TORONTO – Gripping the top of his dressing room stall with his left hand, Oliver Ekman-Larsson lets out a deep breath before trying to explain what grief can do to a young man in the spotlight.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think about hockey at all last year,” the Arizona Coyotes‘ best defenceman and unofficial captain tells Sportsnet.
“That was a difficult year, and I don’t think I’ll ever have to go through something like that again. Hopefully not. I learned a lot about myself and my family and me as a hockey player.”
Ekman-Larsson’s mother and biggest fan, Annika, succumbed to cancer in March after a 10-year battle with the disease. She was only 52. Her health deteriorated throughout last season.
Only children who’ve watched a parent suffer can understand what OEL endured.
Even as Ekman-Larsson’s production dropped by 16 points (to 39) and he sunk to a career-worst minus-25, only those embedded with the Coyotes know how remarkably he handled his pain.
“He’s the best. I’ve never met a bad Scandinavian in all my time playing,” says former teammate and current Coyotes analyst Paul Bissonnette, who travels with the club.
“Especially last year and this year, when things weren’t going well, he never takes it out on the guys. He’s always looking into himself for answers. Then to find out all year he was playing through the illness of his mother, and he kept that under wraps? To be so selfless about a thing that was probably affecting him big time? He was more concerned about not letting it wear on the guys. That tells you all you need to know.”
You should also know that when Calder candidate Clayton Keller arrived at Arizona’s training camp last fall, the kid was shy and hesitant. It was Ekman-Larsson who made a point to chat with the prospect every morning, and make him feel comfortable.
“He was there to help me out and get me through it,” Keller says. “You see how long he’s been with this program, he’s really put in his time and effort. He believes in this team. It’s good to be around him. He made me feel real comfortable last year. He’s a good friend of mine.”
Fellow Swede William Nylander shared a IIHF world championship last spring and an unsubstantiated Toronto Maple Leafs trade rumour this week with Ekman-Larsson. His comments echo Keller’s.
“He takes care of you,” says Nylander, who appreciates how OEL, a player he just met, would take him out for meals during the worlds. “He’s a really nice guy, a guy you want to be around and just relax.”
You should also know that Arizona’s appreciation of Ekman-Larsson goes both ways.
Management opened the door for its best player to leave at any point during the season and fly back to Sweden to be with his family as Annika’s breast and lung cancer metastasized to other parts of her body. OEL did so during January’s bye week, when he “basically said goodbye” to his mother. He took off only the final three games of a season long lost to grieve with his family.
“I think it helped me that I was around my teammates, around the game I love,” Ekman-Larsson says. “The organization was great. They told me I could leave whenever I wanted. That means a lot to me, them giving me the space I needed at that point. Everybody cared. Everybody still cares. They keep asking me how I’m doing.”
He’s doing better, but naturally there are days when the pain is raw. He hides them.
“He believes in us. He’s kind of our leader. Him and [newly acquired Niklas] Hjalmarsson and [Derek] Stepan — those three guys are who us younger guys lean on,” Keller explains.
“All three of the guys come to the rink with a smile on their face and say, ‘Hey, it’s a new day. We’ve gotta focus on the next game.’ It’s good to see that.”
Good to see Arizona winning. It took until Nov. 16, but the NHL’s last-place franchise secured a regulation victory and enters Monday’s game against the Maple Leafs on a two-game winning streak.
Ekman-Larsson sees daily improvement, attributing the club’s horrendous 2-15-3 start to a rocky adjustment period. The Coyotes entered 2017-18 with a new top-line centre, new No. 1 goalie (who promptly got injured), new coaching staff, new trainers, and, for the first time in forever, no default dressing-room voice with the retirement of their long-serving captain.
“I respect Shane Doan’s assessment of talent, and he knew in his first year this kid was going to be special,” says Bissonnette, who points to Arizona’s trip to the 2012 Western Conference final as OEL’s coming-out party. “Ever since, he’s been a top-20 or top-30 defenceman in the league.”
As Bissonnette and I sit chatting in the Air Canada stands during morning-skate rushes, Ekman-Larsson calmly streaks across the blue line and beats Antti Raanta clean and high — right on cue.
“Look! He just shoved one top-corner like it was nothing,” Bissonnette nudges.
“I used to play five minutes a game, maybe 10 if I was lucky, and I was f—–g gassed. This guy was playing 25, 30 a night at a young age. It was remarkable how he carried himself. He wouldn’t even be tired. He would just skate around like a dove. I was very envious.”
Coach Rick Tocchet raves about Ekman-Larsson’s rare ability to spoil a hard forecheck with that perfect first pass. Nylander says OEL can see passing lanes others miss. Keller is wowed by his skating.
“Pretty much every game he does something that brings you out of your seat,” Max Domi says. “He’s a guy who doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Pretty down to earth, really quiet, and he knows how good he is.”
Despite being a plus-18 on shot attempts 5-on-5 while logging the most minutes (25:18 per night) on the worst team in hockey, Ekman-Larsson knows his defensive numbers have been ugly.
“If you feel like you can’t get better, you should probably think about retiring. My plus/minus hasn’t been great over the last four or five years. That’s something I want to improve,” he says, noting that empty-net goals against have skewed those metrics.
“It’s kind of frustrating if you look at the stat sheet and see minus-15 [the worst mark in the NHL]. I’ve been playing better than that.”
Which is why other teams are circling Ekman-Larsson like vultures. The 26-year-old can re-sign with the team that drafted him sixth overall (and recently signed his younger brother, Kevin, to an AHL deal) as early as July 1. Or the Coyotes could see look at the return Colorado hauled for Matt Duchene, another star 18 months removed from unrestricted free agency, and be tempted to add even more youth.
GM John Chayka maintains any OEL trade conversation hasn’t “lasted more than five seconds.”
Ekman-Larsson says he loves everything about being a Coyote. He also believes winning is important and is curious to see how the club’s shaky arena situation plays out (see: Tavares, John).
“I had four or five years here that haven’t been great, but I want to be the guy who turns it around. I love everything about Arizona,” Ekman-Larsson says.
“You have to keep in mind: When you’re not winning, people are going to start talking, and people are going to look for changes.
“If they don’t want me here, they will get rid of me. But I’m happy here, and this is the place I want to be. I want to play for Arizona.”
Bissonnette watched his pal, Doan, stay loyal to Arizona and never taste a Stanley Cup Final. He says Ekman-Larsson deserves to be on a winner. Imagine what Edmonton or Montreal or [fill in the blank] might give for a poised, young driver of offence like OEL.
“I’d hope during this rebuild, as he waits for more players to develop and help this team win, he can stick around and they can work something out,” Bissonnette says.
“Anytime you let go a No. 1 defenceman in today’s NHL, it’s not a good thing. They’re hard to find. The minute you let one go, you’re going to be looking for another one. Teams that let one go, it comes back and bites them in the ass.”
Albeit in a different continent, in a different uniform, Ekman-Larsson did get to feel what a championship is like when he played an integral role in Sweden’s thrilling IIHF victory last spring. As the gold medal was draped over his neck, he said a prayer for Annika.
“My mom passed away. It was kinda nice to have a happy ending that way. To be on a winning team, to win something, it makes you want to get that feeling every season,” Ekman-Larsson says.
“That’s something I will take with me.”