LAS VEGAS — Toby Enstrom hates the heat. Always has. He was raised in the world heritage area known as the High Coast, a short drive from the hallowed hockey town of Örnsköldsvik in central Sweden.
They get four seasons there: A harsh and dark fall that is followed by three to four months of snowy winter. Spring brings the green back to the trees. In summer, the sun sets for as little as 20 minutes per day, but people are still talking about the time two years ago when the mercury hit 28 degrees Celsius.
“I love the snow during the winter,” Enstrom said on an afternoon so hot here that it was almost impossible to imagine such conditions existing anywhere.
It was a reminder that Örnsköldsvik, much like Winnipeg, is about as far away from Las Vegas as possible.
And also that Enstrom came close to being shuttled from one extreme to the other because of last year’s expansion draft. That alone might not make him unique among his NHL peers, but what does is that he chose to put himself in that vulnerable position by waiving his no-movement clause.
Enstrom did the Jets a huge favour. He allowed them to protect seven established forwards rather than just four. The only other NHLer to waive his NMC in expansion was Marc-Andre Fleury and he did so with the understanding he’d be joining the Golden Knights for their inaugural season.
That was about the last thing Enstrom hoped to see happen after spending his entire career with the same organization. The 33-year-old defenceman had grown so fond of Winnipeg and the Jets that he told general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff he couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else.
However, he also quickly consented to the team’s request after meeting with Cheveldayoff at season’s end and again in Europe a week or two later. He decided to put the organization ahead of himself, with only a handshake to guarantee that the Jets would keep his best interests in mind as well.
“You know, for me it came pretty clear right away that it was something I wanted to do. But of course I told him, too, that I wanted to stay in Winnipeg,” said Enstrom. “We had something good going on and I wanted to be a part of it. I talked to him: ‘Of course I’ll help out any way I can.’ But my goal was to stay.
“He made that promise to me, that he was going to do everything he could to keep me around.”
It immediately eased the number crunch that had left Cheveldayoff with an unenviable decision. He was obviously protecting Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba on the blue line and would have had to either expose Tyler Myers or go with the 4-4-1 option, rather than 7-3-1, if Enstrom’s NMC hadn’t been waived.
That would have meant leaving forwards Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Joel Armia vulnerable to being selected by Vegas. It was something each of those players wondered about as the expansion process played out.
“Before the end of the year, you’re starting to think there’s a possibility,” said Lowry. “I know there was a lot of talk. A lot of people [were saying] ‘Well is it going to be Perreault or Lowry or whoever? Who’s going to be that other guy they protect?'”
Enstrom’s act of selflessness removed the need for a decision, but wound up creating another issue for Cheveldayoff.
The Golden Knights decided to select the highest number of defencemen allowable under the expansion rules because they deemed them to be the most valuable commodity to be flipped in subsequent transactions. And they were zeroing in on Enstrom as their choice from the Jets in the days leading up to the June 21 expansion draft.
But, mindful of his promise, Cheveldayoff instead worked out a late trade that saw Winnipeg move back 11 spots in the first round of the entry draft, while also sending a 2019 third-rounder as a sweetener to have the Golden Knights take pending free agent Chris Thorburn instead.
Essentially, the Jets managed to keep their blossoming roster intact by sacrificing a little bit of draft capital. When you consider how badly other teams were squeezed by Vegas, it was a coup.
“It doesn’t happen if Toby doesn’t wave,” said Cheveldayoff.
“It’s kind of an idea of maybe what goes on in our locker room, for you,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “You don’t do that if you don’t care about the team or the city or the organization.”
It’s paying off for everyone involved with the Jets now facing Vegas in the Western Conference Final. These are easily the biggest games of Enstrom’s career, given that 719 of the 723 he’d played before this spring came in the regular season.
Another important aspect to this story is that he may very well be playing out the final days of his NHL career. He’s on an expiring contract and married Swedish TV personality Camilla Nordlund last summer. She lives in Winnipeg but still holds career aspirations of her own.
Enstrom says that all of his focus is currently being devoted to playing at his absolute highest level in these playoffs but acknowledged that family considerations will factor into any decisions made this summer.
“I’m not getting any younger and I’m a big family guy, too,” he said. “I’ve been away from my parents and two brothers, two sisters, I’ve been away for 11 years. … It’s not only me in the picture. [My wife] likes to work, too. I’m not going to be selfish and say ‘This is what we’re doing.’
“As of right now, I’m just happy to be playing hockey still.”
In a parallel universe, he might very well have ended up here anyway. Only playing for the Golden Knights. Or maybe he would have chosen to retire rather than moving to Vegas or another city (Enstrom wouldn’t say when I asked him about that on Thursday).
Instead everything has played out just as he would have wished. And there remains a chance here for a fairytale ending to a career that included a Swedish league title with MODO back in 2007 — the first for the Örnsköldsvik-based team in 28 years.
“My hometown is similar to Winnipeg. They love hockey,” said Enstrom. “When we won the gold back home … that was huge. But I feel like this [run in the Stanley Cup playoffs] is a whole different level, it’s hard to compare the two. I mean, we’re in this one, but we’re not happy where we are — we’re only halfway — and we’re in it to win.
“Hopefully if you ask me five weeks or six weeks from now, I will say ‘That was the highlight of my life.'”