From Sollentuna with love

Buses in the Stockholm county are red, except the ones that are blue. They’re so special that people refer to them as “blue buses”, instead of using their line numbers. In Sollentuna, an affluent suburb a 35-minute bike ride from downtown Stockholm only the 179 going to Vällingby is blue, the rest of them are red, including the 520.

mAbout 35 years ago, a fair-haired boy got off 520 at the Sollentunavallen stop. He crossed the street, and from the top of the hill, he could see the view over the 17th century mansion and the Baltic sea bay, a running track, and most importantly, the outdoor hockey rink.

It was his big brother who had got him into hockey to begin with, and the kid turned out to be so good that when he was seven, the instructors at the hockey school considered him too good to play with the other kids, and directed him to the youngest junior team in town. The others were two years older but he either didn’t notice it or didn’t care.

The track field got a bandy and skating rink next to it, and they built a new outdoor rink next to the old one. A new indoor arena was built but by then the fair-haired boy was already an international star and the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

His name was Mats Sundin.

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These days, there’s a big photo of Sundin on the Sollentuna arena wall, to honor him and to inspire others to follow in his footsteps.

I was there that day. I walked from our house to Sollentunavallen, as the sports center is called, to witness Mats Sundin unveil the photo, and – I hoped – to speak with him for a few minutes. I had been a fan of Sundin’s, but he had become my white whale. I had never interviewed him – and it wasn’t for lack of trying.

I spoke with his agent regularly about opportunities to talk to Mats, and in December 2004, during the NHL lockout, I drove down to Karlstad to watch him play in an exhibition game but when I got to the dressing room, he was gone.

The first time I was in Sollentuna was December 31, 1999, when I decided to cut my Finnish Xmas break short to welcome the new millennium with a certain special someone I had just met. She was from Sollentuna, born and raised, and after her university studies, that’s where she had moved back. She had moved in in a small room at her grandma’s house. That’s not where the New Year’s party was held, though.

Neither was it at her parents’ house which is where I woke up on New Year’s Day. The party was in Sollentuna, up the hill and to the right from her parents’ place, at a friend’s house. So there we were, a house full of Sollentuna kids, and a Finn from the south side of town, taking in the 21st century.

I had brought with me some tin horseshoes from Finland that we melted in the middle of the night, and threw into a bucket of snow, to make our predictions for the new year, while Swedish 1980s band Gyllene Tider was blasting off the speakers in the living room.

After that, I drove to Sollentuna on most nights during the first few weeks of 2000 to be with my girlfriend. Around that time, a colleague of mine also talked me into playing rink bandy – hockey with a ball – with his team in the Sollentuna recreational league.

It was in one of the games in that league that I witnessed the most Swedish of things take place a couple of years later. It had been one of those warm winters we’ve seen too many of lately, and there was a lot of water on the ice. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but a big cause for annoyance at the time. There was no way to pass the ball to a teammate, because the ball just splashed water around it when it landed wherever it landed.

Our goalie threw a long pass towards the other end, and one of our players chased the ball as their goalie rushed out to grab it before him. The goalie made a slight miscalculation, and missed the fact that the ball would land and stop in the huge puddle in front of the net.

The goalie was on his way to the right, the ball was right in front of the empty net, two meters out, and Christer – now seeing the big picture – realized he could just shoot it in. He also saw the goalie on the ice, all wet, and it seemed that he looked back at the bench to us. Then he grabbed the ball, apologized to the goalie, and scored the goal.

A few years later, we thought we were still pretty good but we also scheduled in extra practices in another Sollentuna rink, you know, to work on the details of the game.

It was your classic no-frills outdoor rink, with boards and ice, but that’s all you need anyway. And a dozen guys willing to chase the ball and to sweat it out late on a week night, so they can maybe win their next game even later on another week night. We had those guys.

Most importantly, though, you need that one guy who will make sure there is ice, that we have the time booked, and that whatever we had agreed to do, will happen.

We had that guy. His name was Bosse. He was a smooth-skating defenseman, a former bandy player who could take the ball from one end of the rink to the other at will. He could also take a four-minute shift without breaking a sweat.

It was during that one practice – if we had more, I wasn’t invited to them – that I heard Bosse mention Patric Hörnqvist’s name for the first time. Hörnqvist had just been drafted to the NHL, from Swedish Division 1, which was surprising. Bosse was as surprised as the next guy, but he also said that Hörnqvist was tough.

“He’ll never give up,” Bosse said. “And he can shoot.” he added.

Our team was called Gillbo Boys. Hörnqvist’s first team was Gillbo IF and it was in that no-frills outdoor rink that he had learned to skate and shoot – and to never give up.

