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Having a Ball

Jonatan Berggren is enjoying his first season as a pro in North America.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Jonatan Berggren has his entire NHL career ahead of him, but if things don’t work out, he has a backup plan in place.

He will happily be a padel player.

Like many Swedes, Berggren became obsessed with the sport that has taken the Scandinavian country by storm. A hybrid of tennis and squash, padel had been popular in Spain, Mexico, and Latin American countries before the sport was wildly embraced in Sweden during the pandemic by an estimated 500,000 players.

“I have never seen a sport become so big, so fast,” Berggren said. “In the beginning, I was against it. I didn’t want to play it, but once I did, I was totally into it. Most of my time other than when I am training during the summer, I play padel with my friends.”

Considered the world’s fastest-growing sport, it’s best explained as tennis played inside a box where players can play the ball off glass-panel walls on the back or metal mesh on the sides. Promoters of the sport say if tennis is checkers, padel is chess. They call it “a thinking person’s sport.”

“It’s not like tennis where if you play against someone a little better than you, it becomes boring because it’s so hard,“ Berggren said. “In padel, you can be not as good and still keep the game alive, which is so much fun. It’s fun having long battles with friends.”

Berggren confesses that his padel career may have already peaked. “I was really good at it two years ago, but I didn’t play that much last summer because the weather back in Sweden was so nice. I’d be out on the sea, just having fun. And it’s so hard to play now because you don’t have it here.” Currently, the few clubs in the U.S. are in California, Florida and Texas.

Fortunately for Red Wings fans, Berggren is showing that his future is on the ice and not the padel court.

During his first season in North America, he has displayed the kind of playmaking skills that could earn him a ticket to Detroit, where he will become another in a long line of Swedish players who have worn the winged wheel on their chest.

“As a whole, I think he’s done a really good job of maintaining his offensive prowess and generating scoring chances,” said Griffins head coach Ben Simon. “Defensively, he’s still a work-in-progress but he’s become a little more consistent with his play away from the puck.

“He’s learning and he’s definitely a much better player from the day he walked through the doors here during the first week of October. We’re happy with his growth and he’s got a lot of potential. We’ll see if and when he gets the opportunity how that translates to the NHL.”

Berggren has the kind of hockey pedigree that scouts love. His father, Håkan, played pro hockey, mostly in Sweden’s lower divisions, while his older brothers, Jesper and Jakob (11 and 9 years his senior, respectively), also played in Enköping, a modest-sized municipality about 40 miles northwest of Stockholm.

“My dad was the one who showed me how to play hockey when I was 3 or 4 years old,” he said. “We always had fun. It was a lot of skating and practice without the puck. We did some of the boring stuff that you as a kid hate to do. Now that I’m older, I can understand.”

Skating exercises at the beginning of every ice session were designed to teach Berggren the fundamentals that would be helpful much later as he progressed through the junior ranks. “I’m grateful that he showed me those drills,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been the skater I am now if I didn’t learn the small details as a young kid.”

His father continued his coaching until he became sick. Berggren was 13 years old when cancer took his father, leaving big brother Jesper to step forward and assume an almost paternal role. “Jesper was the guy who I could talk to about everything,” he said. “We would have our battles when I didn’t have a good game, but I would not be here if I did not have Jesper on my side.”

Hockey gave Berggren an outlet to escape his grief. “My brothers and my mom became closer, and everyone tried to help everyone else,” he said. “It was nice to have hockey there like a ‘free zone.’ I didn’t need to think about what had happened back home, so it was good to be with friends and just have fun.”

At 13, Berggren was already competing against players who were up to four years older. He was scoring at a pace of nearly a goal per game. At 15, he moved to Skellefteå to play in Sweden’s top under-18 league, and a year later he made his debut in the country’s SuperElit league and his stock continued to rise.

Playing in leagues where almost everyone else was 2-3 years older only helped him to work harder.

“I was never the biggest player on the ice,” Berggren said. “Some of the other players were two heads taller than me. I needed to learn how to take care of myself, how to play smarter than them, and how to improve my hockey IQ. I think it helped me to learn how to play against bigger guys.”

He also showed that he could excel at the international level. At the 2017 Hlinka Memorial Tournament, he tied for his team’s scoring lead as Sweden captured a bronze medal. During the 2017-18 season, he tallied 11 goals and 12 assists in 21 international contests. In the U18 World Junior Championship, he recorded five goals and five assists in seven games.

Plenty of people started taking notice. Many scouts were saying he was a legitimate first-round talent. Famed Red Wings scout Håkan Andersson compared Berggren to Viktor Arvidsson, a two-time 30-goal scorer for the Nashville Predators who was similarly undersized (Berggren is listed at 5-11, 195-lbs.).

The scuttlebutt among scouts was Berggren might be a Top-15 pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. A conversation with the legendary Andersson over breakfast had the young forward hopeful that he might be picked by his favorite team.

