The following is an excerpt from the newest edition of Blackhawks Magazine, the official game program of the Chicago Blackhawks. Get the new edition at every Blackhawks home game, by purchasing a digital subscription or by calling the Blackhawks Store at 1-800-GO-HAWKS.
Perhaps no single word summarizes Niklas Hjalmarsson
¹s brief Blackhawks tenure better than "adjustment."
A little more than two years ago, the Blackhawks' youngest defenseman was skating in Sweden, surrounded by friends and family. Flash forward to last May when with fewer than 40 NHL games to his credit he was competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs, charged with defending the likes of Jarome Iginla, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, among others. Along the way, the 22-year-old Swede has had to adapt to a new style of hockey, a new language and a new culture.
"It¹s all been moving so quickly," says Hjalmarsson. "I look around, and it¹s hard to believe that this is already my third season in the league. You don¹t even realize it as it's happening, but I feel like I¹ve come a really long way in the past couple of years."
It hasn't always been easy adapting to new teammates and a new way of life, not to mention the rigors of the NHL season, but Hjalmarsson has thrived in his new home because he and his teammates share something that is bigger than nationalities or shared heritage.
"Nik is never going to be the loudest guy in the dressing room, but his teammates know that he speaks the language of hockey, and it shows in everything he does on the ice," says Rockford IceHogs head coach Bill Peters, who coached Hjalmarsson during the 2008-09 AHL campaign. "Your teammates don¹t care if you¹re Canadian, American, European or from anywhere else. As long as you share the language of hockey, that¹s all that matters to them."
"Not too many defensemen could come into the league like he has and have the patience, consistency and reliability that Nik has shown," says Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville. "It¹s unusual to see someone who understands the game so well at such a young age. His reads are amazing, and that he makes them so consistently makes him a really special player."
Although he has only appeared on Hawks fans' radars recently, Hjalmarsson's whirlwind journey began in 2005, when the Blackhawks selected him in the fourth round in the Entry Draft. As a draftee, Hjalmarsson was regarded as one of Sweden's top up-and-coming defensemen, and in the two seasons that followed he made good on his potential, earning a roster spot on the Swedish Elite League's HV71 Jönköping club and Sweden's World Junior Championship team in 2006-07, his last season in Europe.
Even with all of his success at home, the challenge of North American hockey was too tempting for him to overlook.
"I talked to a few Swedish players who made it to the NHL, and all of them said that it was the best place in the world to play hockey," says Hjalmarsson. "I was very young, so I told myself I would give it a shot because I might not get another. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I didn¹t try. As far as my career goes, coming to America was the best decision I ever made."