in the cafeteria afterward. Needless to say, there wasn't much eating.

"Not like dinner and a movie," Stralman jokes. "Lunch after an autopsy."

Johanna laughed: "It set the tone."

After high school, Stralman was signed to play for Timrå (Swedish Elite League) in Sundsvall, Sweden. Two years later, they had their first child and Stralman got drafted in the seventh round by the Maple Leafs, setting stage for their adventure to North America.

It nearly backfired.

"I didn't fit in there," Stralman said of Toronto. "They had a mindset of what their team wanted to be, tough and gritty and big sized, and I'm not that player. I thought many times, 'Let's just leave this place and go back home.' "

With one child, and another on the way, Stralman said if he didn't get that three-week NHL call-up at the end of his second season in Toronto, he would have had to get a summer job to make ends meet, "Packing boxes," he said. He'd soon become an expert at that, notebooks filled with an inventory of belongings on their many moves.

Stralman got traded to Calgary that offseason and was stunned to be on the roster — loaded with veteran defensemen — two days before the season opener. Ten days after the couple's second child was born, Stralman was traded to Columbus.

"That's when the wedding story starts," he said.

Johanna needed a visa to live with Stralman in the United States. But at the U.S. consulate in Calgary, a female representative told Johanna that despite having two children together, she didn't have "strong enough ties" with Stralman. Her options were to move back to Sweden and apply from there, or get married. They fought their case for three weeks, with the help of the Blue Jackets, waiting for a call that never came.

They had hoped to get married when they could afford it, do it right. Not like this. Columbus was coming to Calgary for an Oct. 20 game, with two days off beforehand. Stralman called a marriage commissioner, Bruce Arlington, to officiate the ceremony, to be held in their Calgary apartment.

The night after Columbus' rookie party/Stralman's bachelor party, vows were exchanged in front of a non-working fireplace. Columbus GM Scott Howson was the best man and photographer, telling the couple to make it quick because of the Blue Jackets' practice that morning.

The 20-minute, no-frills ceremony was interrupted a few times by their restless children, including 2-year-old Liv, who was screaming over her toy falling behind the stereo. Stralman wore a sweat shirt and jeans, Johanna "one of the ugliest nurse outfits." The couple notified their families a few days later, not knowing what to tell them.

"It was definitely not how I pictured getting married," Johanna said. "It's hard to put into words. That month in Calgary felt like a year. At the time, I was miserable."

Ironically, when Johanna returned to the consulate, a marriage certificate in hand, a different representative, aware of their saga, was stunned. "This would have never happened if someone else had handled this," he told her.

"But then," Stralman said, "we wouldn't be able to tell you this story."

•••

The Stralmans started a new chapter in Columbus.

Stralman was playing well, having his best year offensively, feeling comfortable. By Year 2, they had bought their first house, setting up a playhouse in the yard.

But Stralman, who is asthmatic, suffered from a mystery ailment whose symptoms resembled bronchitis. He took heavy doses of prednisone, cortisone and antibiotics. His face swelled up. "I looked like a soccer ball," he said.

The Blue Jackets cut Stralman loose before seeing his full potential.

"He's become a top-tier defenseman in the league," said Howson, now an Oilers executive. "You always kick yourself a little bit. We were one of the teams that just let him go."

By the fall of 2011, Stralman was only able to get a training camp invite to New Jersey. The Rangers gave Stralman a chance, and he rejuvenated his career largely thanks to a team doctor finally being able to pinpoint his medical issue. He had scar tissue in his lungs, collecting mucus which became infected. Stralman was put on treatment for cystic fibrosis, which he doesn't have, but it made him a new man — and player.

"That has been, by far, the single most important day in my career," Stralman said. "That gave me the chance to battle back, stay healthy and give myself a chance to compete not just with everyone else, but not have to compete against my own body. Every cold doesn't end up in pneumonia. I was the player I knew I could be."

After three strong seasons in New York, helping the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final in 2014, the Stralmans were ready to put roots down, living near Rye.

"Everything was lined up," he said.

Stralman, a free agent, said the team told him he was one of their top priorities. So he was hurt when he heard nothing from them in the week leading up to the July 1 start of the free-agent signing period. Five minutes after noon, the Rangers signed former Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle and told Stralman to go elsewhere.

"We were crushed," Stralman said. "Another punch in the face."

Stralman doesn't blame New York for not re-signing him, he just wished they'd been up front with their plans, instead of forcing him into a time crunch to pick his new team, new home.

"We had 90 minutes to decide where to go," Stralman said. "It was terrible, horrible, probably the worst 90 minutes of our life."

Stralman just some long-awaited security (in years) for his family.

"It was encouraging to have those teams calling," Stralman said. "When three years ago, nobody was."

•••

To make up for his strange first wedding, Stralman married Johanna again in style this summer.

The scene was set in a countryside castle called Bjertorp in Kvänum, a tiny town in southeastern Sweden. It was a three-day event, involving 60 close friends and family, taking part in golf, British-style afternoon tea and skeet shooting.

On Saturday, July 25, the church ceremony was followed by a three-course dinner filled with speeches, including Stralman reciting a touching poem he wrote about their roller-coaster journey. A live band fittingly called "The Happy Makers," roused the crowd until 2 a.m. with karaoke going until 5. Stralman belted out Kiss' Lick It Up and Metallica's Enter Sandman, a classic his buddies made him record in a studio on his bachelor party.

"Probably one of my best days ever," Stralman said. "Pure happiness.

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith

Stralman and family get a happily ever after with the Lightning 09/26/15 [Last modified: Saturday, September 26, 2015 5:01pm]
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