“My dad had a yellow Zetterberg stick that he kept in the garage when I was younger,” Berggren said. “I played against one of the sons of Nicklas Lidstrom, so I knew when he was in the stands, watching the game. I would look and see him, so that was pretty cool.”

Berggren was at the draft in Dallas and when the Red Wings took Filip Zadina at No. 6 and Joe Veleno at No. 30, he was heartbroken. When the rest of the teams picked other players, he couldn’t believe it.

“I think me and my brother were the angriest people in the world after the first round. It was not a fun moment,” said Berggren, who remembers that they went back to the hotel and straight to bed. “I felt like I had a pretty good season, so I felt like I deserved to go in the first round. When it didn’t happen, I was sad and angry. That day was not so fun.”

His luck would change the next day. With the second pick of the second round (33rd overall), the Red Wings found themselves in a position to steal a forward who was prized for the strength of his skating, his puckhandling skills, and his overall hockey intelligence.

If there might have been fleeting thoughts of his father’s Zetterberg souvenir, Berggren says everything became a blur after hearing his name announced.

“I don’t actually remember much,” he said. “I felt like my heart had stopped. The next hour I felt like I was walking on air like I was a ghost. Afterward, it was such a cool experience for me and my family. I was a Red Wings fan because they were always so good and the team had so many Swedish players. It was pretty easy to like them when I was younger.”

Unfortunately, his luck would change again. The year following the draft, he appeared in just 16 games with Skellefteå before discovering that he had suffered a lower-back injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season. When he returned for the 2019-20 season, he managed to stay healthy for just 24 games before undergoing shoulder surgery.

“It’s never fun when you have injuries that long and you’re sitting in the stands, seeing the game alone while watching your teammates play,” he said. “But I think those two years were the best thing that could have happened because I had time to focus on getting stronger in the gym.”

Berggren admits that rehab was not easy.

“When you know that you have three or four months before you can play hockey again, some days are really bad,” he said. “Sometimes it can be tough but I was able to fix it.”

If losing taught Berggren anything, it was that he could take nothing for granted. If he thought he could cruise on his natural abilities in the past, he now realizes that he needed to work twice as hard to make the most of every opportunity provided.

Berggren was determined to make up for lost time – and stay healthy in the process. Last season, he tied for his team’s lead in scoring by collecting 45 points (12-33—45) in 48 games. It gave him the confidence to make the jump to the AHL and join the Griffins.

Last fall he was injured in the first game of the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, which effectively derailed any hope he had to make the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp. Then to add insult to injury, he got lost on his way to joining the Griffins.

Aware that the Wings’ AHL affiliate was a two-hour drive from Detroit, Berggren and his girlfriend Tilde were surprised when they couldn’t find the rink in Grand Rapids… Ohio, a village that was considerably smaller than their intended destination.

“Everyone back in Sweden had a good laugh,” he said. “I think everyone thought it was so typical of me.”

Eventually, Berggren found his way to the right Grand Rapids. After a week of practice, he made his Griffins debut, getting an assist in the team’s home-opening 6-1 victory, then going scoreless in the team’s next four games.

“The first couple of games were difficult,” he said. “I didn’t put up many points for the first five or six games like I would normally do, but then I started to find how I could play my game in this league.”

After his slow start, Berggren scored a goal in three consecutive games. He has had two-goal games in Texas (Nov. 20) and Iowa (Feb. 10) and recorded four assists in Cleveland (Jan. 18). “I started feeling like I was getting better every game,” he said. “Right now, I feel confident that I know how to play to have success.”

Asked to name his best friend in hockey, Berggren answers, “the puck.”

“It’s always fun to score,” he said. “I like to have the puck a lot. I think my strength is when I have the puck and can create chances for my teammates. I think the game is so much more fun when you have the puck.”

Berggren realizes that he needs to become more aggressive and not be afraid to shoot the puck.

“I will always be the guy who looks for the pass before shooting, so it’s something that I’m trying to work on every day,” he said. “I think I am getting better at it. When the puck goes in, it gives you more confidence to shoot, so I’m trying to shoot as much as I can.

“I’ve seen how if you just shoot the puck toward the net in this league, good things can happen – you might get a good bounce. You never know what could happen.”

Berggren talks every day with his brother Jesper, who is still generous with his advice. He also stays in touch with brother Jakob and his friends back home, often playing video games with the guys. “I’m a big Fortnite guy,” he said. “I think I play the most, but I think I’m the worst.”

He is working on his patience. “I told my brother that I’m trying to take each day for what it is,” he said. “You can’t think too much about the future. When you think too much, your game gets worse and you play bad, so I take one day at a time.”

Berggren has been working with Todd Krygier, picking up tips during extra practice sessions with the Griffins assistant coach. “I’m getting so much help here and I’m confident that my game, offensively and defensively, will grow each day,” he said.

He hopes he will eventually get a chance to show what he can do in Detroit.

“I’m just trying to get a little better every day,” he said. “I’m working on the small details that will make me a better hockey player.”

His padel career will have to wait.

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