The Ottawa Senators surprised a lot of people when they moved up in the NHL Entry Draft and selected little-known defenseman Erik Karlsson with their first round pick.
After reading a series of articles about the 18-year-old Swedish kid in the days that followed, I was intrigued by his personality and background. I wanted to dig deeper and find out more about the Senators’ newest prospect.
So I did the only logical thing a responsible journalist would do in this situation.
I took him to IKEA.
Erik had agreed to meet me at Scotiabank Place, after he was finished with an afternoon workout. He comes out of the locker room wearing a grey T-shirt, with denim capris and slip-on canvas shoes – a stark departure from the suit and tie he wore on draft day.
The unique thing about European men is they can wear denim capri pants and look completely fashionable and chic. If say, a 31-year-old Ottawa-based TV reporter were to try wearing capris, he would be inundated with jokes about flood warnings and questions from people asking if his dryer was set to the correct temperature.
We get into my KIA Sedona minivan, which I chose to drive today instead of my Honda Civic, which periodically has a “Check Engine” light flash up. I made sure the vehicle was clear of raisin boxes, Dora movies and anything else that would make a foreign teenager feel uncomfortable.
As we cruise down the 417 highway towards IKEA, our conversation flows effortlessly from topic to topic. Erik explains how he worked out with NHL players last summer near his hometown of Landsbro, Sweden. He proudly mentions that he scored three times on five penalty shots against New York Rangers superstar Henrik Lundqvist during one session.
Moments later, we’ve switched topics and he tells me that his favourite TV show is Two And A Half Men and that he loves watching episodes of The Simpsons, Friends and Seinfeld. Erik assures me that Kramer is just as funny with Swedish subtitles.
Pulling into the parking lot, I am relieved to hear that Erik feels comfortable in this environment.
“This is just like the IKEA back home,” he tells me, as he exits the vehicle. And that is truly the beauty of the big box stores. You can be in Nepean or Nepal and it feels exactly the same.
As we walk into the store, you are probably ready for a joke about Erik’s height (he’s generously listed as 5’11″) and the ballroom inside IKEA. But come on – that’s too obvious. Besides, Erik is the perfect host for this venture and is ready to answer any of my Swedish-related questions.
The first thing he does is explain all of those ridiculous names they have for products in IKEA.
“Klippan means rock,” he says, pointing to the sign above a loveseat. The IKEA marketing department in Sweden must think we are absolute fools in North America. If they can get us to buy a sofa which is named after a rock, we will probably purchase just about anything.
I see a rug with the name “Sigrid” on it and Erik quickly explains that one as well.
“Sigrid is a name for old ladies in Sweden.”
Scratch that one off the potential baby name list for me.
We walk into the restaurant in IKEA, where I intend to conduct the majority of our interview. After spending most of the afternoon at an off-ice workout, Erik is clearly hungry and doesn’t turn down my offer to buy him a meal.
I’ve always been curious to see if the Swedish meatballs sold at the IKEA restaurant measure up to the ones back in the motherland. Now, I finally have an authentic test subject.
Erik peers at his potential supper through the cafeteria-style Plexiglas with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“These don’t look like Swedish meatballs,” he says. “And I’ve never had my meatballs with fries before.”
Welcome to North America, Erik. I think you can get fries with your sushi over here.
Before we hit the cashier, Erik grabs a cup of coffee. He has been drinking coffee for many years now and even admits to having the odd cup between periods of games.
“When you are sweating and hot, a cup of coffee can really cool you down,” he explains of his practice of drinking a hot beverage during an intermission. He also drinks his coffee black and wonders how North Americans can put so much cream and sugar in theirs.
I let Erik take three or four bites of his meatballs before I ask him to give me his opinion. And much to my surprise, he has a favorable review.
“These taste just like the ones at home. I would definitely come here and eat my meatballs,” he declares, wiping the lingonberry sauce from his chin.
And as much as I was surprised by his love for the IKEA meatballs, Erik had a bigger bombshell in store for me.
“You know, I’ve heard a lot of Swedish players in the NHL will go to the IKEA in their city to buy their food,” he divulges to my amazement.
So there you have it, autograph hounds.
