STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Six years ago, almost to the day, the tiny village of Russnäs (population 90) in Sweden was bustling. Right at the intersection off the main road that leads to the big road that takes you to the highway, under the sign that welcomes visitors to the village, there was a big photo of Niklas Hjalmarsson in his Chicago Blackhawks jersey, with a message to the young man.
“Congratulations, Stanley Cup champion” it said in Swedish. Next to it, there was a tin-foil replica of the Cup.
The then-23-year-old defenseman had spent most of his two previous seasons in the AHL but had taken a permanent spot in the Blackhawks’ lineup that season. He addressed the villagers (and thousands of other fans) next to the playground where he had played as a kid, standing next to bales of hay and the Stanley Cup, his voice hoarse from a fun night with his family and friends.
Six years doesn’t sound like much time, but for the Hjalmarsson who met with the media at Team Sweden’s pre-World Cup of Hockey event here recently, the six years has been life-altering.
“Time flies. I’ve got married, I’ve become a father, bought a house,” Hjalmarsson, now 29, tells ESPN.com. And then he added, after a pause, “And have won two more Cups.”
“It’s been six awesome years, and I hope the next six will be as good. By then I’ll be 35, and I hope to be able to play that long. After that, the body starts to feel a little old. Playing [in the NHL] until 35 is something of a goal of mine.”
Over the last six seasons, the defenseman has become a mainstay in the Blackhawks’ defense, one of the players in the team’s core group GM Stan Bowman has built the championship teams around. Only seven players in Blackhawks history have won three Stanley Cups — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Hjalmarsson — and Sharp is no longer with the team.
“Naturally, there’s a special bond between us,” Hjalmarsson said. “In the beginning, none of us had kids, some of us were single, and now we all have wives and kids. We’ve grown up together, and it almost feels that we’re brothers after all that we’ve gone through together on the ice — and off it.”
Nothing brings teammates together like winning. Maybe it’s because only they know all the work and effort they’ve put into it, and the struggles they’ve gone through to make it happen.
Hjalmarsson isn’t one to reflect on his Stanley Cup wins too much, at least not before he turns 35, and communicating what it takes to go all the way in the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t easy. For anyone.
“I think [of all the non-players], my parents understand it best because they’ve seen all the hard work I’ve had to put in,” he said. “The toughest part of winning is the mental side of it, grinding through a long regular season and … then 20-plus-game postseason on top of it, through injuries and everything.
The people of tiny Russnäs, Sweden, continue to celebrate Niklas Hjalmarsson’s 2010 Stanley Cup win with the Chicago Blackhawks. Risto Pakarinen
“The will to win is always there; you want to win at any price. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to play in three finals, and that we’ve won all three. Nothing beats the feeling of standing there as a winner. It’s hard to explain, but when I see other athletes get emotional after their victories, like [Swedish swimmer] Sarah Sjostrom at the Olympics, it moves something in me. It’s easy for me to relate to that feeling, and I get emotional myself.”
All 23 players on Team Sweden’s World Cup roster are NHL players, accustomed to the North American style of hockey and everything that comes with it. But coach Rikard Gronborg, 48, is a federation veteran, having started as a scout with the World Junior team in 2006, and then worked as assistant and head coach with the under-18, under-20 and men’s national teams.
However, he did spend more than 10 years in U.S. colleges as a player and coach in the 1990s and is considered well-versed in North American hockey.
“He seems to have the right mindset, which makes it easier for us [players] to adapt,” said Hjalmarsson, who was on the 2014 Olympic team that lost in the gold-medal final to Canada.
In the upcoming World Cup, Team Sweden hopes Hjalmarsson — who is one of the core players in an impressive defense corps — can bring some of that Blackhawks leadership and winning attitude with him. Sweden has never won the World Cup of Hockey, including its Canada Cup roots.
“That’s a great motivator. It’s wonderful to play for my country and to get to know the guys on this team a little better. They seem to be pretty great guys outside the rink,” Hjalmarsson said with a laugh.
Back in 2010, when Hjalmarsson brought the Stanley Cup to his village for the first time, he ended the celebration in the neighboring town by singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
That’s one of the things Hjalmarsson “definitely” hasn’t done since.
But winning? That never gets old.
First published on ESPN.com