GLENDALE -- Families in Sweden will celebrate Mother's Day this Sunday.
It will be a sad day for Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whose mom, Annika, passed away in March after a lengthy bout with cancer.
Ekman-Larsson hopes bringing the gold medal he won while playing for Team Sweden at the IIHF World Championship to her gravesite at some point will help ease the pain of his loss, if only for a moment.
"That gold medal means so much to me and my family," Ekman-Larsson said Friday. "I played for my mom. She's the reason I decided to finish the season with Team Sweden, and I'm really happy that I did. She meant so much to me and was such a big part of everything I've been doing for my whole life. I'm playing hockey because she loved it. That's why I want to bring the medal to her and show her."
Ekman-Larsson played a key role in Sweden's 2-1 shootout win over Canada in the gold-medal game at the World Championship. He skated 27:40 and took five shots on goal. Plus, he scored one of Team Sweden's two shootout goals to help secure the victory.
"The funny part is I didn't think I would get a chance to get out there in the shootout because I missed my shootout shot in our first game against Russia," Ekman-Larsson said. "So when I got called to do it again I really wasn't thinking a lot. I was just happy to get picked and get the chance to do something special. It was such a special feeling for me to see that puck go in. It was a big relief."
After its victory last Sunday, Team Sweden quickly returned home and celebrated with thousands of fans at a ceremony in Sergel Square in Stockholm on Monday. Ekman-Larsson and his teammates, all wearing their medals and golden-colored hockey helmets, stood on an elevated stage and cheered and danced and chanted with the fans. Together they sang Queen's "We are the Champions."
"Getting to celebrate with all the fans, and my family and friends, meant a lot," Ekman-Larsson said. "It was so much fun to share what we'd accomplished with all of them. It was a special event, and that's when you really see what hockey means to the people of Sweden. It was very cool."
While in Stockholm, Ekman-Larsson and his teammates also visited Sweden's Royal Palace and met members of the Royal Family. They posed for pictures there, too.
The pure joy Ekman-Larsson experienced in Sweden this week stands in sharp contrast to the pain and anguish he endured throughout the 2016-17 NHL season. Not only did Ekman-Larsson have to manage the emotions linked to his mother's illness and death, he also had to overcome a crippling thumb injury he suffered in November and kept secret from the opponents and media and fans.
"I really couldn't pass the puck or shoot," Ekman-Larsson said. "The first couple of weeks (after the injury) were tough because I had to learn how to use my hand differently and to shoot in a different way. After four or five weeks it started to feel better and I was able to use it more and more."
Despite the injury, Ekman-Larsson played every game until taking a leave of absence with three games left to return to Sweden two weeks after his mother's death.
"It was a tough season for me from the beginning until the end," Ekman-Larsson said. "But my teammates in Arizona and the Coyotes organization have been unbelievably supportive. When you go through something like losing your mom you realize that hockey doesn't mean everything in life and that family comes first. I'm doing all right now, but this is not something that is going to take one day or one week or one year to get over. It's something I'll have to live with for the rest of my life. It doesn't get much tougher than losing your mom, or a close family member. Hopefully I can learn how to live with it."
Coyotes Head Coach Dave Tippett admired how Ekman-Larsson stuck with the team despite his heavy heart, and is confident Ekman-Larsson, whose stats dipped below his standard, will return to form next season.
"I trust him," Tippett said. "I know he's going to come back and have a bounce-back year. He knows he had a tough season. That's part of it. Already he's talked about bouncing back and making sure he's doing things right or playing as well as he can."
Ekman-Larsson took his leave of absence on April 3. Three days later, during warm-ups for the team's first home game without him, a dozen or so fans in the front row held up various Ekman-Larsson jerseys against the glass in unison as a show of support.
"I saw pictures of that and I can tell you that meant so much to me and my family," Ekman-Larsson said. "I haven't had the chance to thank the fans (on social media), but I just want everybody to know that made me super happy and very grateful for their support. I can't thank the fans enough."
With family tops on his list, Ekman-Larsson is pleased that his younger brother, Kevin, also a defenseman, recently signed a contract with the Tucson Roadrunners, the Coyotes' affiliate in the American Hockey League.
"He's so excited," Ekman-Larsson said. "I've never seen a guy working so hard as he's been working for this. He feels like this is a really good opportunity to show that he's a really good player and to take the next step in his career. He can't wait. He's going to do everything he can to make that team in Tucson. I'm so excited for him. I think a lot of fans will be surprised when they see how good he is."