Standing in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Minneapolis the day after his son was picked in the first round of the NHL draft by the Ottawa Senators, Mehrdad Zibanejad seemed rather oblivious to it all. He obviously hasn’t read the hockey parent manual that says this should be seen as a crowning achievement, one that should be celebrated as the greatest day his family has ever seen.
In reality, he knows his son, Mika, hasn’t accomplished anything yet. Yes, he was chosen sixth overall, a remarkable accomplishment in itself, but not one that should be the center of his universe. In fact, instead of following his son to the Senators’ rookie camp a week later, he was planning a trip with his wife to Puerto Rico. “Yesterday we enjoyed it, but that was yesterday and today we go back to business and take care of the plan for the future,” Mehrdad said. “Mika’s life is not my life. It’s not something I’m thinking about all the time.”
Regardless of what Mika Zibanejad does on the ice during his NHL career, he’ll probably never be thrown in jail. Chances are he won’t ever go to war or leave his country to avoid persecution and to seek basic freedom. Mehrdad has done all of those things, which is perhaps why he has the kind of perspective he does.
These days, Mehrdad Zibanejad is a 50-year-old IT engineer with the Swedish government and the father of two Swedish hockey players. But more than three decades ago, he was living in his native Iran when the Iranian Revolution resulted in the Shah being overthrown and replaced with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Soon after, Khomeini became Supreme Leader of Iran, giving him the highest political ranking and religious authority for life.
Radical Islam was not something with which Mehrdad agreed and he was once jailed for writing a magazine article on existentialism. Mehrdad and Mika are Christians, but it was a lack of religious freedom that Mehrdad was protesting. “With existentialism you can go your own way,” Mehrdad said. “I believe in God, I read the Bible, I believe everything they write in the Bible, but God gave me some choice also. But in Iran you have no choice. They tell you what you should think and what you should do and I can’t accept it. God gave you freedom.”
That made it all the more difficult for him to fight in the Iran-Iraq war, which broke out in 1980. Mehrdad had to serve his two-year mandatory military service and faced either jail or war. “I had no choice,” he said, “they would put me in jail or maybe kill me, or I am going there and fighting for nothing, for something I don’t agree with.”
He served largely in administration, but said he engaged in battle when there was an offensive. Did he ever kill anyone? “I don’t know, I didn’t see anyone,” he said. “ Maybe, maybe not.”
After earning a passport by fulfilling his military obligations, Mehrdad left Iran in December, 1983 and landed in Sweden, where he met his Finnish-born wife Ritva. Mehrdad is reticent to talk about his experiences or his feelings about them, largely out of concern for Mika. “There are some people, maybe living in the USA or North America, who are fanatic Muslims and I don’t want them to contact him,” Mehrdad said.
For now, Mika Zibanejad is a highly touted prospect with a bright future. He shot up the rankings this past season and impressed scouts with his performance with Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League. Senators GM Bryan Murray has already inked him to an entry level deal, meaning Zibanejad can take part in training camp in the fall. If Zibanejad isn’t yet ready to play in the NHL, he will likely return to Djurgarden to continue his development.
Much has been made of the Senators gaping hole in the No. 2 spot down the middle behind Jason Spezza. But Murray isn’t naive enough to think the Senators filled it when they selected an unproven 18-year-old. Zibanejad has NHL size and skill, but lacks NHL experience. “I don’t think he can do that,” Murray said. “I’m hoping we’re going to give him a chance to be looked at, but we don’t expect him to carry that ball.”
This feature orginally appeared in the August, 2011 issue of The Hockey News.
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