CHICAGO – “Chicken Swede!”
Remember when that was a thing in hockey?
Was it those Tweety Bird yellow sweaters they wore? Or Inge Hammarstrom, Borje Salming and the old “Philly Flu”?
But somehow, from Sweden’s national colours was born that decidedly ignorant, made-in-Canada slur, a dubious and semi-racist insult that brands you a lout when spoken – and clearly demarks you as someone who has never seen Niklas Hjalmarsson play.
Or the Sedin twins. Or Niklas Kronwall. Or Peter Forsberg. Or Mattias Norstrom…
You want to talk pain threshold? Meet Hjalmarsson, the shot-blocking, blood ‘n’ guts defenceman for the Chicago Blackhawks. He is the son of a Swedish cattle farmer who can stomach as much pain as anyone from anywhere.
“He’s got to be (ranked) in the top whatever,” said Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville. “I don’t know who else I would put in contention with him.”
You could imagine the whiff of opportunity for the St. Louis Blues when that Vladimir Tarasenko laser ripped off of the foot of Hjalmarsson early in Game 1 of this Western Conference series, and a Blackhawks team already missing Duncan Keith watched its next-most valuable defenceman stumble to the bench.
He didn’t miss a shift, playing – that night.
“I don’t understand him as a player,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock marveled. “It looks like you need five stretchers on the end of the bench for this guy, and yet he keeps on playing. I don’t get the guy. He won’t go down or when he goes down, they carry him off and he does a U-turn and he’s back playing.
“He should be down and out. He should have been down and out four years ago. But he keeps coming back.”
Hjalmarsson (pronounced: YAHL-mar-son) is quite possibly the most underrated defenceman in the game today overshadowed on his own team by Keith and usual partner Brent Seabrook.
I know, everyone has a candidate for Most Underrated Player. But ask yourself: How many of those other candidates have been central figures in three Stanley Cup victories, but you can’t even spell their name?
We all know of the new, Nicklas Lidstrom-inspired generation of Swedish defencemen, with studs like Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Klingberg, Hampus Lindholm, Niklas Kronwall and Hjalmarsson. Together they form a national team blue line that is every bit as good as Team USA’s, and can surely give the Canadians a run for blue-line pedigree.
Well, among that group, Hjalmarsson – known as “Hammer” to teammates – is Sweden’s rock. He is the best defender in a country that, per capita, produces the best defencemen in the game today.
“I somehow always ended up close to my goalie,” he said, when asked why he didn’t follow the offensive style of his childhood hero Lidstrom. “I tried to play forward a couple of times when I was younger, and I always ended up in front of my net anyway, somehow. I guess it’s in my blood.”
What Hjalmarsson did emulate, however, is what we often forget: Lidstrom wasn’t just the best offensive defenceman of his era. He was the best defensively too.
“It always looked so simple when he played,” he said of Lidstrom. “I am trying to have a good gap (the crucial area between a defender and the puck carrier). He was always a stick’s length away from opponents, a poke check away from pretty much every situation out there on the ice.
“He made it look so simple because he did all the small things right.”
You can never say that Hjalmarsson “makes it look simple.” He is as courageous a shot-blocker as there is in hockey today, whose pain tolerance is off the charts high. That is not simple, nor can it be made to look easy.
On a team with two-time Norris Trophy winner Keith, and his trusty career sideman Seabrook, it is Hjalmarsson who has allowed Keith more offensive time, as he has the defensive zone under control. He does the dirty work for which no trophy is awarded, and in Game 2 he lined up as Keith’s partner, while Seabrook played with Trevor van Riemsdyk.
“That’s where I make my money, so to speak,” said the polite, well-spoken native of Eksjo, Sweden, population: nearly 10,000. “I’m a defensive-type player, and I take a lot of pride in that. Maybe chip in offensively every once in a while.”
Hjalmarsson’s annual 25 points are a bonus on top of his true product, which are the points he denies. This season, the 28-year-old had the most defensive zone starts on the Blackhawks (524), almost 25 per cent more than the next in line, Keith (429). In fact, only one Swedish defenceman in the league — New Jersey’s Adam Larsson — had more defensive zone starts or played more shorthanded minutes than Hjalmarsson.
Truly, every Stanley Cup team has a player like this one: Underrated outside the dressing room, but coveted by the group; a quiet bystander while others reap the individual awards, but the first guy those winners thank.
“He is for sure one of those guys, the way he sacrifices his body,” said St. Louis’ Swedish centre Patrik Berglund. “Hjalmarsson, he’s a helluva player. He can play, in my opinion, all the roles that they let him. He plays with a big heart, and has won three Cups with the Blackhawks. Obviously, A very, very good hockey player.”
The San Jose Sharks once made an offer sheet for Hjalmarsson, which Chicago was wise enough to match. Theirs aren’t the only scouts taking notice.
“Lots of defencemen are flash,” said one rogue scout watching this series. “Hjalmarsson? He’s all substance.”