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A HUNGER TO IMPROVE

01/12/2007 5:17 PM -

Swedish-born defenseman Jonathan Ericsson is eating up all the advice he can while learning the North American game of hockey with the Griffins

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Jonathan Ericsson didn’t know that his craving for Swedish food had the potential of starting an international incident.
    
Adjusting to the North American brand of ice hockey hasn’t been nearly as difficult as learning to live without husmanskost, the home-cooked everyday fare favored by the common Swede.
    
As a 22-year-old defenseman playing his first season overseas, Ericsson found himself longing for a little reminder of home. Leave it to a girlfriend – or in this case, a friend of his girlfriend – to know that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.
    
“One of my girlfriend’s friends studies in California and she was going to bring me some falukorv, which is Swedish sausage,” Ericsson said. “She got stuck in airport security, where they made her open her bag. When they found the sausage, she was so embarrassed.”
    
Like a blueliner who allowed the puck to get behind him one too many times, Ericsson has a new game plan.
    
Searching the Internet, he has found a web site for Chicago-based Wikstrom Scandinavian Foods. “You can order Swedish food and they’ll bring it right to your home,” he said, hardly able to contain his enthusiasm.
    
“I’m going to talk to Liver (Stefan Liv, the Griffins’ Polish-born goaltender who was raised in Sweden) and ask him what he wants, so we can order together.”
    
Not that Ericsson is worried about his 6-foot-5, 218-pound frame, but sometimes it’s the little things that matter most when you’re adapting to a new lifestyle and a culture that might as well be a million miles away from home.
    
“I didn’t know what to expect when I came here,” said Ericsson, who signed a three-year contract with the Red Wings last May. “I just took a shot and it’s worked out well so far.”
    
The weather in Grand Rapids, he says, isn’t much different from his hometown of Norrköping, a municipality of about 125,000 which is located about 90 minutes south of Stockholm.
    
Ericsson grew up in a home where hockey was king. His father, Sven, is a former center in the Swedish Elite League and has been active in the coaching ranks for many years.
    
“He’s always been there for me,” said Ericsson, who figures he had his father as a coach for at least seven years of his development. “He was probably harder on me than the others but that’s what I wanted.
    
“I didn’t want him to treat me like everybody else. I wanted him to make me a better player. He was a little bit tougher on me, but never in a bad way.”
    
Ericsson has a brother Jimmie, four years his elder, who still plays in the Swedish Elite League; a younger brother, Jesper, whose hockey career has been interrupted by illness; and a nine-year-old sister, Fanny, whose skills have earned the admiration of her older brothers. “We’re her biggest fans,” he said.
    
Although Ericsson has been playing hockey since he was little, he never thought too much about playing in the U.S. He recounts the day his father told him that he had received a rather important telephone call.
    
“He said, ‘Do you know who called me?’”
    
“No, how should I know?”
    
“A scout. Can you guess which team?
    
“Is it a good team?”
    
“Yes, it’s a good team.”
    
At this point, Ericsson wasn’t even sure that Swedish Elite League scouts attended his games. He started naming possible candidates, but each time his father told him to guess again.
    
After a few attempts, Ericsson couldn’t take the suspense any longer.
    
“Tell me.”
    
“It’s an NHL team.”
    
Ericsson was dumbfounded. He didn’t know he was on any scout’s radar, let alone one from the top league in the world.
    
“Are you kidding me? Who?”
    
“The best ‘d’ in the world play there.”
    
Ericsson tried to catch his breath. In his mind, that could mean only one NHL team – the Detroit Red Wings, home to top defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, among others.
    
A natural center, Ericsson had switched to the blue line for one game a couple of days earlier when Red Wings chief European scout Håkan Andersson happened to be in attendance.
    
“A lot of our team’s ‘d’ was either sick or injured, so they asked me if I wanted to play on the blue line,” Ericsson recalled. “Håkan was there to watch another guy on the other team, but he saw me.
    
“I honestly don’t remember anything special about the game – I thought I did OK – but he came back and watched me a few more games. He told me that he thought the Red Wings would take me in the draft.”
    
Ericsson was selected by Detroit with its 10th choice in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He was the 291st overall pick, the very last player selected by any team in the annual amateur draft.
    
Last but not least, as they say.
    
Although Ericsson spent a few more games in his familiar center position, he’s played mostly defense since the draft. “If they liked me there, I didn’t want to change anything,” he said.
    
When the opportunity came to sign with the Red Wings, Ericsson didn’t hesitate, especially since he was finding it difficult to get playing time in Sweden. He had even asked to be loaned out to a lower division to get more ice time.
    
“I wasn’t going to get any better only playing a few shifts,” he said. “I felt like I had never really been given the chance back home, so when I got the offer to sign with Detroit, I felt like I had nothing to lose.”
    
He admits that he was a bit overwhelmed when he came into the Red Wings’ training camp last fall. “I looked around at players like Chelios, Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, and these were guys on my video games,” he said. “I sometimes had to pinch myself.”
    
Meanwhile, Ericsson was making an impression of his own. “He’s 6-foot-5, he can handle the puck, he can shoot and he can skate,” Detroit head coach Mike Babcock told Ansar Kahn of Booth Newspapers.
    
“I keep waiting for something to be wrong with him, but I haven’t found it yet.’’
    
It helped that Ericsson didn’t feel like a complete stranger in the Detroit camp. Red Wings teammate Mikael Samuelsson, for example, had played on the same Swedish team with Ericsson during the NHL lockout.
    
Ericsson also stayed at the home of former Griffins defenseman Niklas Kronwall for nearly a month during the exhibition season and while he was recuperating from a groin injury.
    
“Nik was so kind to me,” Ericsson said. “It’s not fun to stay at a hotel all the time, so it was really nice when he asked me if I wanted to stay at his house. He’s a great guy.”
    
Samuelsson, meanwhile, offered the youngster plenty of advice. “In the beginning you need somebody to explain how things work here, everything from the banks to building credit to buying groceries.”
    
Ericsson is feeling more comfortable in his new surroundings but he realizes he still has a lot to learn.
    
“Like everything else in the world, you’re never satisfied. I want the coaches to tell me what they want me to work on. They see the game better than I do. I want to get better.”
    
Clearly, Ericsson has that hunger you find in the best prospects. Now if he can only fill his stomach with some husmanskost.
    
“It helps that everybody has been really good to me, from the coaches to the staff to Dog (equipment manager Brad Thompson), Jim (Heintzelman, assistant equipment manager) and (medical therapist) Rob Snitzer. They treat me like one of the guys.”
    
As one of the younger players on the Griffins’ roster, Ericsson is happy to be treated as an equal with his teammates. “I’ve been on some teams where it seems like it’s the older guys who matter the most. It’s different here and that really helps.”
    
He still has to put up with his share of ribbing. A fan of American cars, he endured plenty of verbal abuse when he bought a 2007 Ford Mustang before the arrival of winter in Michigan.
    
But as he contends, it’s the hockey that matters most and he’s doing his best to adjust to the game here, where the action is less predictable and the play is more north-and-south. “I like the way hockey is played here,” he said.
    
Through the first three months of the season, Ericsson was leading the Griffins in the plus-minus category, one indicator of the type of strong showing that could eventually earn him a ticket to Detroit.
    
“I’m trying not to think about it – I don’t want to think about it,” he said. “I don’t listen to those things. Right now, I’m just happy to be here.”



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