MINNEAPOLIS – Listen to Gabriel Landeskog, and you'll swear he isn't Swedish. He will say he's a proud Swede, that he has a Sweden flag hanging over his bed, that he grew up admiring Swedish superstar Peter Forsberg(notes). But he says it in easy-going English – no accent, all the slang a North American teenager would use.
"They just don't think I'm from Sweden whenever they ask me where I'm from," he said. "I say, 'I'm from Stockholm, Sweden.' They're like, 'You're lying.' "
He must mean Stockholm, Ontario. After all, a European just doesn't captain the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, certainly not at age 17. A European usually doesn't list North Americans like Jarome Iginla(notes), a Canadian, and Ryan Kesler(notes), an American, as players he wants to emulate in the NHL. A European often doesn't have buddies back home egging him on to act like a foreigner to hit on a native girl.
But no, it's true. This is real life for Landeskog, and his North American style should help the all-around left winger become a top pick in the NHL draft Friday night in St. Paul, Minn., even if it didn't help him with that girl in Sweden last summer.
"Not too successful," Landeskog said with a smile. "I guess she didn't want to speak English the whole night."
Stereotypes are still a touchy subject in hockey. Some still portray Swedes as soft and glorify North American grit, when there are soft North Americans and gritty Swedes. Leaders speak lots of languages. Look who just won the Stanley Cup and the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award: Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara(notes), a Slovak. It is not inherently better to seem less Swedish.
But there is undeniable value in making such a smooth adjustment to North American culture on and off the ice. Landeskog likely will go in the top four Friday night, and old biases and concerns about coming across the Atlantic won't keep a team from investing such a high pick and so much money in him. This is a kid with character, and his command of English helps that come through. He has captained teams his whole life and could captain one in the NHL someday.
"As the game has progressed and how valuable these assets are to teams, the more complete a player is, the better it is for them," said David Gregory, a scout with the NHL's Central Scouting Service. "You have somebody like him who's so ready to take on those roles, it gives the team more confidence they're making the right kind of pick."
Gabriel learned a lot from his father, Tony, who played for the Swedish club Hammarby from 1977-85. Tony was a stay-at-home defenseman. "I never scored almost," Tony laughed. So he never judged his son on scoring. He never coached him, either. He stepped back, supported him as a parent and emphasized playing both ends of the rink.
"We have talked a lot about that it's not just the goal-scoring and stuff like that that matters," Tony said in a Swedish accent. "It's doing a good job back and forth, two ways. He learned that from the beginning."
Gabriel learned a lot from television, too. He watched American shows without subtitles – with the specific purpose of helping him with hockey. "I just kind of realized when I was a young kid that I wanted to play in the big league," he said. "I think if I learned English at a pretty young age it would benefit me for sure."
After playing three games in the Swedish Elite League at age 16 – becoming the youngest player in the history of Swedish club Djurgarden – Landeskog came over to play for Kitchener. The first time he showed up for practice, Rangers teammate Ryan Murphy(notes), a kid from Aurora, Ont., knew his background but couldn't believe it.
"I didn't even recognize his Swedish accent," Murphy said. "He plays the Canadian type of hockey, too. I don't think he's a Swede."
There have been hiccups. Landeskog had to learn the difference between "fun" and "funny." Murphy laughs at how Landeskog once mixed up "security guard" and "lifeguard." But after two years playing in Kitchener and going to a Canadian high school, Landeskog seems like a natural North American. He said he had an 82 average in English class. Heck, he's writing a draft blog for Yahoo! Sports.
"Yeah, he loves media. That's for sure," said a smiling Adam Larsson, a Swedish defenseman also expected to go in the top four, as the top prospects did a round of interviews Thursday at a Minneapolis art gallery. "But he's a good kid, and I like him. I'm sure he will be a great player in the NHL."
Landeskog says he wants to play an Iginla kind of game, and he does. He scores. He hits. He fights. Though an ankle injury limited him to 53 games in 2010-11, he put up 36 goals, 66 points and a plus-27 rating. He had six goals and 10 points in a seven-game playoff series. At age 17, he was Kitchener’s youngest captain in 30 years and the first European captain in the team's 48-year history.
"You don't want to be one of those captains that are hated, but saying that, you want to be respected," said Landeskog, who also has captained Sweden's under-16, under-17 and under-18 teams. "I think respected is better to be than liked as a captain. You want to have everyone's respect, and you want to be able to tell a guy when he's not working hard and he's going to listen to you."
The Central Scouting Service pegged Landeskog second among North American skaters in its final rankings, and scouts think his 6-foot-1, 207-pound frame and complete game make him more ready to step into the NHL immediately than the top-ranked North American skater, 6-foot-1, 172-pound Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
"Because he's a Swede, obviously you hear some of the Forsberg comparisons, but I think he's got more of a durable body type than Peter ended up with," Gregory said. "He's not afraid to bang to get the puck, but he can also finesse with the puck. That rare combination is going to be exciting to see develop."
The only question is where Landeskog will do his developing. Edmonton? Well, the Oilers are already well-stocked on the wing and might not take him first overall. But Colorado? He could follow in Forsberg's footsteps with the Avalanche. Florida? He jokes that his mother, who was reluctant to send him over to North America at first, wouldn't mind vacationing while watching him play for the Panthers. New Jersey? He would fit in fine with the Devils.
He would fit in anywhere. He has been working on it his whole life. That he speaks so well speaks so well.