Unflappable Griffins goaltender Daniel Larsson seems to have been born with ice water in his veins.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Daniel Larsson is no Superman, but he has nerves of steel and the ability to deflect pucks like neutralized kryptonite.
He is the consummate cool customer, the king of composure. If hockey were Zen, he would be the master of tranquility, with an uncanny ability to remain calm in the midst of chaos.
The young goaltender’s demeanor is one of the things that most impressed Hakan Andersson, the Detroit Red Wings' director of European scouting.
"Nothing fazes him,” Andersson told Bruce MacLeod of the Macomb Daily. “If he was sleeping and a bomb went off, he'd stay down and just open one eye to see what the fuss was.”
It’s an ability to slow things down, to assess the situation and to react accordingly that allows Larsson to almost anticipate the action, to steer clear of any potential mishap.
If not for hockey, he would dream of being a test driver, to be behind the wheel of high-performance cars, navigating sharp corners and dealing with adverse road conditions on a daily basis.
“I like anything with engines – motocross, snowmobiles, road rallies,” Larsson said. “It’s really fun and it’s what I like to do. I think I have it in my blood.”
He may be a product of his environment. He is a native of Boden, Sweden, a military outpost in the far northern part of his Scandinavian homeland. If he has ice water in his veins, he may come by it naturally.
Larsson, however, claims that it is something he had to learn.
“When I was younger, I had a little more temper than I do now, but I’ve grown out of that,” he said. “When you play a lot, you have to stay calm to save energy. If you let in an easy goal, you have to refocus and take the next puck.”
Larsson sees the ice because, well, he lives in it. His home is less than two hours from the Arctic Circle.
In fact, one of his favorite pastimes is riding snowmobiles into the polar territory. There’s something about driving into the mountains with friends that puts his mind at ease.
“It’s great weather, the mountains, no cell phones and not many people, so you feel like you’re all alone,” Larsson said. “It’s just peaceful. It’s good and relaxing.”
Larsson, 23, seems so relaxed in the net that he looks like he’s been playing the position forever, but he is actually a late-bloomer, having not started hockey until he was nine or 10 (he doesn’t remember exactly).
Up until that time, he had played European handball, a sport favored by his father.
“I didn’t notice that hockey was that big,” said Larsson, underscoring his remote upbringing in a country known for its allegiance to ice hockey. “I played handball because my dad was the coach for a young team.”
Larsson credits his father for teaching him the fundamentals that made him the player he is today, even though his father never played hockey himself.
“He was a goalie in his sport and it’s a lot of the same,” he said. “You find the same foundations in both. You need to be in the right position all of the time.”
When one of his friends decided to join a hockey team, Larsson decided to tag along.
“The first practice was hard because I wasn’t very good,” he said. “I had just started playing hockey, but I practiced a lot with my dad and I got better.”
When he started, he mostly played defense, the goaltending position being handled on a rotating basis among the other players on the team. “Eventually, I was playing (the position) all the time.”
Although the participants have been long forgotten, he remembers being inspired by an NHL game he saw on TV. “You always want to be the best in whatever sport you play, so naturally I had the dream to play in the NHL,” he said. “The NHL had the best players in the world.”
Larsson’s innate skill allowed him to progress through the professional ranks in Sweden. He made the jump from the Allsvenskan (second division) to the Elitserien (Elite League) in 2006.
He joined the Djurgarden team in Stockholm, where he became the starter in his second season in Sweden’s top division. His 2007-08 performance – a 2.29 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage – led him to win the Leif “Honken” Holmqvist Trophy as the Swedish Elite League's best goaltender.
Chosen by Detroit in the third round (92nd overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Larsson decided he was ready to come to North America to compete for a job with the Red Wings.
“I felt like it was the right step for my future,” he said. “I had played in the Swedish Elitserien for two years and I wanted to see something new. I wanted to develop my game even more.”
He admits that he had trouble at first adjusting to the smaller rinks in North America. The 15-foot difference in rink width meant he had to adjust his instincts.
“I had a little problem with the angles in the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t feel that comfortable the first couple of weeks but after a while I started to feel more confident.”
The confidence showed in his play.
In a stretch from Nov. 11 to Feb. 6, Larsson was 15-3-1 with five shutouts, a 2.35 GAA and a .924 save percentage. He became the ninth Grand Rapids goaltender in 13 years to be chosen to play in an all-star game when he was selected for the 2009 AHL All-Star Classic.
“I didn’t think I had played enough games to be picked, but apparently it was enough,” said Larsson, who was surprised by the honor. “It was my first all-star game and a lot of fun.”
Larsson enjoyed the skills competition more than the game itself, which is no shock given the high-scoring nature of all-star affairs. “No one plays defense so you’ve got to expect a lot of goals,” he said. “You just want to put on a good show for the fans.”
After playing 46 of 55 games in Sweden a year ago, he has become accustomed to sharing the goaltending position this season. “It’s pretty different. If you feel like you have had a bad game, it’s quite tough to sit on the bench the next game and not go back in for three or four days. But you get used to it after a while.”
It helps that that he has developed a good relationship with his partner in pads, veteran Jimmy Howard.
“We get along really good – he’s a nice guy,” Larsson said. “We have a good competition going. We push each other every time we get to play.”
Howard, meanwhile, appreciates what Larsson’s addition has meant to the team.
“We room together on the road and you could say there’s not a bad bone in his body. He’s really quiet and a nice kid,” Howard said. “For him to be pushing me like he has this year, I’m very grateful because it makes me push myself that much harder.”
For Larsson, it’s all part of the drive to the ultimate goal.
“Everyone wants to be the first goalie and both of us want a place in Detroit, so we push each other every time we get to play,” he said. “Sooner or later, I want to play in Detroit.”
Larsson realizes he will have to be patient. His favorite film is Gone in 60 Seconds, but it’s not want he wants for his career.
And yet he admits that he has a need for speed. He loves all types of racing, a trait he inherited from his father and grandfather, both of whom enjoyed road racing.
“I’ve tried motocross a couple of times,” he said, noting that he’s by no means an expert in the field. “I’ve tried friends’ bikes because I don’t have a dirt bike of my own. “
His favorite activity is snowmobiling, although he recently sold his machine. “I had my own (snowmobile) but I sold it when I moved. I don’t need it when I’m not using it.”
He’s tried his hand at road rallies, although not in competition. In Sweden, road rallies can involve racing on dirt or snow through densely wooded forests.
“I’ve tried it on frozen lakes, where the snow has been plowed to create giant walls on both sides,” he said. “It’s fun to be sitting in a vehicle with 4-wheel drive and a lot of horsepower.”
But it’s the challenge of being a test driver that most intrigues Larsson, who was able to get on a test track at General Motors last fall with Jonathan Ericsson, Mattias Ritola and their fellow Swedes on the Detroit Red Wings.
“We met the Swedish king and got to test drive cars,” Larsson said. “I got to drive a new Corvette and the new Cadillac Escalade. I think it would be real fun to try out test cars all of the time.”
For the present, he’s content to restrict testing his talents to the ice. With respect to earning the inside track to the NHL, Larsson is quickly making up ground.