Today, I wrote a piece for the International Ice Hockey Federation, about how players returning to Europe sometimes don’t meet the expectations. The transition from one team to another, let alone from one country to another, and from one league to another, can be difficult, and sometimes the high expectations the club management, the fans, and the player himself, aren’t met.
I should know. I was that player once.
When I first moved to Sweden, I thought finding a hockey team would be perfect for me, in every way. Not only was it fun to play, but it would also be a great way to meet people and make friends. Also, as luck would have it, my new best friend at work had also played hockey, so we thought we’d find a team and play together.
So we emailed the Swedish federation, and got a long fax of clubs and their contact information back. We went to a couple of practices with a couple of teams, and then picked one: Vällingby AIK in the Swedish Division III. That would be the fifth highest division, with Elitserien and Allsvenskan above Division I.
We played our home games out in Vällingby, obviously, a Stockholm suburb on the west side of the city. The team wasn’t very good, which was fine with us, we just wanted to play. But they had a good rink, a trainer we called Santa Claus – because of his red clothes, a beard, and the fact he always wore clogs – and a coach called Pelle.
The players were a mixed bunch of guys. Some, like my friend, hadn’t played for a few years, others had played pro hockey in Denmark, one guy was from Russia, and then a core group of guys had played together in Vällingby and other Stockholm minor league teams in the past.
Now, the club management didn’t expect anything from me. Not even showing up. It was nice that I did, but if I didn’t, they’d be fine, too. The fans had zero expectations, because we didn’t have any. I think our attendance record for the season was five.
But I had expectations. I had played Division III hockey in Finland, and played pretty well.
And just as importantly, I expected to get friends, teammates. Of course the Game, with a capital G, is democratic, naturally, your background doesn’t matter in the locker room, and we all know how the team comes together during a season.
Sometimes, though, things don’t work out like that – and it’s not anybody’s fault.
Had we had a full bench to just one game, it’s likely that Devin and I hadn’t played much. But, since we never did, we both played a regular shift, and we both scored a couple of goals in the fall. We even got to know some of the guys.
One of them would always show up straight from work, in his blue painter pants, and yell to Devin: “Devin! Målsugen?”
The first five times, Devin wasn’t sure if that was a pat on the back, or an insult. Did he say that Devin sucked – “suger” means “suck” in Swedish – or did he ask Devin if he was ready to go? Finally, we learned, it was the latter.
Pelle, the coach, was a young guy with an old school mentality. One time at practice, when I carried the puck through neutral zone and then made a play that didn’t please him – I think he may have wanted me to dump the puck – he came to me, and pulled me aside.
“Risto, you’re a really good player, but you’re just so goddamn lazy,” he said.
Unfortunately, the same theme continued – I tried, I tried – because a few weeks later, he pulled me aside again.
“Risto, Risto,” he said.
“Risto, you gotta work hard. It’s like intercourse: it hurts and you get sweaty. It’s hockey, y’know,” he then said.
Pelle did like us, though. It was nothing personal, we were all just a little timid, maybe. One time, he even told us that we were good guys. He and another guy were talking about the Swedish immigration policies, not happy with the way things were.
“But, I’m an immigrant. Devin’s an immigrant. Vadim’s an immigrant, too,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, but you’re good immigrants,” Pelle said.
Anyway, I played OK, and I got to play, scored a couple of goals, but I wasn’t bonding with my teammates.
So, I tried to pull a rabbit out of my hat. The same rabbit that always worked in Finland, and that I still think must work elsewhere. I bought two cases of beer on one my trips to Finland, and brought them back to the guys, so we could relax and talk hockey.
I was pretty excited. Devin was pretty excited, and he thought it was a great idea. And most of the guys were pretty excited about those two cases of beer. Especially the guy the others called “Idiot”, who grabbed a few cans and went home. Twenty minutes into our bonding session, two guys were left in the sauna. The American and the Finn. Devin and I.
Right around then, I broke a rib, making a play at the wall. I tried to deke the defenceman, and then sent a pass to the net, and he cross checked me. I had my back against the boards and Dad’s old shoulder pads didn’t help much. I missed about a month of action.
And when I returned, nothing was the same. There were cancelled practices that we weren’t told about, and even games we weren’t told about. Sure, we weren’t stars, but we (thought we) were a part of the team.
Finally, we decided that our season was over. We knew there was a game, and we knew how things worked around the rink on game days so we drove to Vällingby, one last time.
We parked my black, old BMW in the spot we always parked, and walked into the dressing room. Some of the guys had arrived, and were half-dressed, getting ready for the game. We got to our stalls – which weren’t stalls, just a few hooks on the wall -, and emptied our places, taking everything with us, including the gloves and socks we’d got.
Nobody asked Devin if he was good to go. Nobody asked us why we had missed the previous game. Nobody asked me anything. In fact, not a word was said. Nobody said anything. No questions, no protests, no goodbyes.
We packed our bags, without a word, and walked to the car. We threw the hockey bags into the trunk of my car and got in, both still silent.
I started the car and we drove away.
About 300 meters later, we both started to laugh.
“Unreal,” Devin said then. “Unreal.”