“That’s where it all started,” he told me after Team Sweden’s morning skate in Gothenburg in early September.

“We had a nice rink and a really enthusiastic man who made sure there was ice and that it was flooded properly and all that. His name was Bosse Eklöf,” he added.

When Bosse said Hörnqvist wasn’t one to give up, he knew what he was talking about. So when Hörnqvist woke up in his room in Sollentuna one August morning in 2005 to his father telling him he’d been drafted to the NHL, the fact that he had been drafted as the last player of the entire draft barely registered.

Then again, he hadn’t played in the top Swedish league, either. Nor in the one below that, but in the one below that.

“It’s pretty cool, I don’t think many Division 1 players get drafted to the NHL. I didn’t care whether the chance of my getting to the NHL was big or small, I just knew there was a chance. Somebody out there believed in me,” he told me when I spoke with him at a press event before the World Cup of Hockey.

Five years, two World Championships, and about a season’s worth of play in the NHL, in February 2010, Hörnqvist represented Sweden (and Sollentuna) in the Olympics.

Bosse was in the stands.

(I was there, too. Mats Sundin wasn’t. I missed him again.)

I was in the stands when Mats Sundin, then 20, scored two goals in 15 seconds against Finland at the World Championships in Turku, Finland. I was in the stands when Mats Sundin scored a beauty of a goal against Finland at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in Stockholm, having scored tickets from a buddy who worked at the league.

Around that time, there were two kinds of people in Sweden, and possibly the hockey world: those who considered Peter Forsberg to be the best player in the world and those who thought it was Mats Sundin. I was in the latter camp.

I had two reasons for that. First, he was obviously a winner, and secondly – and much more importantly – I liked the way he always looked so happy after scoring a goal. There was none of the chest-beating you sometimes see, all he did was raise his long arms and flash a huge smile. How can you not be happy with him?

Back then, I didn’t know Sundin was from Sollentuna. It’s possible it finally dawned on me the day my brother-in-law revealed his claim to fame. (There are others, better ones, but this one was enough to impress me then).

Back in the day, when he played hockey in the same Sollentuna club as Mats Sundin, but years later, he had gotten a pair of hand-me-down pants that had belonged to Mats.

I woke up at my Sollentuna girl’s parents’ TV room on New Year’s Day 2000, and we hung out there for a while, and then headed back to the south side of town, to my place. Eleven months later, my then-future-brother-in-law suggested starting a new tradition. Hockey on Xmas Eve morning.

It had to be in the morning because at 3 pm, Swedes get parked in front of the TV to watch the Disney Xmas special, and then there’s the dinner, and the Santa. But at ten in the morning, there’s not much else to do, so hockey it was.

Several years in a row, we headed out to the Sollentuna outdoor rink only to find out we had come just a tad late to play with brother-in-law’s old friends, real hockey players, who had played in the junior national teams, and, once a year, came back together at the old rink.

Every year, we left the rink vowing to come there earlier the year after, but never did. That was the new tradition.

I was in the stands in 2003 when Sweden rallied back from 5-1 to beat Finland 6-5, and I was in the stand with my brother-in-law who was visiting us in Helsinki where we lived then. He was wearing Sweden’s national football team’s yellow shirt. By every Finnish goal, he got more discourage, and slumped in his seat, zipping up his hoodie to hide his colors.

By the time Sweden scored their third goal, the hoodie was off again, and brother-in-law was filled with hope again. And then Sundin won a faceoff, and Axelsson re-directed a shot in to win the game for Sweden with 5 minutes remaining in the game.

After the game, three biker guys left our section and we stood up to give them more space. Brother-in-law looked at them nervously, his yellow shirt now more of a red flag. Just as they were going to pass us by, one of them extended his hand towards brother-in-law, and said, “Congrats”.

All I could see was the big number 13 then jumping on top of his teammates celebrating the win.

“Mats Sundin was the first one from Sollentuna to make it, and he made it big, too,” Hörnqvist says with a laugh.

“It shows that you can make it to the top coming from Sollentuna, and that’s important mentally. You always need good role models,” he adds.

Maybe it was his wanting to be a good role model for younger kids that made him help out another Sollentuna kid a few years ago. The kid had been drafted to the NHL in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks, and he had joined the Swedish NHLers on their off-season skates.

“He didn’t have a driver’s license so I gave him a ride to and from practices,” Hörnqvist says.

That kid’s name was Rickard Rakell.

Mats Sundin was Rickard Rakell’s idol. They come from the same area of Sollentuna, too, so it was easy for him to imagine being just like Mats. You know, one day. Play in the NHL, play for Sweden.

