STOCKHOLM — William Nylander’s eyes drooped heavy with exhaustion, but he still cracked a smile through a growing, scraggly beard.
It was mid-afternoon Swedish time as the Toronto Maple Leafs star winger stood in front of more than double the amount of reporters he usually faces in Toronto, many with microphones bearing words of television networks you can’t view back in North America. And the questions he was peppered with, well, weren’t focused on the Leafs penalty kill woes as of late.
“Have you taken the team to Ikea already?” Nylander was asked by a Swedish reporter at the aging Hovet Arena where the Leafs practiced Tuesday.
Welcome to the Maple Leafs trip north to Sweden, where it’s going to be all things blue and yellow for the blue and white. This is the Leafs’ first time playing in the NHL Global Series. Teams have travelled to Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and now Sweden in the past for regular-season games.
Starting Tuesday, the Leafs will spend just under a week practicing in front of eager fans, playing games against the Detroit Red Wings and the Minnesota Wild and, quite likely, not do any furniture shopping.
“We just got here and got to practice, so we’ve got lots of time for that,” the Leafs forward replied with his trademark sly grin and laugh.
Nylander’s slight chuckle could only slightly mask the fact that he was likely going to have to answer question upon question about Sweden and juggle plenty of other responsibilities as the face of the team and, essentially, the NHL’s Global Series in Stockholm.
Within seconds of Nylander – and fellow Swede Calle Jarnkrok – stepping off the practice sheet of ice, he was hounded by reporters clamouring for a quick word with the returning star. Being not only one of the hottest players in the NHL on a 15-game point streak but also having played in Stockholm before in a way some of his Swedish teammates have not, Nylander was the man of the hour on Day 1.
Immediately after practice, the festivities will truly kick off: Nylander will walk the red carpet amidst throngs of Swedish media at a local theatre for a screening of a new TV series about Swedish legend and former Maple Leafs defenceman Borje Salming. You don’t have to walk very far in downtown Stockholm to see photos of Nylander advertising upcoming autograph sessions, either.
And Nylander is going to have to juggle those responsibilities while battling serious sleep deprivation, too.
The Leafs arrived bleary-eyed in Stockholm midday on Tuesday after departing Toronto at 10 p.m. local time. Their goal was to spend as much of the flight as possible with the lights turned low, getting some shut-eye and quickly acclimatizing their bodies to Stockholm.
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But multiple Leafs, as well as coach Sheldon Keefe, attested that rest was hard to come by on the flight, with defenceman Mark Giordano estimating he might have grabbed between three and four hours of sleep before what was another day’s work.
“It’s hard to focus on anything today, quite honestly,” Keefe said.
After a quick stop at the team’s hotel for lunch, the Leafs hit the ice for a 3 p.m. local time practice. One youth team was in attendance and cheered early when Nylander touched the puck. But those kids probably shouldn’t have expected Nylander to be at his dazzling best; the bag skate Keefe put his team through after Monday’s practice in Toronto made sense, in retrospect. The Leafs practice in Stockholm was hardly the picture of intensity but with good reason.
“You can’t do much today,” Keefe said. “Today is really about firing the engines a bit to keep them awake through the day. We’re trying to keep them away from the hotel and keep them away from being able to nap or having the body shut down because tonight’s sleep is vital to set us up for the week.”
Wednesday’s practice on a full night’s sleep promises to be more intense, as Keefe was quick to remind reporters that one of the games is against a division opponent: The Red Wings currently find themselves tied with the Leafs with 18 points through 15 games.
The challenge throughout their time in Sweden will be balancing the desire to slip into vacation mode along the cobblestone streets lit with Christmas lights everywhere you turn with the need to perform as if it was any other important regular-season game.
But the hope, if you’re Keefe and the Leafs, is that Nylander and other Swedes rise to the occasion. Playing NHL games in Sweden is remarkably rare, and those same weary smiles emerged in Nylander and Jarnkrok’s faces when talking about returning home to see family and friends.
Nylander said he has almost 100 tickets reserved between the two games the Leafs will play in Stockholm. That’s unquestionably more than any other Swede on the Leafs will have.
But still, there will be countless more fans eager to see one of the emerging greats in Swedish hockey come home.
“It’s been a of dream of mine to come back here and play,” Nylander said. “I didn’t think it would happen in my career.”
(Photo of William Nylander: Jesper Zerman / The Associated Press)