By David Singh in Vancouver | Photography by Jimmy Jeong
By David Singh in Vancouver | Photography by Jimmy Jeong
What Vancouver Canucks star Elias Pettersson learned from the loss of his closest childhood friends — and the fight to get them back

Elias Pettersson senses something is wrong. He can feel it in the pit of his stomach. It’s Dec. 13, 2011 and he’s in the gymnasium at Minervaskolan, a middle school in Ange, Sweden. There’s a floorball tournament taking place this morning and students were supposed to arrive by 8 a.m. That deadline passed 30 minutes ago and Pettersson has begun to worry.

Two of his best friends, Valerik and Davit Danielyan, have not shown up. That’s more than strange, because Pettersson knows the brothers were looking forward to this tournament just as much as him. The 13-year-old pulls out his phone and tries calling his friends, but there’s no answer. Stressed and on the verge of tears, he rings his father and asks him to check out the Danielyan family’s apartment. The knot in his stomach is tightening. “I was just thinking the worst,” he will later explain.

When Torbjörn Pettersson calls his son back, he explains that he has just spoken with the Danielyans’ neighbour. At 6 a.m. that morning, police reported to the residence and gave his friends’ family 15 minutes to pack their belongings. Valerik, Davit, their older brother, Hayk, and parents, Tshakan and Susanna, were being deported back to Armenia.

As the rest of the class catches wind that something is up, the nervous energy spreads. When Pettersson gets off the phone, he relays to students in the hallway what happened to their mates and the news is met with complete silence. Then everybody begins to cry.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Pettersson, leaning forward in his seat and pausing a moment to gather himself. He’s wearing a black toque and matching CELINE hoodie, along with crisp, light blue jeans and unlaced cream Yeezys. The Vancouver Canucks star has just wrapped up a mid-December practice and is sitting on a leather couch in a suite at Rogers Arena. Retelling the story is difficult, even eight years later, but it doesn’t seem as hard for him as it might be on other days. That’s because he’s flanked by Valerik, Davit and Hayk. The brothers are visiting Canada for the first time and Pettersson is their gracious host.

It took a long time to get to this happy reunion, though. The deportation experience in 2011 rocked the Danielyans. It also shook their small Swedish town and impacted a young Pettersson, forcing him to confront realities that most young hockey players never have to face and helping to shape who the cornerstone of the Canucks franchise is today — how he treats people and views life.

Pettersson won the Calder Trophy in 2019 with 66 points in 71 games. This season, he's averaging more than a point per game.

The Danielyan brothers don’t know why their father chose Sweden of all countries, but they prefer to describe the decision in hockey terms. Tshakan arrived in 2000 to “scout” the Scandinavian nation and, two years later, his wife and three young children followed. The boys were born in Armenia, near the capital Yerevan, and say simply that their parents moved to Sweden seeking a better future for the family.

After two years in the northern town of Boliden, the Danielyans moved 500 km south to Ange. They became entrenched in that small community and the kids forged their relationship with Pettersson and his older brother, Emil, on a gravel soccer pitch where they spent many hours together. The match was almost perfect: Emil and Hayk are the same age, as are Elias and the youngest Danielyan, Valerik. The boys went to grade school together at Björkbackaskolan. Additionally, the fact that they lived just a three-minute bike ride apart helped foster the friendship.

The brothers assimilated well, eventually learned the language and even dabbled in hockey with the local team. At one point in their childhood, Valerik and Davit found themselves linemates with Pettersson. “It was quite an experience,” says Valerik, who recalls the time he tripped coming over the boards and accidentally slide tackled the future NHLer. “There was always something wrong with my stick. There was a hole in it, I think.”

Adds Pettersson with a grin: “They made the right choice not to continue it.”

The Danielyans’ early experience finding stability and a better life in the country wasn’t an unusual one. As of late 2018, 19.1 per cent of the country’s population was foreign born, according to Statistics Sweden. By comparison, the latest census data pegs 21.9 per cent of the Canadian population as foreign born. Jacob Markstrom, Pettersson’s countryman and teammate on the Canucks, hails from Gavle, and estimates his middle school was comprised of 50 per cent immigrants. “It’s a very open country. I’ve got a lot of friends who are not originally, or their parents are not originally, from Sweden,” Markstrom says. “I think that helps us as a country in Sweden to widen our views. You learn so much from those people and their stories of where they grew up.”

The elder Danielyans also built connections in Ange. Susanna found work at a grocery store and the family eventually moved into an apartment they rented from Pettersson’s father, next door to the police station. Things were going smoothly nearly a decade into their life in Sweden.

Valerik (far left) and Davit (far right) played on a line with Pettersson as kids but weren't quite up to his level on the ice. "There was a hole in [my stick], I think,” jokes Valerik.

It’s hard for the Danielyans to decipher what exactly woke them up at 6 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2011. It could have been the loud banging on the front door; it could have been the yelling through the mail slot. Regardless, they were immediately in a state of panic and confusion. “Mom opened the door,” remembers Davit. “And then five or six policemen [rushed in]. They were like, ‘Oh, hi. You have 15 minutes to pack. You’re going back home.’”

