HELSINKI, FINLAND - Through five games at the world juniors, Sweden rolled. The Tre Kronor were scoring in bunches, but also getting incredible goaltending from starter Linus Soderstrom. The New York Islanders prospect surrendered just five goals in four appearances, including a 46-save shutout against the U.S. in a 1-0 game the Americans swear they should have won, had it not been for the kid in the other net. So perhaps that kid's public announcement right before the tournament came at the best time possible.
Soderstrom, as it turns out, has Asperger Syndrome.
Asperger Syndrome is deemed to be on the high-functioning end of disorders associated with the autism spectrum.
“When I was younger, the things I really liked, I could focus a lot on, like hockey," Soderstrom told me. "The things I didn't like, for example school, was just a complete mess.”
When he was 10 years old, Soderstrom was moved to a special school where, instead of one teacher for 30 kids, there were two or three for seven pupils. That change made a world of difference.
“I still keep in contact with those teachers," he said. "They meant so much to me and I would never be standing here if it wasn't for them. A lot of teachers actually played hockey at an elite level, so it helped me in a very good way. I'm very thankful for those guys.”
Clearly Soderstrom's hockey career has not been slowed down by his diagnosis - he has been great for Vita Hasten in Sweden's second-best circuit, the Allsvenskan (he's on loan from SHL Djurgarden) and this is his second year as starter for the world junior team, where he has been doing more than his share.
“He's tremendously focused," said coach Rikard Gronborg. "He plays the angles real well. When we're setting up a defensive plan, he's a big part of that discussion so he knows where the shots are most likely to come from. That's how we set up a defensive system; we play towards his strengths.”
Being 6-foot-4 certainly doesn't hurt, either. But that super-human focus can be traced back to the Asperger diagnosis. The Swedish hockey program has known about it since Soderstrom began playing at the under-16 level, so they made it their business to be there for him. All the coaches have taken classes on how to work with such players and it basically boils down to setting up a structured environment and keeping communication very black-and-white, yes-and-no.
“We're very proud of the way he has been handling situations," Gronborg said. "It's been a fun challenge for all of us and a fun ride to work with him. I know I'm a better person and better coach for it, for sure.”
An outsider would never know Soderstrom was on the autism spectrum. The netminder conducts interviews in Swedish and English with ease, like any other player, and stays out in the press zone as long as he is needed.
“I'm just a regular guy on a regular team,” he said.
Which is sort of true. Because Soderstrom had a unique platform when he made his pre-tournament announcement and he made sure there was a positive force to put out there that was bigger than him alone.
“It was all about sending a message, especially to those kids who have Asperger's," he said. "I know how it is to be in those dark days when you don't feel confident. It can be very small and very scary. I want to be a support for them. Tell them to keep on going, keep having fun with life. Keep getting great support from your family and just never stop believing. Enjoy life. That has worked out for me.”