One of the stranger stories to come out of the pre-season was Mikael Wikstrand’s abrupt return back to Sweden from Ottawa Senators training camp. There may finally be an answer as to why the 21-year-old left so suddenly, however.
According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Wikstrand’s brother has been diagnosed with leukemia and is battling the disease at home in Sweden.
“Given the severe disease it is, I want to spend as much time as possible with him and also with the rest of the family,” Wikstrand told Swedish newspaper Varmlands Folkblad. “It's tough for all of us.”
Prior to telling the Swedish news outlet about his brother’s illness, Wikstrand had hinted that there was a good reason behind him leaving camp. After arriving back in Sweden, he took to Twitter to say he had returned home to be with a “seriously ill” family member.
“It was really bad of me (to not tell the Senators),” Wikstrand told Varmlands Folkblad’s Johan Ekberg. “I should have…told them why I wanted to play at home. But I'm a guy that keeps a lot of things for myself, keep it in the family. My agent did not know about it before.”
Drafted by Ottawa in the seventh round, 196th overall, of the 2012 draft, Wikstrand signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Senators in May 2014 and spent the 2014-15 campaign with Frolunda in Sweden’s SHL. But after a successful campaign in the SHL, the Senators were looking forward to potentially having Wikstrand on the big club’s roster or learning the North American game in the AHL.
Instead, Wikstrand left the team and wants to continue playing hockey in the SHL while at home with his brother. The Senators haven’t yet given him the go-ahead to continue playing in Sweden, though. After Wikstrand’s disappearance from training camp, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray was blunt with media, saying Wikstrand, “could go back and be a grocery clerk or play in the beer leagues, but he could not play (professional) hockey in any shape or form if he doesn’t play for the Ottawa organization.”
Murray, who himself is battling Stage 4 colon cancer, said he understands why Wikstrand would return home to be with his brother. Still, Murray’s tune hasn’t changed on Wikstrand’s commitment to the Senators, saying the team signed him and are asking him to honor his contract.
“They talked to us on the weekend (Oct. 17-18) and asked if he could play in Sweden and I said no,” Murray told OttawaSenators.com on Oct. 20. “I got a text from Mikael yesterday afternoon, that I haven't answered him yet but I will today, that he'd like to stay home. I can't keep him from staying home but he can't play hockey and he wants to play over there. We have to take a stand here at this time. If it changes later on...it changes later on.”
Murray added the team Wikstrand was hoping to play for, SHL Farjestad, is nearly three hours away from his hometown, whereas the Senators are roughly an eight-hour flight from Wikstrand’s hometown.
Whether or not Murray and the Senators allow Wikstrand to play in Sweden at some point this season is yet to be seen, but it doesn’t look promising for the young blueliner. While Wikstrand said his goal remains to play in the NHL, he can’t be sure when he’ll get back.
“We'll see how it goes with my brother,” Wikstrand told Ekberg. “It might take a month before everything is fine, it might take three years. Everything depends on what happens.”