By Uffe Bodin As he left Toronto in disappointment in September,
William Nylander knew he would return sooner rather than later. Not to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs but to compete for the Swedish junior national team at the World Junior Championship. Since Canada won’t be playing in Toronto during the round-robin, the Leafs’ first-round pick from last summer will get his fair share of the spotlight. And that’s fine. “It’s a huge advantage for me to have gone through training camp the way I did this fall”, Nylander said. “Now I know how the hype thing works. In training camp, I felt I was able to focus on my hockey, and I didn’t let the other stuff become a distraction. It won’t be now, either.”
The 18-year-old enjoyed his stay in the city before the Maple Leafs cut him. Spending time in a city that eats, sleeps and breathes hockey has its charms, according to Nylander:
“You can’t compare it to Sweden at all. It’s like hockey is a lifestyle there, like it’s the most important thing there is for people. While I was there, I went into the city a few times and got recognized and got to sign autographs and stuff. It never bothered me. On the contrary I thought it was fun. You’ve got to enjoy life.” He has certainly enjoyed his hockey life since returning to Sweden to play for Modo in Ornskoldsvik. Nylander was averaging better than a point per game before sustaining a suspected concussion after being inadvertently kicked in the head by a teammate. The only 18-year-olds who managed to do that during an entire season in the Swedish League are Tomas Sandstrom (1982-83) and
Markus Naslund (1991-92). “I’m getting a lot of ice time and I really feel like I’m a leading player on the team,” Nylander said. “That boosts your confidence and makes you feel like you can really be a player that makes a difference.” Team Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg is impressed with Nylander’s development, especially the progress he has made defensively since last year when he was left off Sweden’s WJC squad. “Offensively, he’s a world-class player, but I like how he’s taking more responsibility in his own end and how he’s working when the puck is not on his stick,” Gronborg said. “He’s also maturing physically, growing and adding muscle.” During the world juniors, Gronborg will likely team Nylander with Detroit Red Wings draft pick Axel Holmstrom, who has had a strong start to the season with the reigning Swedish champions Skelleftea. The dynamic duo amassed 27 points together in seven games during the under-18 worlds last spring and teamed up in the last exhibition tournament in the Czech Republic in November. “We think hockey the same way and found really good chemistry right away,” Nylander said. “We enjoy each other’s company on the ice.”
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.