PITTSBURGH – In Sweden they call it the “comfortable silence.”
People in that country, particularly those from the north, have a penchant for letting their thoughts hang in the air. Not much needs to be said in conversation.
You can sense it when you speak with San Jose Sharks forward Melker Karlsson about his unlikely journey from Lycksele, the remote community where he was born and raised.
“It’s a very, very small city up north in Sweden,” said Karlsson. “We have a bridge – that’s it. That’s why you call it a city I think. Not much. It’s a small city, like 10,000 people.”
It is the kind of place even Swedes rarely visit.
The three others present for this Stanley Cup Final – Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin and Oskar Sundqvist, a northerner himself – all say they haven’t been. Hidden eight hours north of Stockholm, with 22 hours of darkness per day in winter, Lycksele is so peaceful that reindeers literally roam free across the roads.
And yet, from this most unlikely of locations, an unbelievable possibility is at hand: The Stanley Cup could come back for the second straight summer.
It made its first-ever visit a year ago when David Rundblad won it with the Chicago Blackhawks. Now Karlsson is in the final and has a chance to do it, too.
For a small city with a strong hockey culture it’s akin to hitting the lottery twice in two years … while holding just two tickets.
You see, there isn’t even currently a player in the top level of the Swedish Hockey League that hails from Lycksele. Karlsson almost seemed surprised when I asked him if anyone had ever reached the NHL before him and Rundblad.
“From Lycksele? No,” he said. “It’s just me and David.”
As it turns out, they defied the odds together.
They were born three months apart and have basically been life-long friends. They have been texting with one another during this extended Sharks playoff run.
“We were like almost neighbours,” said Karlsson. “Maybe two minutes walk.”
Rundblad, a defenceman, was the bigger talent while Karlsson had to fight for everything he got. Rundblad was a first-round pick by St. Louis in 2009 while Karlsson passed through the NHL entry draft three times without being claimed.
The most important step they took was deciding to move 90 minutes down the road to Skelleftea together at age 15. They arrived just as the club was going through a massive transformation that saw AIK climb from the second division to playing for six consecutive SHL championships in a little more than a decade.
Before signing a free-agent contract with the Sharks, Karlsson was part of the AIK Skelleftea teams that won back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014 – playing with a slew of current NHLers in the process.
Sundqvist was one of them and has a unique perspective on what Karlsson represents to those back in Lycksele.
“I mean everyone in his hometown knows who he is,” he said.
“It’s beautiful up there,” added Hornqvist. “The sun is shining from probably two in the morning until 11 o’clock right now, it’s almost never dark. A lot of lakes and a lot of woods, and just a quiet atmosphere.”
Karlsson is giving people a good excuse to stay up at all hours to watch hockey games being played a continent away. He forced the turnover that led to Joonas Donskoi’s overtime winner in Game 3 and scored during Monday’s 3-1 loss in Game 4.
He had family in town for those games in San Jose.
“As a mother? Hey, you’re just so proud,” Asa Karlsson told Viasat Sweden during her visit.
The Sharks may be facing a 3-1 series deficit with the Stanley Cup Final shifting back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Thursday, but they still have a chance. And Karlsson certainly knows a thing or two about overcoming the odds.
Asked how two childhood friends managed to become the first NHLers from their small city, he replied: “I have no idea man.”
Imagine if they followed it up by having their names etched side-by-side into the rounded edges of the Stanley Cup? That would be worthy of some celebration back in Lycksele.
“Obviously he won it and went there,” said Karlsson. “So I want to do the same and bring it home again.”