STOCKHOLM — Victor Hedman doesn’t usually get nervous before games. Not anymore. But this week he felt some nerves.
This is not just any game. He’s playing an NHL game in his home country.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to come back home and play with the team that I’ve been a part of for more than 10 years,” Hedman said before arriving in Stockholm. “It’s going to be an emotional couple of days.”
He never thought he’d be able to do something like this when he left Sweden as an 18-year-old to go play in the NHL. Hedman called this a dream come true, but it’s one of those dreams you don’t know you have until it comes true.
As a child, Hedman looked up to many NHL players and there are even more Swedes in the NHL than there were 15 years ago. Sweden has steadily narrowed the gap with Canada for most NHL players per capita.
And Hedman ranks as one of the biggest Swedish stars in the league right now.
Not only does he hail from a hockey country, but also one of the biggest hockey cities in Sweden. Örnsköldsvik, might have sent the most stars to the NHL per capita. It’s at least in the conversation.
“It’s super special,” Hedman said of Örnsköldsvik’s legacy. “I think we have only 65,000 people in our community and we have all those players. The Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik), (Peter) Forsberg, (Markus) Näslund, hall of famers, so that’s super special for me. I was lucky.”
Buffalo also has two players from O-vik, as the locals call it. Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson is from Örnsköldsvik. Sabres backup goalie Linus Ullmark was born in Lugnvik, about 45 miles south, but spent most of his Swedish career with MoDo, the Örnsköldsvik club.
The three of them account for about 100 fans making the 350 mile trip to Stockholm and that’s just the fans they know about.
“It’s an honor representing O-vik, for sure,” Olofsson said. “It’s cool being here with Hedman as well. We worked out together a lot. I’ve gotten to know him really well so it’s going to be special to play against him.”
Hockey fandom in Örnsköldsvik has followed its players. Colorado was very popular for Forsberg, arguably the greatest Swedish hockey player. When the Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Markus Näslund all played for Vancouver, the Canucks led the city. Now, most of Örnsköldsvik line up behind the Lightning.
O-vik’s NHL history goes back to Anders Hedburg, who signed with Winnipeg of the WHA in 1974 and then the Rangers in 1978. But it was the 1973 birth year that really broke through.
Forsberg and Näslund are the obvious big names, making it to the NHL in 1994 and 1993. Andreas Salomonsson and Hans Jonsson were also born that year and made it to the league by 2001.
“Some people say it’s the water, some say it’s the education system, some say it’s the leaders in MoDo,” said Adam Johansson, a reporter for Mittmedia in Örnsköldsvik. “But I think the guys that were born in ’73, they set the standard for coming guys. So the bar was very high for the next generation.”
There’s nothing like seeing someone like you do something to make you believe you can as well. With that list of players in the NHL, younger players had someone to point to, a model to follow.
“That’s a big factor,” Näslund said. “That goes back to Anders Hedberg. The next guys growing up, they had the same coaches as the guys in our era had. They can compare, and give feedback and give them things to think about.”
Näslund returned to MoDo after his NHL career, something people in O-vik wonder if Hedman will do. Näslund played one more year there and then served as general manager from 2010 to 2014.
He said it isn’t a big deal for a NHL or former NHL player to walk down the street. It’s common to socialize with hockey players. That familiarity brings players like Hedman, who owns two homes there, back for the offseason and after their careers. It also means kids grow up knowing the NHL is a possibility.
Even with all of the history coming out of Örnsköldsvik, Hedman’s mother Elizabeth never predicted this trajectory for her son when he was young. His father Olle was the equipment manager at MoDo for 20 years. Her older two sons were on track to play there (and Oscar still does). She expected the same for Victor.
To see where he is now, not only playing in the NHL but headlining a major event, is “overklig.” It’s unreal.
Hedman wants to be to the next generation what the Sedins, Forsberg and Naslund were for him. He hosts a hockey school each summer in Örnsköldsvik. Hockey is an expensive sport and it wants it to be available to everyone. He wants the next Forsberg, the next Hedman to have chance.
Playing in front of those kids, including his niece and three nephews (one sporting a Lightning blue and white cast on his broken elbow), this weekend is part of what makes this experience special.
“We’re all proud of Victor,” Näslund said. “Not just our hometown but for Sweden in general. Taking his game to the level he has. He’s on a world-class level and he’s in the running for Norris every year. He’s not close to being finished.”
Forsberg is the country’s biggest name, but Hedman is Örnsköldsvik’s latest and greatest. They’re all watching and rooting.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.