EDMONTON — It has never been the Edmonton Oilers’ fault, but it has been this hockey team’s problem for many years.
Recruiting players in the National Hockey League, to a certain extent, means recruiting that player’s family.
It’s cold here in the winter months, and dark. I know because I was born here.
In a 32-team National Hockey League, there are 30 other cities that — for the winter months — are warmer, lighter, and likely easier to be left behind in when a hockey player hops on the team charter and heads out on a road trip.
In the bad years, this was crippling. It is why Edmonton and Winnipeg inhabited more “no-trade lists” than any other NHL cities.
But we’ve always said this: As soon as a player can say to his family that signing in Edmonton gets him closer to winning a Stanley Cup, it will begin to change.
Now that he can add, “And, I have a chance to play on Connor McDavid’s team,” the free-agent field has grown even wider for the Oilers.
Today, the fog has lifted. Players like Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, Cody Ceci, Jack Campbell and Mattias Janmark have chosen Edmonton as unrestricted free agents. Now, folks across the NHL are wondering if Mattias Ekholm has been — above all the Patrick Kanes, Joonas Korpisalos and Ryan O’Reillys — the most impactful trade deadline acquisition across the NHL.
He is exactly what an emerging Cup contender needs to help pave its way to the top. Experienced, rugged, skilled and smart, Ekholm embodies the player who used to go elsewhere.
We know, Ekholm was traded here. He did not choose to come.
But consider the fact that Ida — Mattias’ better half, and the expecting mother to Maya (two) and William (five) — is part of the package, and there is reason to say that this trade could be general manager Ken Holland’s finest work yet.
“She grew up in the northern part of Sweden, where there’s even more snow than there is here,” began Mattias Ekholm, in a generous sit-down interview conducted this week. “She has always just been very pro four seasons.
“We were at Snow Valley ski hill here (on Tuesday). Ida was taking the kids up and down the hill. I was just there supporting,” he said. “I’m not saying, ‘Oh, she loves it,’ just to win over the fans. It’s the truth. She’s from there. She’s grown up in it. We’ve missed having snow on Christmas.”
Ekholm has three years left on his contract after this one. This news about Ida is every bit as encouraging to a long-suffering Oilers fan as is the incredible pedigree of Ekholm’s play that has been on display this March.
But what do they say about life? If it seems too good to be true, it probably is?
Well, welcome to hockey’s Fantasy Island, where an absolute stud of a defenceman — a six-foot-four, impossibly handsome Swede who you throw over the boards just as quickly when you’re leading 2-1 as you do when you’re trailing 2-1 — gets dealt to Edmonton, and his family is ecstatic.
In fact, they’d be home owners already, except for one issue.
“The Canadian foreign buyers ban has been a really big hurdle,” Ekholm said of the recently adopted rule meant to stem foreign ownership of Canadian real estate. “I understand that there’s been a problem. I understand that they have to do something about it.
“But I promise you: I’m not here to money launder. I’m not here to do anything illegal. I just want a house for my family, in a good neighborhood where we have good schools for them. That’s all I’m asking.”
There is a Swedish straight-forwardness to Ekholm. The son of an electrician (Olle) and the lunch cook at his elementary school (Christina), the bearded Ekholm is intelligent and very well spoken, as most Swedish players are. He appears to be uber-low maintenance and devoid of ego, as at age 32 Ekholm embarks on what almost certainly is his last best chance at a Stanley Cup ring.
“With the Preds, we made the playoffs eight straight years, but these last couple of years it was like a one-and-done,” said Ekholm, whose Predators lost the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games to Pittsburgh. “The fact that I’ve been that close — two games away; a game-and-a-half away from winning — it makes that fire even stronger. The want and the will. The sacrifice. Knowing that I have these very few years left.”
Who is Ekholm as a player? The part we can’t see from the stands or the press box?
“I feel like I don’t have a lot of pride when it comes to who does what,” he said. “Whether I score, whoever scores… It’s all about the team game and that’s all I’m about. I don’t care about much other than I just want the team to do well.”
With the Oilers, Ekholm has three goals and six assists and is plus-15 in 11 games. But these aren’t the Oilers of the Decade of Darkness.
He has played against this franchise for years. This is what Ekholm saw:
“Throughout the years, they’ve always had these high picks that are high offensive talents. (Jordan) Eberle and (Taylor) Hall. (Nail) Yakupov — all these guys that went like really, really high in the draft,” he recalled. “But my conception throughout the years of Edmonton was … it wasn’t a strong, defensive, good structured team. It was more run-and-gun.
“Some nights they would win 6-1, some nights they would lose 6-1. There wasn’t much in between, so to speak.”
Today, Ekholm arrives with a more well-rounded, playoff-ready game than either Erik Karlsson or Jakob Chychrun, two trade possibilities back on March 3. And he is greeted by a much more well-rounded roster than in the Yakupov years.
His new team is somewhere along the journey away from that flawed identity, and like the fictional fairy Navi in the video game Zelda, Ekholm is here to help them to listen for the right hints.
“It is an understanding to know how you win in the playoffs,” he begins, when asked to explain what must be learned here. “It’s hard to win 7-6 in the playoffs. You have to dig some games out where it’s 1-0, or 2-1. You’re going to go into a third period at 1-1, and you know you need to get that one goal and defend well. That’s where this team is heading, and I think they’re in a really good direction when it comes to that.”
Ekholm will help the learning process, with his play likely more than his voice. And what a fading Duncan Keith brought to this team in his one season in Edmonton, Ekholm begins a three-year master class while in the back end of his prime.
It is a role be covets, in a town he can not wait to live, play and raise his family in.
“It wasn’t my decision to get traded, and it wasn’t my decision where I went to,” Ekholm reasons. “But where it all turned out, and where it all ended up?
“I’m beyond excited.”