If you’re looking for Daniel Alfredsson, don’t bother waiting outside of Scotiabank Place in sub-zero conditions. Just park yourself in front of the pickled herrings and squeezable smoked roe fish in the IKEA grocery department for six weeks and Captain Senator is bound to turn up at some point.
As we gradually move away from the topic of food, Erik begins to tell me about his childhood and his love of video games. An avid Xbox player, he often can be found battling his friends in FIFA or NHL games.
“When you play against your friends, you never want to lose. There is a lot of prestige there,” he says with a reasonable amount of seriousness. He also explains that back in Sweden, it is frowned upon to choose Detroit as your team in any NHL video game – even though the Red Wings are the most popular club because they have eight Swedes on their roster.
“They are too good. If you pick Detroit, everyone will say you are a wuss because it’s too easy. So you are not allowed to use them.” Remember that rule the next time you are playing a video game in Stockholm.
Ironically, he says he often used the Ottawa Senators as his team of choice growing up. “Before the salary cap came in, they were great. They had big hitters like Zdeno Chara and Chris Phillips that I loved using.”
So even though Erik’s scouting report says that he is a small and skilled defenseman, the fact that he appreciates using Zdeno Chara in a video game has to count for something.
Only two teams – Chicago and San Jose – did not interview Erik in the days leading up to NHL Entry Draft. Because he was a relatively unknown commodity, he was subjected to a lot of intense and unusual questions during the interview process. The strangest question he got came from an unidentified team who was looking to get a better sense of the teenager’s mental make-up.
“They gave me a test. You could take a pill to be 6′-feet tall, 210 lbs and play like Nick Lidstrom starting tomorrow. But when you turned 40 years old, you would have a 50-50 chance to live. Would you take the pill?”
After a few moments passed, my curiosity got the better of me.
“How did you answer that question?”
“I told them of course I would like to play like Nick Lidstrom,” he replied. “And I would do whatever it takes to make it.”
That was certainly the answer the club wanted to hear. And that mentality is likely a reason why the Senators traded up to the 15th spot overall to nab Erik.
Erik seemingly has all of the traits Bryan Murray is looking for in a player, The general manager has been quoted a number of times lately saying he wants to bring quality people into his organization.
After he finishes his meal, Erik displays his boy scout nature for me first hand. He spends a good chunk of time making sure his dirty plate and cutlery are put in the proper spot. Murray would be proud.
Winding our way out of the store, we pass the “As Is” section and my mind immediately wanders to the topic of Ray Emery. Perhaps it’s because Emery is now sitting in the NHL’s version of the “As Is” section. I was curious to know if word of the netminder’s escapades had traveled overseas.
“Of course, everyone has heard of Ray Emery. The thing I remember most is the time he fought the Buffalo team,” chuckles Erik, recalling the time Emery fought both Andrew Peters and Martin Biron in a February 2007 game. “But most of us know more about Martin Gerber because he is European.”
We head towards the exit door and back towards my vehicle. I’m pretty sure this will be the last time Erik can breeze through an IKEA in Ottawa without being recognized by one single person.
Driving back to his hotel, I ask him if he’s ever heard of Tim Horton’s, since he is a self-proclaimed coffee fanatic. He says he’s never heard of Tim Horton’s; and for the record he hasn’t been to a Starbuck’s either.
I feel it’s my duty as an upstanding Canadian citizen to take Erik for a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee before I drop him back.
I order him a medium black coffee, which prevents me from using the “double-double” lingo I was desperately hoping to impress him with.
The coffee is too hot for Erik to have right away. As we drive back to his hotel, I’m terrified that I will hit a bump and Erik will spill coffee all over his lap. A Seinfeld fan himself, I’m sure he would find the connection to Kramer’s coffee accident humorous. However, I’m not so sure Bryan Murray would think it was funny that I contributed to the second-degree burning of his prized prospect.
We wait until we are at the door of his hotel before he takes a sip. I feel like there is a lot of pressure for him to like the coffee. After all, this is like a taste of Canada.
“This is very good. I can drink this,” he says, much to my relief.
Something tells me this isn’t the last time he enjoys a Tim Horton’s beverage. Because when Erik Karlsson comes to play for the Ottawa Senators, it won’t just be for a cup of coffee.