Those hundreds of thousands of fans who believe 21-year-old Erik Karlsson is already the best defenceman in hockey – heck, the best player in hockey – should offer thanks to Jonas Karlsson as they cast their ballots for the Jan. 29 NHL all-star game.
No Jonas, no Erik, but it goes well beyond genes.
In the thick studies of tough love and parental guidance, there may be nothing quite like what Jonas Karlsson did to turn his youngster into a defenceman.
Jonas himself played elite hockey in Sweden. He was also coach of the minor-league team in Landsbro, a minuscule municipality in the deep south. Here, though it has barely 1,000 residents, the passion for hockey runs deep. Johan (The Mule) Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings was an earlier NHL success story.
When the pickings are slim for a coach, however, it can sometimes call for drastic measures. Jonas had a son who was small but could skate like the wind, only the son insisted he wanted to be a goaltender and wear one of those fancy masks.
What to do? The team was in desperate need of defence. So Jonas put his own equipment on, then dressed the youngster – we are speaking here of a six-year-old – in full goaltender equipment, put him in the net and blasted a slap shot at him.
“I started to cry,” Erik remembers 15 years later. “He didn’t want me to be a goalie. My dad was defence and he made me be that, too. It’s all because of him.”
An unorthodox manner in which to get a player to try another position, perhaps, but it worked. Apart from one terrible attempt at forward that lasted one period, Erik has been a defenceman since that moment, and an increasingly good one. As of last weekend, the Ottawa Senators’ blueliner was the top scorer among all NHL defencemen, with one goal and 20 assists. Less than three years since he was named the best defenceman in the 2009 world junior championship in Ottawa, the early voting by fans – heavily loaded by a hometown push – has declared him the No. 1 defenceman in the NHL.
“I don’t know about that,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s definitely my goal to be that one day.”
“He’s one of the best young defencemen in hockey,” Senators head coach Paul MacLean says. He adds, without naming names: “I think there’s a guy in Detroit who’s pretty good, too.”
That, of course, would be Nicklas Lidstrom, the ageless (41) Red Wings captain who has won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies as the NHL’s top defenceman, and scored Sweden’s golden goal when the country won the Olympic championship in 2006. That would also be Erik’s idol in hockey.
But there the comparisons involve heritage and ambitions far more than style of play. Lidstrom is larger, stronger and plays a game of deliberate strategy. Karlsson is built more for the sport he loves second, tennis, and at times looks like a Grade 10 student who has accidentally wandered into the wrong classroom.
Yet those who have watched his progress the past three years in the NHL have seen a player capable of such surprise on the ice that it is impossible to predict where he will be, what he will try and what will happen to his outrageous gamble.
Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray knows only too well how Karlsson can cause gasps and cringes in a single shift, darting up ice at warp speed, slipping through checks like a greased pig, attempting an impossible back pass that sometimes works and sometimes ends up in your own net.
“One night you can be amazed with what he did,” Murray says. “Another night mad as hell because he decides to do something that you think is impossible. But he’ll make it happen another time.”
The Senators knew when they took Karlsson 15th overall in the 2008 draft that he would make mistakes and they would have to live with them. Murray, a former teacher, believes that you have to let those with ability go through their “learning curve” and that there will struggles.
“Erik has gone through that,” Murray says. “He’s still going through that a little bit, but I know he’s getting better.”
So, too, does Karlsson, who is so sure of himself that he has been described as “cocky.”
“I don’t mind that at all,” coach MacLean says. “You got to have confidence to be a really good player. If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s kind of hard to be any good. He’s a confident guy. I wouldn’t describe him as cocky, but he’s really confident and he knows what he wants to be.”
And that, of course, is to be the best defenceman in the game, something that, if it does happen, will still require time and patience.
“They know my flaws,” Karlsson says. “They know I’m a high-risk player and sometimes I screw up. You’ve got to be able to move on from that. You know when you’ve screwed up, but it goes both ways. It comes with the game. If you screw up, they’re upset. If you make a good play, it’s a good thing.”
Three years in and the good plays have moved well ahead of the screw-ups. But he says he’s only just begun in a position where, traditionally, players peak in their mid- to late 20s.
“In a few years,” he says, “we want to compete for the Stanley Cup.”