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Late Bloomer

Mar 10, 2023
Written By: Randy Cleves

Pontus Andreasson worked his way up from the lower levels of Swedish hockey to earn a ticket to play in North America.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Imagine yourself having grown up in a small town the size of Michigan’s Cedar Springs or Wayland and then moving to a city that is not only a hundred times larger but is also located in a foreign country that you have never visited before.

While you will be pursuing your chosen profession there, the job will not seem the same because – even though the rules have not changed – the way things work and how you are expected to perform is completely different.

Everything will seem foreign, because indeed it is.

That has been the experience of aspiring forward Pontus Andreasson, who never has felt comfortable with English. The language is less than common in Munkedal, Sweden, his rural hometown of 3,718, where inhabitants enjoy hiking, salmon fishing, swimming, and canoeing when they’re not passing a puck or kicking a soccer ball.

His father, grandmother, and aunt operated a restaurant while he was growing up in Munkedal, where Andreasson was an only child but had lots of sports-loving friends.

“Everyone in Munkedal either played hockey or soccer,” said Andreasson, who also enjoyed ping pong. “I always had lots of friends on the team, so I had fun.”

When he was young, Andreasson played sports purely for enjoyment. Never would he have imagined that hockey would become his career or that someday he might play the game in a faraway country where his language skills would be tested just like his puckhandling skills.

Andreasson, however, is not the first from Munkedal to pack his bags to play hockey in North America. Nor is he the first from his village to play for the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Joakim Andersson, a member of the Griffins’ 2013 Calder Cup champion squad, also hails from Munkedal. Andersson, who appeared in 205 NHL games with the Red Wings over five seasons (2011-16), played 208 games in Grand Rapids between 2008 and 2016.

“We talked and he said good things about Grand Rapids and the Detroit organization,” said Andreasson, 24, who is almost a decade younger than his predecessor.

Unlike Andersson, who was already playing in international tournaments at ages 15 and 16, Andreasson was still toiling at the lower levels of Sweden’s junior hockey leagues in his teens. A bit of a late bloomer, he was only beginning to show the talent that would earn him a ticket to play overseas.

In 2013-14, playing for his hometown Munkedals BK team, Andreasson scored 49 goals in just 20 games. “That was a good year,” said Andreasson, who tallied a total of 91 points in those 20 contests. “I just shot and the puck went in. [But] the league was not that good.”

He continued to show progress with Kungalvs IK, where he played two seasons before graduating to the acclaimed junior program at Frolunda.

In 2016-17, Andreasson recorded a single goal and two assists in 40 games at the J20 SuperElit level. “My first year in Frolunda was really hard,” he said. “I don’t think I was playing very good. I didn’t play a lot, so I was in the gym all the time.”

Andreasson, who is 5-foot-10, knew he needed to spend time in the weight room to get stronger.

“I’ve been the small guy my whole career, so I had to build muscle in the gym to get stronger,” he said, noting that he added 10 kilograms (22 pounds) in the space of a year. “I started to train really hard when I was around 18 or 19 years old. That’s when I started thinking that I maybe could be something and make hockey my work.”

Like his weight, his production grew exponentially during his second season with Frolunda’s junior team. He tallied 45 points in 44 games (13-32—45) and even got a one-game audition with the top Frolunda hockey club.

“Playing in Frolunda was good for my development,” he said. “I’ve had good coaches all of my career.”

He was loaned to Hanhals IF for the 2018-19 season as he was forced to start his pro career in Hockeyettan, the third tier of hockey in Sweden. The following year, he moved up to Sweden’s second division and played for Bjorkloven IF in HockeyAllsvenskan, where he spent two seasons.

As a player who excelled with the puck on his stick, Andreasson had to fight for his ice time, which is forever a challenge for any aspiring hockey player, especially for one competing at the lower levels of the Swedish leagues. “I had to work my way up,” he said.

Andreasson finally made the jump to the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) last season, when he played for Lulea in his country’s top circuit.

“It was hard in the beginning,” he said. “But every time you move up, you’re going to play with better players and they’re going to help you. It ended up being a good year for me.”

Andreasson scored 18 goals and added 20 assists for 38 points in 52 games with Lulea, where he played on a line with a pair of experienced forwards: Juhani Tyrvainen, 32, a 12-year vet who had spent the majority of his career in Finland’s top league, and Linus Omark, 36, a 17-year vet who spent seven seasons in the KHL and played 79 NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres.

Omark, who also played parts of three seasons for Todd Nelson in Oklahoma City, played an influential role in preparing Andreasson for his eventual move to North America. “He was a big mentor for me,” Andreasson said. “He’s a really good player and he’s a really good guy outside the rink. We talked a lot and we still talk today.”

Lulea reached the SHL finals against Farjestad BK, losing the championship in seven games. Andreasson, a finalist for SHL Rookie of the Year alongside current Griffins teammate Simon Edvinsson, tied for the most playoff goals with eight tallies in 13 games.

“Reaching the finals was so exciting,” he said. “It was tough that we didn’t win the last game, but the fans were amazing. It was a memory that I will have for my whole life.”

His improved play attracted the attention of the Red Wings, who signed him to a one-year contract one week after the SHL finals. “It was like a dream,” he said. “It happened so fast. It was something I never thought about.”

Andreasson admits that the move to North America has not been easy. “It was hard for me, mostly because of the English,” he said. “I’ve always been bad at language.”

It has helped that his girlfriend, Wilma, has been at his side for most of the time – her English is very good, having spent some time in Canada – and he has several Swedish teammates (Edvinsson, Albert Johansson, Elmer Soderblom, and Victor Brattstrom).

“Coming here, I was nervous at first, but it helped that there were other Swedes here so I was not alone,” he said.

Adjusting to the AHL has offered an even greater challenge.

“This is my first time playing on a small rink, so it’s been tough,” he said. “You don’t have the time like you do on the big ice in Sweden. Guys are everywhere, the hockey is a higher tempo, and you skate a lot. I thought we would play a little more with the puck and not chase it so much, so that’s new for me, too.”

Halfway through the 2022-23 season, Andreasson was approaching double-digit totals for both goals and assists, but he feels he can play better.

“This year has had many ups and downs,” he said. “When you’re in and out of the lineup, it’s hard, but I keep working because I want to play more. I think I’m getting better and I learn every day about the game here.”

Andreasson is finally starting to feel more comfortable with playing on the smaller ice surface.

“I want to play solid and not have so many ups and downs like I have had this season,” he said. “I want to play more consistent and be better in the defensive zone. I want to prove that I’m a player the coaches can trust so I can play more. I want to help the team win.”

Of course, Andreasson misses his friends and family. He says the time difference (there’s a six-hour difference between Michigan and Sweden) makes it difficult to stay in touch. He was happy to have his mother visit during Christmas and his father made the trip over in early February.

The abundance of Swedes in the Griffins’ dressing room helps, too. Winning more often will make things even better. “When we play good, we are really good,” he said. “We have a good team. We just have to get the group together and play good every game.”

Even his English is improving.

“It’s a little better but still not good,” he said.

Andreasson, it seems, is his toughest critic.