It’s hard in junior hockey to relay the talents of a future bright star without giving them a label of an NHL star from the past. We often use “next” – the next Gretzky, Jagr, Lindros, Lidstrom – to give fans a reference point.
It is often an unfair burden to be “the next” when all a player strives to be is himself.
Elias Lindholm knows this pressure all too well. The media in his native Sweden are already billing him as the next Peter Forsberg.
“It’s fun when they’re talking about me and (Forsberg),” said Lindholm. “But it’s tough to be compared with him.”
The comparison to Forsberg, particularly in Sweden, is a lofty one. But it’s this kind of comparison that has Lindholm ranked as one of the top European skaters for the 2013 NHL entry draft. Like Forsberg, Lindholm is a complete player – a good skater, extremely smart, skilled with and without the puck, and both a deft passer and capable goal-scorer.
Roger Ronnberg, who coached Lindholm and Team Sweden to a silver medal at the world junior tournament in Ufa, Russia, has tried to temper the expectations placed upon the 18-year-old.
“Those are big words for a young kid,” said Ronnberg of the Forsberg label. “He has a lot of stuff he still has to improve. I don’t want to take those words and put them in my mouth, but he’s a good player.”
Hockey came naturally to Lindholm when he first started playing as a youngster. His father, Mikael Lindholm, was a 12th round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 1987 and played 18 games with the Kings before returning to Sweden where he had a lengthy career in the Swedish Elite League.
“My dad played hockey so it was a pretty easy choice,” said Lindholm. “He brought me to the ice rink when I was a kid, so it was an easy choice (to play).”
He might still live with his parents, but the native of Boden, Sweden, has taken the elite league by storm. As a teenager playing with men, Lindholm has been a force with his club team, Brynas IF, with six goals and 22 points in 35 games.
He had a slow start to the season and his ice time was limited, but began to find his stride in December. It was then that he was put on the same line as highly touted Detroit Red Wings prospect Calle Jarnkrok, who was taken 51st overall in the 2010 NHL draft.
“It was key to play with Calle, it’s easy to play with him,” said Lindholm. “A lot of games have gone up and down. In November I wasn’t happy with that month, but then December was good.”
He found it easy to play with Jarnkrok, because they’re cousins. As kids their families would get together on holidays, like Christmas, and inevitably a game of shinny would break out.
“We played a lot of outdoor hockey,” said Lindholm. “We know each other on the ice.”
That familial familiarity has played a large part in his early success.
“It means a lot,” said Lindholm of playing with the 21-year-old Jarnkrok. “He’s a really good player and it has helped me a lot. The coach has been giving me a lot of ice time and that has helped ... I’ve got a lot of self-confidence with that.”
Playing against the older, physically mature competition in the SEL has given Lindholm the opportunity to advance his game. He said it’s forced him to be stronger on the puck.
“In the elite league all the (defencemen) and players are strong,” said the 6-foot, 194-pound centre. “You need to protect the puck a lot and that’s helped me a lot.”
His success has meant a larger role with Brynas, now that he’s earned his coach’s trust and shown what he’s capable of doing, even as a rookie. He’s getting more ice time and has even earned a spot on the power play.
“No, I didn’t expect that,” said Lindholm. “Of course you want to play on the power play and get a lot of ice time, but that was just a dream. But when that dream came true that was just amazing, I just enjoy it all the time.”
Lindholm also said he enjoyed his time with the Swedish world junior team because he was with players his own age. His teammates with the national team describe him as quiet, but fun to be around off the ice. He’s not one to say much on the bench, but when he does his teammates – even those his senior – take notice.
“He’s a great leader,” said Swedish forward Rickard Rakell. “Even though he’s very young, he’s still very mature. He plays in the Elite League and has a big role there and he came into (the WJC) with a lot of experience. He communicated a lot on the bench and in the locker room.
“During games he’s saying the right stuff.”
At the WJC, Lindholm was one of the most requested players on the Swedish team. He handled the media deftly, even though English isn’t his first language. During one media session after a practice, a few of his teammates stayed behind to playfully tease Lindholm – from behind a door – as he talked to a reporter. His concentration broke only for a second, and only to apologize.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling. “They’re jokers.”
Even after a cursory meeting, one can tell Lindholm is mature beyond his years. Even Ronnberg noted he’s been a leader on the Swedish team and the pro work ethic he learned in the elite league rubbed off on his teammates.
“He’s not a guy with many words but he loves to compete and he shows the guys by the way he works hard in games,” said Ronnberg. “He sets the standard for the rest of the team.”
Ronnberg said Lindholm’s potential is limitless and with more seasoning and experience in the SEL he could develop into a sure-fire NHLer.
“He can be a tremendous player,” said the national team coach. “He has the smartness and he has the grit to play – he has the most important combination and that is both the will to compete hard and the smarts to be a really good player.”
In the meantime, now that Lindholm is back in Brynas, he said he’s focused on hockey – and not on the upcoming draft. Though, with so much at stake – a lucrative contract and the realization of a dream – it’s sometimes hard not to let those thoughts of donning an NHL jersey creep in.
“Of course I think about that,” said Lindholm of the draft. “I try to stay focused on my game and not think about that.
“But it’s hard to not think about it.”