Erik Karlsson: If looks could thrill

Erik Karlsson. (Adrian Wyld/AP)

The coolest man in Ottawa is a 22-year-old Swede who was supposed to be watching the playoffs from his couch, not dominating them

These are things that have actually happened in Ottawa: Every summer, there are vicious arguments about whether people who sit primly in their folding chairs at outdoor concerts can demand that no one block their view by standing, dancing or, you know, enjoying life. Last year, a woman filed a human rights complaint because the city refused to allow her to park on her own front lawn. A travel website ranked Ottawa eighth among the worst-dressed cities in the world, and when residents heard about it, they mostly just nodded in agreement. And when a new Ikea opened, hundreds of people lined up overnight in the December cold, hooting with excitement until the doors opened. Directly across the parking lot was a slightly less-huge Ikea that had been around for years.

Ottawa is a city that enjoys small pleasures and even smaller grievances. When that’s not exasperating, it’s actually endearing. But apply that mentality to an NHL team that’s seen the disappointment and bad luck of the Senators recently—including missing the playoffs twice in the past five years following 11 straight appearances, and an injury bug that seemed destined to destroy this season—and you get a neurotic sort of excitement when things are going well and sighing resignation when the wheels fall off.

But then Erik Karlsson arrived. He’s the best hockey player ever to wear a Senators uniform, a world-class defenceman in a city that’s not accustomed to big expectations. The 22-year-old is a wizard at getting the puck out of his own end because of his insane speed and pinpoint passes, and his shiftiness and penchant for finding unconventional ways up the ice continue to baffle opponents. In the series opener against Montreal, he carried the puck out of the Ottawa zone and up the middle as if on a lovely Sunday afternoon stroll before blowing by Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec and flicking the puck through Carey Price’s legs. Price could only look up at the rafters of the Bell Centre in disgust. Captain Daniel Alfredsson has always been—and still is—seen as the one who will hoist his team on his shoulders when needed. But more and more, it’s Karlsson who sends the crowd up an octave whenever he touches the puck. He is the anti-Ottawa—young, exuberant, electrifying, Euro-swaggy. And that’s why he’s exactly what the city and its hockey team needs.

Over the past few years, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray and his scouts have assembled a decent collection of Swedes, with Karlsson, Robin Lehner, Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg joining Alfredsson. Karlsson’s story has been intertwined with Alfredsson’s from the beginning, as if he was meant to end up with the Senators. He grew up in Landsbro, a village of 1,400 in southern Sweden. Landsbro’s online presence amounts to a three-line Wikipedia entry: one line stating the place exists, and two touting its homegrown celebrities, Karlsson and Detroit winger Johan Franzen (who actually hails from 15 km away). Pretty much all there is to do in Landsbro is play hockey and soccer. “There weren’t a lot of people fighting for ice time,” Karlsson notes. When he was 17, he moved 230 km away to Alfredsson’s hometown of Gothenburg to play for his future captain’s former team, Frolunda. Karlsson scored at a point-per-game pace with Frolunda’s championship junior side and was an under-18 stud for his country.

Anders Forsberg coached Karlsson with that Swedish junior team and was working as a European scout for the Senators; by the 2008 draft, held in Ottawa, Murray was convinced Karlsson—all five-foot-ten, 157 lb. of him—was his man. A last-minute deal with Nashville moved Ottawa up three spots to No. 15 and ensured no one else got the blueliner. It was Alfredsson who stepped to the microphone and, fighting to be heard over the crowd chanting his name, announced the selection. Karlsson posed for photos with the team brass, looking like a human coat-hanger under his new Senators sweater. Facing the media afterward, he was eerily confident and self-possessed, but not quite cocky. Someone asked which player he’d compare himself to. “Actually, none,” Karlsson said, his voice softer and the Swedish accent heavier than it is now. “I have my own game.”

He returned to Frolunda’s senior team for a year, then made the Senators roster out of training camp in 2009, as a 19-year-old. He moved in with Alfredsson and his family to help with the adjustment to Canada. Karlsson struggled to find his feet early in that first season and played a brief stint in Binghamton, but by Christmas, he was back on the Ottawa roster for good. He put up 26 points in 60 games as a rookie, 45 points in 2010–11 and then set the league on fire with 78 points and a Norris Trophy last season. Part of the learning curve in North America was absorbing the full weight of the silver vessel they battle for every spring. “You knew it was the playoffs and it was called the Stanley Cup,” Karlsson says, “but when you first got over here, you realized how tough it is to go deep and what meaning it has for the game.”

Last summer was huge for Karlsson, professionally and personally: He signed a seven-year, $45.5-million contract in mid-June, days before winning the Norris. And on July 7, he married Therese, his girlfriend of three years, in Sweden. They honeymooned in Africa, taking a 10-day safari and then chilling out in the island nation of Seychelles. “We just wanted to do something different,” he says. “The only thing we didn’t see was the leopard. It’s very rare.” On the domestic front, they’re both animal lovers—Therese has two horses and they just adopted a Pomeranian named Nemo. They also foster cats to help out rescue organizations and they’re the “spokescouple” for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.

When Karlsson arrived in Ottawa, he could easily have been mistaken for a kid himself. One of the first questions lobbed at him when he was drafted was the most obvious one: Seriously, 157 lb. is all you’re working with? Since then, he’s added two vertical inches and almost 20 lb. He’s still so slight that you worry for his well-being when he goes into a corner with an average-sized opponent. But his upper body is solid cement, arms seamed with surface veins, giving him a surprisingly hard shot for his size. The power hidden in his whippet-like legs routinely embarrasses opposing players who should know better by now. Karlsson moves like liquid on the ice, so effortlessly fast he seems to be on cruise control until you realize everyone around him looks like they’re standing still.

