Maple Leafs’ Pontus Aberg finding balance between parenthood, hockey

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe explains why recent call-up Pontus Aberg has earned the call to the big club, and what part of his game impressed him most while playing for the Marlies.

TORONTO — Pontus Aberg’s three-year-old daughter Molly has been asking him to take her skating ever since the snow started flying. So when his call back to the NHL first rang through on Thursday night he didn’t hear the phone going in his pocket.

A second attempt from Laurence Gilman, the Toronto Maple Leafs assistant general manager, reached him while on the outdoor ice at Harbourfront Centre with Molly — only fitting for a single parent who is always trying to strike a balance between his two loves.

“That’s pretty much my life,” Aberg said Friday. “It’s her and hockey.”

Of course, this particular call arrived both with good news and some complications.

The Leafs are heading out for a nine-day road trip that will take them through St. Louis, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Aberg had been expecting to be home this weekend for a pair of games in the American Hockey League and immediately had to pack.

As for Molly’s care, he’s in good hands.

This is the second straight season the Swede has had his mother, Annethe, living with him in North America to step in when his unique job demands require it.

“She’s helping out when I’m on the road and when I have to sleep in and nap,” said Aberg. “So, it’s working really well.”

Part of the allure for him in signing with Toronto over the summer was stability. The Leafs showed more interest than rival teams — offering him a $700,000, one-way contract — but they could also guarantee he’d live in the same apartment whether he cracked the NHL roster or not because only two kilometres separates Scotiabank Arena from where the Marlies play.

Since Molly’s birth, the 26-year-old winger has skated with Nashville, Milwaukee, Edmonton, Anaheim, San Diego and Minnesota. Last January, he was traded from the Ducks to the Wild and that was a particularly tough move for his daughter.

“From plus-15 to 20 [Celsius] to minus-30 in a flight was something that Molly didn’t take very well,” he said.

She’s since learned to love the snow and their new home in Canada’s largest city. One of Aberg’s favourite pastimes away from the rink is documenting their adventures together and a quick glimpse at his Instagram feed shows that Molly is clearly the apple of his eye.

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On the working end of the work-life balance, Aberg has shown intriguing glimpses during his previous NHL stints. He played a regular role during Nashville’s trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final and scored 11 goals in 37 games for Anaheim last season, and is now stepping into a tremendous opportunity with the Leafs.

This recall came with Andreas Johnsson being placed on long-term injured reserve because of an undisclosed leg injury and Aberg will step directly into Johnsson’s place on the top line beside Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

That’s a testament to how well he’s performed in the AHL, where he first caught Sheldon Keefe’s eye before his own promotion to the Leafs job. Keefe said Aberg always showed up well in the Marlies’ defensive video clips because of how tenacious he was in earning the puck back in situations where they lost it.

His NHL bonafides bring an added layer of trust, too.

“The biggest thing is just that he’s played in the league, he’s had success in the league, he’s scored in the league before and he’s played with good players before,” said Keefe. “Obviously me coaching him in the American League, I’ve seen what he’s capable of doing at that level when he’s playing at his best, so we’re going to give him an opportunity here to show that he can belong.”

The Leafs are sputtering and won’t have Johnsson back until Dec. 31 at the earliest, so the door is clearly open for Aberg to make an impact.

While he wasn’t pleased with his training camp performance, he says he feels more comfortable now with the systems the organization is playing. Fatherhood has also brought a new perspective on things — one that doesn’t see him dwell so much on the day-to-day ups and downs that come with being a pro athlete.

“When I have a bad game or the team’s playing bad, I don’t have to get down on myself or anything,” said Aberg. “I have to be happy around my daughter and she brings joy. She’s always happy, even [if] we lose or win, so that’s been huge for me the past two years.”

Molly is even showing a budding interest in the family business. Thursday was just her second time on the ice following a Christmas skate with the Ducks last year, but she’s proving to be an enthusiastic pupil.

“She doesn’t have the balance yet, but she’s been asking for two weeks to go skating,” said Aberg. “She knows that I can skate because she’s at every game. She’s asking me to teach her, so that’s what I’m trying to do.

“We have to buy her a pair of skates for Christmas.”

As for Aberg, his own present arrived a couple weeks early with those calls from the Leafs.

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