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In the Lap of the Gods

Oct 12, 2018
Written By: Randy Cleves

Axel Holmstrom hopes his luck will change during his second full season in the AHL.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Axel Holmstrom may not have been born with ice in his veins, but fate would test his ability to weather the cold reality of adversity.

Born and reared in the far northern reaches of Sweden in the area known as Lapland, Holmstrom remains resolute in his desire to play hockey at the highest level despite nature’s best efforts to slow his athletic rise.

As a boy, his earliest recollections are frozen in memories of growing up in a winter wonderland that afforded him every opportunity to pursue his dreams.

“I come from a small city (Arvidsjaur) where there were not a lot of people, but it’s an area with all the stuff I need,” he said. “It’s all about friends, family, fishing, hunting and snowmobiling. It’s just nature all over – and a lot of snow.”

He recalls riding with his parents on a kicksled, a type of snowbound chair mounted on metal runners that is popular in Scandinavia. He was skating on his own by the age of 2 or 3. “They tied up my skates for the outdoor rink and I would just skate around the net for so long,” he said. “They would put in some (extra) padding because I was always falling over, but apparently I liked it a lot.”

Holmstrom was introduced to the game of hockey by his father, Urban Wikberg, a former player who became his coach during his youth. (Axel took the last name of his mother, Viveka Holmstrom.)

“He was never hard on me,” Holmstrom said. “The only thing was that he would try to pay more attention to the other guys instead of me. When I started growing up, I told him that I didn’t want him as a coach anymore because if I played more, people would wonder. I didn’t want that, and he respected it.”

Holmstrom and his father moved to Skelleftea, where his skills could be further developed in his early teens. His talent would catch the eye of the Detroit Red Wings, who saw the potential in a player who shared the same last name – but not the same bloodlines – as their fearless, front-of-net leader, Tomas Holmstrom.

The Wings chose Axel in the seventh round (196th pick overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. During the playoffs the following spring, he helped Skelleftea reach the SHL Finals. He led the league in postseason scoring with seven goals and 11 assists in 15 games, breaking the record for playoff points by a junior player, previously held by Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Detroit signed Holmstrom to a three-year entry-level contract. “When you’re young, the only thing you see about the NHL are the highlights or what you read in the newspapers because the games are played when you’re sleeping. I thought it was cool that a player on the Red Wings had my last name – or maybe I had his,” Holmstrom said with a chuckle. “It was cool because he was from northern Sweden just like me. I was actually born in the hospital in Pitea, which is where he grew up.”

Holmstrom planned to play one more year in Sweden after signing with the Wings, but then he tore his ACL. When he tried to return, he re-injured his knee and a long rehab became even longer. “Everyone involved felt it was best if I stayed in Sweden and worked on the knee and took things carefully,” he said.

“When you first get the news, you realize you have to accept it. It’s your ACL, but you try to rehab and train and make the best of it. I stayed positive for about six months, but when I got injured again and again, things got tough. When you’re young, you look at it in a different way. It felt like everything was going against me.”

Nevertheless, Holmstrom battled his way back. “At first, it was like I was feeling sorry for myself,” he said. “It was a tough time, but I think I learned a lot and grew by accepting it. Sometimes things don’t always go the way you would like. I learned that I had to put in extra work and, in the long run, I think it helped me.”

One of his teammates in Skelleftea was former Griffins winger Mattias Ritola, who not only told him about the city but advised him to go to Grand Rapids earlier than later in order to acquaint himself with the organization and the league, as well as life outside Sweden.

Holmstrom joined the Griffins after the completion of the 2016-17 season in Sweden.

“I thought it was time,” he said. “By coming over, I felt like I could learn a lot, both as a person and a hockey player. I don’t know if you have to be super-ready. You can learn by watching and growing into it. Being here and seeing how everything works helped me. Just getting to know everyone – the team, the management, and the players – made me feel more calm about things.”

He saw action in seven regular season games, then appeared in a total of four games during the first two rounds of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Although he did not play in the final two rounds, he was able to witness the Griffins’ ascent to the championship title. “I got to see how hard everyone worked and how they competed and how difficult it was to actually win the Calder Cup,” he said.

Even so, last season – his first full campaign in North America – did not go quite as well as he might have hoped. “Last year was like a rollercoaster,” he said. “I went into the year with the mindset that I first – and most of all – wanted to stay healthy for the whole season. I just wanted to get minutes and play hockey.

“At certain times, I wasn’t really happy about how I played. Things went good for a couple of games and then it went not so good. But overall I think it was a good season for learning and gaining experience.”

Holmstrom tallied eight goals and 11 assists in 66 games a year ago. Although his confidence lagged at various points last season, he maintains a sunny disposition while keeping a positive attitude heading into the 2018-19 season.

“Confidence is super big,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I think self-confidence might be half of it. You see players who explode and you can’t explain it except to say it’s confidence. Once you feel everything works, things start rolling. You can make a mistake, but you don’t care.

“You have to have the mindset that you’re going to make mistakes whether you like it or not. You have to have the self-confidence to be able to shake off the mistakes and move forward instead of going into a game nervous and about what you might do.”

To be successful, Holmstrom knows he must play a simple game.

“I want to be gritty, but I also want to have the confidence to make plays when I should make plays,” he said. “I want to know when to hang onto the puck and I want to make good decisions all over the ice, both offensively and defensively. Of course, I like going into the dirty areas and being in front of the net, but I want to be a player who does the right thing all over the ice.”

Holmstrom hopes his play will be more aggressive and less tentative during the upcoming season.

“When you get the chance and the coach gives you the opportunity, you want to be able to just play your game. If you sit back or if you worry about what might happen if you fail, you might have to wait another 10 games for another opportunity,” he said. “I feel like I’m at a point where I can grab the opportunity when it comes.”

Some might argue that Holmstrom was still slowed by the aftereffects of his ACL issues, but he isn’t buying it. “I wasn’t thinking about the knee,” he said. “I don’t want to use the knee as an excuse. Other people have torn their ACLs and played really well after they returned. Everybody has a different road back. I just want to get to know myself as a player and find my role on the team.”

Even with two good knees, he knows he would not be the best of skaters. It is a Holmstrom trait. Tomas Holmstrom’s skating was so poor that former Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman said that he wouldn’t last a season in the NHL.

“It’s always been about skating from the time I was a little kid,” he said. “It didn’t matter whether it was hockey or soccer, I always had problems moving my feet fast enough. I’ve been working my entire life to improve my skating, but it’s a long road. I’ll work to get faster and quicker as long as I play. I know I’ll never be the fastest guy out there, but I can get better every year so that I can be fast enough.”

Holmstrom continues to receive encouragement from his father, although their discussions go beyond the rink. “We both love hockey, but when we talk, whether we meet or call, it’s not always about hockey. We usually talk about a lot of other stuff. Hockey usually comes last.”

His voice becomes more animated when he contemplates what his second full season might bring. “I feel like this year is going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “Coming to Grand Rapids last year I didn’t know what to expect. In Sweden, you hear a lot of stories about the AHL, but it’s a tough league. A lot of the guys are playing for a spot in the NHL, so there’s competition every game and even every day on your own team. You want to put yourself in a position to be called up to the NHL.”

He is thankful that he is being given the chance to prove himself with the Griffins.

“My girlfriend and I really like Grand Rapids,” he said. “We like the organization and the people here. I just hope this year my hockey is better.”