As I approached Niclas Wallin this week to discuss his impending 500th NHL game with the Carolina Hurricanes, he looked up at me, smiled and said: “Do you believe I’m still here?”
While dozens of players have come and gone over the last nine seasons, and while the Canes have shared extreme highs like winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 and some major lows (this season so far), one thing has remained constant at the RBC Center – Wallin’s locker halfway down the right side of the Carolina dressing room.
The NHL road for Wallin has been at times as rocky as some of the mountains in his native Sweden, with as many twists and turns as the numerous rivers that flow to the Gulf of Bothnia.
A long shot to make the team in 2001 as a fourth-round draft pick who came to camp on a two-way contract, Wallin stuck with the Canes that season and a year later found himself in the Cup finals against a star-studded Detroit roster.
Then-European scout Willy Lindstrom had to sell GM Jim Rutherford hard on Wallin at the draft table in 2000, who at the time was a smooth skating defenseman playing for a team in his home country.
“I was there at that draft and I’ll never forget what Willy said to me,” said John Forslund, Carolina’s TV play-by-play announcer. “He said, 'You’ll see it in his eyes, he’s an unbelievable competitor.’ I never forgot that. From the very first practice that was always the case. Nicky has competed his way through everything that he’s done here.
“I don’t recall a player who every season had to earn his keep, had to earn his spot,” added Forslund. “Every year there has been some cloud hanging over Nicky as to whether or not he’s going to be in the lineup, and if he is in the lineup what role is he going to have. But then as the season goes along he finds his niche and he becomes an important piece.”
A chronic groin injury that followed Wallin from Sweden to the NHL has at times kept him out of the lineup and hampered his capacity to perform at 100 percent, but only three players – Glen Wesley, Rod Brind’Amour and Jeff O’Neill – have worn the red, white and black sweater more.
The injuries forced Wallin to transform his game early in his NHL career from a skating defenseman to a defensive-minded blue-liner. And his size (6-3, 225 pounds) enabled the smooth transition to a power player down low who could dish out punishing hits and clear the front of the net.
While Wallin appears nasty and menacing on the ice, his persona in street clothes is that of a fun-loving individual who is a model teammate.
“He has such a consistency of personality and work ethic, and he has that team-first philosophy and attitude,” coach Paul Maurice said.
One of the first players to knock on Maurice’s office door when he returned to Raleigh last season was Wallin, there to offer a scouting report on the defense.
“There were some players that were maybe on the outs and he was the first guy to step in and say, ‘This guy can play and this guy can play, they just need some confidence.’ He didn’t come into the office trying to improve his stature on the team, saying, ‘I can play more.’ He was actually talking about a couple of defensemen who could help us win. That to me is a real good example of his personality and what he’s like. He’s a giver in the room and he’s always trying to pick guys up. That’s why he’s been here as long as he has.”
Wallin has just 18 regular-season goals as he approaches his 500-game milestone next week, but has scored some of the biggest goals in franchise history in the playoffs. His three game-winning overtime goals are a franchise record and earned him the affectionate nickname of “The Secret Weapon.”
“We did make jokes about it and poke fun at him (about the OT goals), but I don’t think he’s ever realized just how strong he is on the ice and how good a skater he is,” said Erik Cole, whose playing time in Carolina has mirrored that of Wallin. “When you see him play with that aggression he is capable of more than he knows.”
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that a guy like him would score big goals and have big moments in franchise history because he’s worked so darn hard to be there in the first place,” added Forslund.
When I asked Wallin about his heroics, his large trademark grin appeared and he shot back: “I have scored a goal on my own net, too.”
That’s true. It came a few years back against Washington on a delayed penalty as Wallin attempted to regroup the offense near center ice with a back pass that ended up skidding down the ice into his own net.
Few players would have embraced the ribbing from all sides like Wallin. In fact, former coach Peter Laviolette used Wallin’s gaffe on a highlight reel of bloopers to loosen up the team before the playoffs.
“We did a voice-over saying what a great move by Wallin to make the game close,” Forslund said. “He took it all in stride -- he’s been a terrific Hurricane.”
With his contract up at the end of this season, the future for Wallin is once again uncertain. Will Wallin remain in Carolina, hook on with another NHL club or return to Sweden to join his father’s family business?
It’s difficult to imagine Wallin anywhere else.
“Just to get a chance to come over here … it has been a blast for me,” Wallin said of his career in Raleigh. “There are a lot of guys knocking on the door to get into the league and you have to push yourself every day. Mike Commodore and I used to talk, saying that half the job is to get here and then you can’t just sit back because the other half is to stay here and earn your jersey every night.
“This organization has been super to me and the coaches have been great, and Jimmy and all the staff upstairs are just top class people,” added Wallin. “If I have been here this long hopefully I have given them something. I don’t just think it’s something that just happens.”
Wallin calls himself a simple man who relishes every second he laces up his skates in the NHL.
A Secret Weapon, indeed.
“He has been unbelievably under-rated, he’s been under-appreciated at times by the fans, just because it’s a position like an offensive lineman where you don’t get noticed all the time,” Forslund said. “Every guy that has come down the pike here has loved this guy. He just loves life. He’s just a passionate person and that’s the way he plays the game. There is no other way around it."
“I am an easy-going guy,” Wallin said. “I love to come to the rink, and whether you win or lose this is something that not many people get a chance to do and you’ve got to enjoy that. All the history and all the overtime Secret Weapon stuff, I will look back when I’m done playing. But at the moment when it happened it was unbelievable that I got a picture taken jumping into the glass. You don’t see that a whole lot with me.”
What a snapshot of a career it has been so far for Wallin.