That’s why, of the long list of injuries the Senators suffered this season, the most devastating was when Karlsson’s left Achilles tendon was lacerated by a skate blade in mid-February. He underwent surgery the following day and was expected to miss four to six months; the Senators’ season and playoff hopes were tacitly written off. But again, that deceptive speed kicked in—just under 10 weeks later, he returned to practice wearing a full-contact jersey, jabbing and jawing at Zibanejad the second he hit the ice. The Senators were, against all odds, still gunning for a playoff spot after weathering all the injuries, using spare parts called up from the AHL. The team was as giddy and relieved as their fan base to have Karlsson back, whooping when he took his first easy shot during the warm-up. He was skating and carving so aggressively that there was a brief debate among the reporters watching over which leg he’d injured. Five days later, he returned to the lineup, clocking more than 27 minutes and chipping in two assists. Karlsson insists his recovery wasn’t as sneaky as it looked. Things came together quickly at the end, he says, and while he freely admits he’s not yet 100 percent, he knew he could still help the team. “As long as I don’t risk anything for my future, it’s no good sitting on the bench,” he says. Skating is still more comfortable than walking, and he has trouble with long distances off the ice. And though he’s still missing a couple of notches on his speedometer during games, his version of sluggish is faster than top speed for most players.

Karlsson is nearly as big a presence in the dressing room as he is on the ice. The confidence and flashes of humour he showed on draft day have ripened into full-on smartass. In game three against Montreal, Karlsson contributed two assists—including on the Alfredsson goal that started the bloodshed five minutes in—in his team’s 6–1 romp to take a 2–1 series lead. The second he walks into the dressing room afterward, the media horde race toward him. One PR guy asks the reporters to back off until Karlsson has a chance to untie his skates, but the defenceman waves him off. “Can you sit here and watch me for a bit?” he smirks, slouched in his stall. He manages to answer only a couple of questions before Alfredsson appears in the dressing room and most of the reporters scurry away. “Thanks, Alfie!” Karlsson yells, cackling to himself. He goes back to stripping off his gear, then notices Silfverberg doing an interview a few feet away. Karlsson starts hollering in their native Swedish, trying to throw his teammate off, then finally gives up and heads for the showers.

The following day, he strolls out to do interviews wearing a pristine white Hugo Boss golf shirt with stylishly wrinkled orange shorts. The soles on his white Nikes are the same shade as his shorts. Karlsson is clearly anxious for a quick exit, clutching his garage-door opener, car keys and two cans of dip while he talks. He launched a Twitter account at the end of April, instantly mastering the art of trolling his teammates, and after the buzzer sounded on the 236-penalty-minute game-three thrashing, he tweeted, “OMG. Over and out.” Now the reporters want him to elaborate. He makes like a contemporary artist, refusing to explain his meaning. “Who knows, right?” he says, grinning and winking. “Only I know, and I won’t tell you.” Later, away from the group,  he cops to taking the team’s comedian role, but only when the time is right. “I can be serious when you need to be serious,” he says. “But I can also kind of jump around everywhere and laugh all the time and try and keep guys happy.”

His teammates get a lot of mileage out of his fashion sense and high-maintenance grooming habits. And nobody gives Karlsson the gears more than defence partner Marc Methot. On a train to Montreal, while the other guys lounge in shorts and T-shirts, Karlsson shows up in a perfectly pressed purple silk shirt and black dress pants; Methot is only too happy to tweet a photo of his linemate asleep, his headphones somehow not interfering with his hair. Methot also reveals Karlsson’s elaborate shower setup, with an array of hair products in the dressing room labelled “65—Do Not Touch.” Karlsson says it’s all true. “If 20 guys are going to use them, I’m going to have to buy a new set every day,” he says. Then he can’t resist. “And not every guy needs it—put it that way.”

There’s no evidence on the streets yet that Ottawa has picked up the fashion prowess Karlsson brought to town. But the fan base is finally developing its own smartass personality. When Rihanna was photographed wearing a Senators jersey and not much else, “Rihannaing” became a big thing in the capital—along with a lot of pasty federal bureaucrat thigh. Then Brandon Prust called Ottawa coach Paul MacLean a “bug-eyed fat walrus,” so Ottawa fans made and sold T-shirts that said “Don’t f–k with the Walrus” (MacLean protested, “I might be husky, but I’m not fat”). Just as the Montreal series turned really nasty, MacLean’s mysterious doppelgänger reappeared, parking himself directly behind Montreal bench boss Michel Therrien. And when rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored a hat trick in the 6–1 drubbing, Ottawa fans decided they were done being pushed around by Habs fans in their own building. As if everyone at Scotiabank Place thought of it at once, they started chanting Pageau’s name to the tune of Montreal’s “Olé” song.

Back when Karlsson first introduced himself to this city as a (more) baby-faced draft prospect, what he wanted out of the NHL was simple. “Hopefully I will make the citizens of Ottawa happy,” he said. Five years on, the buttoned-down capital has discovered a cheeky new identity and source of pride—maybe even a little cockiness?—in their young superstar. The place once dubbed “the town that fun forgot” is happy. You’d think a new Ikea just opened.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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