Pose that question to Alex Edler and his answer is as perplexing as it is revealing.
“Making the NHL,” answers the defenceman after giving it a brief moment of thought. Not to suggest getting to the NHL is a small task by any means, but Edler’s response seems exceedingly modest for someone who spent most of the last two seasons in a Canucks uniform.
But anyone who’s ever met the amiable Edler will tell you there’s no one more humble than the Canucks’ rookie. An imposing figure on the ice at 6’3” and 222-lbs., Edler’s persona away from the rink is quite the opposite — something even the 21-year old himself would attest to.
“I’ve never been a loud guy,” admits the soft-spoken Edler. “I guess I’m a little shy sometimes.”
It’s not that Edler is bereft of achievements to boast about. Since making his debut against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov.4.06 — a game in which he was praised endlessly by the experienced Hockey Night in Canada broadcast crew — the Swede has managed to rack up an impressive, if not understated, list of accomplishments.
In the 07-08 season alone, he was among the team leaders in ice-time; he became the first Canuck defenceman to ever score and win a game in a shootout; he was named to the NHL’s YoungStars team; and he held the best plus-minus rating among NHL rookies for the majority of the season. He’s even drawn comparisons to teammate Mattias Ohlund and to Detroit Red Wings future Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom — two of his hockey heroes growing up. TEAM PLAYER
Yet despite his impressive resume, the former third round pick in 2004 is often hesitant to discuss his personal accomplishments. It’s not that Alex isn’t media-friendly — in fact he’s one of the most approachable individuals in the Canucks’ dressing room — it’s just that personal feats have always been secondary for the down-to-earth youngster.
“Of course you look at the stats, but you can’t focus too much on that,” says Edler. “It’s important, but I’d rather play a good game and be minus-one than play bad and have a plus-one and a goal.”
“If you play good, you’ll be able to have a chance to help your team. That’s bigger.”
Edler’s unassuming nature when it comes to personal successes is very much a reflection of his journey from literally playing in the middle of nowhere to playing in the world’s top League. Four short years ago, an undrafted, unheralded 17-year old Edler was plying his trade with a third division team in his hometown of Östersund — a city in the Northern part of Sweden roughly five hours away from the capital city of Stockholm.
“It’s not very close to anything,” describes Edler of his hometown. “Most of the cities are by the coast in the North and my hometown city’s in the middle of everything in the inland.” SMALL TOWN BOY
More known for its ski resorts than its ice rinks, hockey understandably takes a backseat in Östersund and, given its remote location, so do most players’ hopes of garnering attention from overseas scouts.
“He’s about a three hour drive from any close elite team,” adds fellow countryman and former teammate, Markus Naslund. “He grew up out in the wilderness basically and only played one year of organized hockey (with MoDo’s junior team in Örnsköldsvik), then he came over to play juniors here.”
While trying to make the NHL is tough enough without having to play your pre-draft years in obscurity, for Edler there were positives to be gained from the added adversity. It not only showed him that hard work can trump any inherent disadvantages, it also taught him to focus only on what he could control himself and not let outside distractions affect his game negatively. It has been the latter that has allowed his transition from playing in a small Swedish city of roughly 60,000 people to a hockey-crazed Canadian metropolitan with more than tenfold the population to be nearly seamless.
“The hockey is so much bigger over here,” says Edler comparing Vancouver to Östersund. “People are crazy about hockey over here. It’s awesome.”
Playing in virtual anonymity and being accustomed to the lack of attention also served to instill in Edler a trademark sense of humility that has now endeared him to Canucks fans. It’s that same unpretentious nature that explains how he managed to motivate himself and keep a cool head last season when, despite many feeling his play warranted a full-time spot with the Canucks, he was shuffled several times back and forth to the AHL. It was something he had to re-visit when a pre-season injury forced him to start the year with the Moose. MAKING IT
“My goal was to get a spot on the team,” recounts Edler of his objective going into last season. “Sometimes it was hard to get sent down, but I got called up seven times [in the 06-07 season] so I kind of knew when I got called up that I’m going up there to do my best and if they sent me down, I just had to work hard in Manitoba so I could get called up again.”
But even the humble Edler can’t downplay the enormous strides he’s made in his first full year as a pro. That, along with his veteran-like poise and the confidence he exudes while playing in all sorts of situations, makes it a safe bet Edler won’t soon be racking up those frequent flyer miles between here and Winnipeg.
Instead, the continually-maturing Edler can focus on honing his game in the NHL which, in part, will include dealing with more media attention and embracing his newfound celebrity status — something he claims he hasn’t had to face quite yet.
“Maybe some people recognize my name when I go to the store and I pay by credit card or something,” says Edler chuckling. “They can recognize my name, but I don’t think any people recognize my face.”
A fact soon to change with the hockey skills Edler has been displaying in a Canucks sweater.