Outside the building, there were five police cars and two trucks — roughly a vehicle for each door and window of their apartment, the boys recall. The police separated each member of the family and initially took their phones. They were then divided between three police cars and driven more than an hour to the airport in Sundsvall. A private plane was waiting to take the Danielyans and another family of four to Armenia. The panic and confusion they’d woken up with hadn’t dissipated, and to it they’d added a healthy dose of fear.

After Torbjörn Pettersson relayed the news to Elias, he rang his older son, Emil, who was living 100 km away in Timra, where he attended high school and played elite hockey. Emil’s classes started late that morning, so the unexpected phone call woke him. After hanging up with his father, he frantically dialled Hayk, trying several times before finally reaching his friend and learning the startling details. “You have a million thoughts,” Emil says. “Like what are you going to do? You have to do something. But at that time, for me, I was 17. I can’t really do anything. How are you going to make a difference? You felt powerless. It was a horrible feeling.

“Just hearing the panic in his voice and then me trying to say something to make him feel better,” adds Emil, who was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2013 and currently plays in Sweden. “Trying to make him feel a bit more calm. That was impossible. When I got off the phone with him, I cried.”

Ange is a tiny place. It had a population of less than 3,000 in 2010, just before the Danielyans were forced from their home, and many in the town were left reeling. The family was well-liked and very much a part of the community. After the initial shock, the response from Ange residents was swift. A ‘Get the Danileyans back’ Facebook page was started and people began collecting donations for the family. Large groups made the drive to protest outside of the Migration Agency in Sundsvall. Pettersson and a few friends were interviewed for an article in a local newspaper, while a TV news station sent a reporter to his school a week or so after the deportation. Pettersson doesn’t recall his exact words in what was his first on-camera interview, but instead offers the gist: “‘Why are you doing this? This family was living here for [nearly 10 years],’” he says. “But I didn’t understand much then. I just wanted my best friends back.”

The brothers say they never received a reason for their deportation. It has been reported in Aftonbladet, a Stockholm daily translated for Sportsnet by Tino Sanandaji, that the family’s application for asylum was denied after multiple appeals and that they lacked legal permission to live in the country. “The cause is that there [was] no war in Armenia by then, so the migration authority did not judge the family had cause for protection as asylum seekers and denied their applications,” says Sanandaji, a researcher at the Institute for Economic and Business History Research in Stockholm who has written on immigration issues and himself immigrated to Sweden from Iran when he was nine. “This is common, and regardless of the legal cause, the experience of being uprooted is traumatizing for children, in particular if they had lived there for several years.”

The ordeal was indeed harrowing for the Danielyans, who slept at the Yerevan airport on their first night in Armenia, before finding a place to stay. They didn’t have any family left in the country and were essentially dropped there, as if they were residents. “We didn’t know the language,” says Hayk, speaking for himself and his brothers. “So, it was like, ‘What are you going to do now?’ We can’t understand it or write it. We never went to school there, so it was very terrifying.” They were also genuinely afraid, he adds, that they would never return to Sweden.

Pettersson scored twice against Vegas in front of his friends on Dec. 19. He'd start 2020 hot as well, notching a goal and two assists in a Jan. 2 win over Chicago.

Elias Pettersson could feel the excitement in the pit of his stomach. It was early March 2012, during the third period of a travel game, and he’d lost his ability to focus. He knew the Danielyans were returning to Sweden that afternoon after 81 days in limbo in Armenia. Susanna had secured a work visa, paving the way for the family’s reentry.

Pettersson wanted to be at the airport in Stockholm to greet them, but he had a game in Sundsvall. His squad lost 5–0, but any disappointment about the result was soon forgotten. On the way home, the team’s driver pulled into a gas station and announced that something was wrong with the bus. When a minivan pulled up and parked alongside them, the driver then announced, “Hey, look who’s here.” The Danielyans stepped out of their ride and were immediately rushed by Pettersson and his teammates. “I hugged them and didn’t let go of them,” Pettersson says.

The brothers maintain that the efforts of the people of Ange had a direct influence in reversing the deportation. The story gained widespread attention, notes Pettersson. “It’s unbelievable that they care so much. I feel like they are my family,” Hayk says of the townsfolk’s relentless work. “Without them, it would never be possible.”

The brothers each have jobs in Sweden now — Valerik works in a supermarket, Davit for a transit company, and Hayk builds electrical cabinets — and spend plenty of time with the Petterssons during the off-season. They recently received their visas and were allowed to travel outside of the country for the first time since their deportation. They celebrated that with a surprise visit to Pettersson at the World Championship in Slovakia last May. Emil and his girlfriend, Fanny, planned the trip and asked Pettersson to stand on the blue line during warmups before the quarterfinal against Finland. They wanted him to pose for a picture, which he found strange, but when he obliged, he looked up and saw the brothers waving and yelling to him from the stands. “I was getting really emotional because that was the moment I knew they had their Swedish passports and they could travel the world and we don’t have to worry about the thing that happened back in 2011,” he says.