He’s already an NHLer, having played 165 regular season games with the Anaheim Ducks and he’s represented Sweden in all junior national teams. And in early September, he made his men’s team debut in Helsinki, Finland.

Mats Sundin was there. I was there, too.

“It was an amazing debut, in front of a sold-out arena. I wanted to play for Sweden at the Worlds but had to skip it due to an appendicitis,” he told me after a skate, and just before he was taken to hospital due to an illness that made the Sollentuna boy miss the World Cup of Hockey.

“I started at the Sollentuna hockey school and even though I left the local club pretty early, I came back as a 14-year-old and played for their under-18 and under-20 teams,” he said.

That’s the way the story goes. The Sollentuna boys leave for bigger clubs to have a better shot at making it, leaving their hockey pants for the next generation of hopefuls. Rakell’s big brother, Robin, made the same move, but he returned to Sollentuna. So did their cousin Christian Holmblad now that Sollentuna’s team is back in Division 1, that third-tier league in Sweden where the Predators found Hörnqvist.

And Sundin was Rakell’s big hero.

“My grandma used to work at the Sollentuna golf club and one day, when I was a kid, she called me to tell me that Mats was playing in the club championship tournament. I grabbed my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater and dashed out to the course and waited for Mats at the 18th hole so he could sign it,” Rakell says with a big smile.

“And he did,” he adds, with an even bigger smile.

“I’ve played a lot of hockey at Sollentunavallen,” says Rakell, “and I remember playing in that outdoor rink before they built the roof over it.”

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When Sundin took the bus to Sollentunavallen, there was no arena, only the outdoor rink. When Rakell took the same bus, there was the arena and an outdoor rink. Now that’s gone, too, but Vallen is still the heart of the suburb. Sollentunavallen is where the local team’s coaches found Dmytro Timashov, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick who moved to Sweden from Ukraine. That’s where he spent so much time working on his skating that the local team’s coaches started to recognize him.

I told Rakell how Sundin told the story about taking the bus to Sollentunavallen but leave the bus number out of my story. He fills it in. “I think it was the 520,” he says.

“Sollentuna means a lot to me, my whole family’s there, and it’s always good to be back there in the off-season. I’ll always have Sollentuna,” he adds.

We moved to Sollentuna in 2009. We had been house hunting for about a year, looking mostly in the south side of town where we had lived for years, because Sollentuna seemed to be too far from the city. Then Wife found this house and we made a trial run with the subway and the bus to see whether we could commute from here.

Also, I wanted out new place to be a biking distance from downtown.

The commute was fine but since we bought the house in the winter, I wasn’t sure about the biking. So I took a leap of faith. (It is, 35 minutes to the edge of town).

I lucked out when I found Wife and her Sollentuna family who showed me how great Sweden can be and is. Now I have the Sollentuna girl, and we have the Sollentuna house and our two Sollentuna kids. It’s all very Sollentuna here.

I’m at the Sollentunavallen almost every day, if not as an assistant assistant soccer coach, then watching the kids’ track practice or our daughter’s bandy or ringette practices. Or selling hotdogs at a game.

Every time I’m there, I look out over the track field, the bandy/soccer field and the arenas, and the bay, and I try to imagine what it looked like when Mats used to take the bus there. And every time I’m there, I walk past that big photo of Mats in a Toronto sweater, chasing a puck, and I think back to that February day a year and a half ago, when they unveiled it.

Mats was there, running a hockey school for newly-landed migrant kids – from Iran, Uganda, Afgahnistan – and he was wearing a track suit and a hat. The Sollentuna town council representative held a speech, standing on a tiny, very temporary stage. Afterwards there was cookies and coffee. It was not a black-tie event.

“This is perfect,” Sundin said and smiled.

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After the speeches, I walked up to him and asked him a couple of questions about being on the Wall of Fame now, and about his hockey school.

“It’s fantastic to get this recognition from my hometown. It’s one thing to get accolades in Toronto where I played most of my career, but this is extra special, because this is truly where it all began,” Sundin told me.

Since Mats is the advisor of Team Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey, I tried to get in touch with him one day in Gothenburg to see if he remembered the meeting with Rakell and what he could say about Sollentuna. I didn’t seem in the stands with the other advisors, so I asked the team’s press liaison if he could help me.

“Mats is not here today,” he told, “maybe he’ll be here for the game tonight, I’m not sure. But if you see him, just go talk to him, the advisors are a little outside my area of responsibility,” he told me.

I texted Sundin’s agent, and explained that I needed a minute with Mats.

“He doesn’t do phone interviews, grab him at the rink.”

I didn’t see Sundin at the game. My white whale was back somewhere out there again.

But we’ll always have Sollentuna.

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How does that make you feel?