Since then, Pettersson, Valerik and Davit have travelled to Spain together and the hope is that Hayk can join them on a trip to Croatia next summer. Their Canadian trip was planned with careful consideration of the Canucks schedule — Pettersson wanted a week with several home games and, in accordance with the Danielyans’ work schedules, they settled on the brothers staying in Vancouver from Dec. 16 to 24. The plan was for them to, of course, take in their first NHL games, dine at a few of the city’s popular restaurants, visit some sights and maybe even Whistler.

The brothers, travelling with another friend Robert Eriksson, all stayed in Pettersson’s condo, and the 21-year-old is proud to show off their setup. He pulls out his phone in the Rogers Arena suite and opens a video of him moving room-to-room, each one boasting someone fast asleep on an air mattress. It concludes in the living room, where Hayk is awake, headphones on, fully engrossed in a video game.

Ange rallied around the Danielyans after the deportation. Pettersson and the brothers believe the community's campaign was crucial in the family's return to Sweden.

Ask Pettersson about the long-term impact of that confusing and fearful morning eight years ago and he’ll tell you it taught him an important lesson: Never take anything for granted. “Life isn’t how you want it all the time,” he says. “And this for sure showed it. But good things happen if you put in the effort.” The people of Ange banded together to help get the Danielyans back home and Pettersson is doing his part to make sure his friendship with them remains strong.

Home games and work schedules aside, the brothers picked a great time to visit Vancouver. Their stay allowed them to enjoy the Canucks Family Skate, which transforms the Rogers Arena rink into a Christmas wonderland. The frames between the glass on the boards are lit up like candy canes, while the image of a fireplace is displayed on the video screen above centre ice, complete with Canucks-coloured stockings. Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” is among the tunes blasting over the sound system and there’s a sled with Santa’s giant bag of gifts making its way around, as different team personnel and players — Pettersson included — take turns pushing it.

After Pettersson hands off the sled, he notices a little girl in a pink helmet skating with her older sister. The girl, in a frilled white dress, is wobbling around and falls before her sister can catch her. Pettersson spots the wipeout and helps the little one to her feet, steadying her for a few seconds as she gathers her bearings, and then guides her off the ice.

If you chat with teammates in the Canucks locker room about Pettersson the person, what you hear is remarkably consistent: He’s a quiet guy, very mature, very humble, very respectful. What you also learn is that he cares a great deal about people. “He understands that there’s a bigger picture outside of hockey,” says Brock Boeser, Pettersson’s best friend on the team. Boeser went through a trying 2019 while his father faced a recurrence of cancer. He says Pettersson checks in frequently to see how his friend is faring. “He always makes sure I’m doing well,” says Boeser. “He really cares.”

Canucks head coach Travis Green is well aware of the empathy that his star player possesses. He was touched when Pettersson mentioned Jason Botchford in his Calder Trophy acceptance speech at the NHL Awards in June. The popular Vancouver sportswriter died in late April at age 48. When Green invited Botchford’s widow, Kathryn, and her three children to a game, the coach watched Pettersson embrace them during a locker-room tour.

“I knew that Jason had a real fondness of Petey, and Petey really respected and appreciated that,” Green says. “He was touched that they were there. I know it affected him. He cares about life and people that are affected by hardship. Obviously, [Jason’s] wife and his kids are really affected by what happened. It was just touching, for me, to see how Petey reacted when he saw them.

“You can tell when someone is genuinely sad or understanding how affected their family would have been,” Green adds. “I’ve seen players in the heat of games and after games who are sometimes indulged in their own [thoughts and] what they’ve got going on. [Pettersson wasn’t].”

"I appreciate my time so much more with them now," Pettersson says of his friends. From left to right: Hayk, Valerik, Pettersson, Davit and Robert Eriksson.

Pettersson is completely drenched, his blonde hair dripping with sweat as if he’d been submerged in water. He quickly peels off his jersey and gear then braces for the lights, cameras and microphones that descend on him in the Canucks dressing room following a 5–4 overtime victory against the Vegas Golden Knights. Chris Tanev scored the winner in what was a needed triumph for a club that had dropped three in a row.

Pettersson’s two goals, including a nifty third-period marker that beat Marc-Andre Fleury short side, proved instrumental. But they also carried significance in that he was finally able to put on a show for his friends in the stands. No. 40 hadn’t lit the lamp two nights prior against the Canadiens during the Danielyans’ first-ever NHL game, but at least he made up for it here. On this evening, they were sitting two sections down from where they were earlier in the week and Pettersson tried to spot them. “The game against Montreal, I could see them,” he says. “I was looking today and I couldn’t find them.”

Even though he couldn’t delight in the smiles on their faces, the experience of playing in front of the brothers was no less special for Pettersson. There was a time when he genuinely thought he would never see them again. The anguish of their deportation stays with him and he’ll often use it as sort of an internal compass.

“I appreciate my time so much more with them now, because I always think back to that and know how good we have it now,” Pettersson says. “It was tough for me, but they are the victims of this. Life can happen and life can be tough. You don’t think it can happen to you, but I think it just teaches you to appreciate what you have in life.”

Photo Credits

Jimmy Jeong