Most of us don’t think about the lifestyle changes a player faces when he leaves his European team and travels across the Atlantic Ocean to play professional hockey in North America. When a European prospect spends his first season in Bridgeport, CT, we tend to simply eyeball box scores and project how his game translates to the smaller ice surface.
We generally fail to consider the player’s choice to uproot his life and move to a country where the language is foreign, where he doesn’t have friends or family and where he isn’t accustomed to the lifestyle.
At any age, it’s an intimidating decision. If the athlete wants to play professionally in the best league in the world, then he has to put all his fears behind him and take the plunge. That’s just what Islanders prospect David Ullstrom
did this past year.
As a 21-year-old, he moved from his hometown of Jonkoping, Sweden to live in a hotel on Long Island during the team’s training camp. From there, he acquired a social security card, signed up for a credit card and moved to Bridgeport, to share an apartment with three of his soon-to-be Sound Tigers teammates.
“The difference is pretty big, not only on the ice, but off the ice as well,” Ullstrom said. “Moving overseas, it’s a new language, new friends and new teammates, so it’s a big difference. I feel like I adjusted pretty well and really fast.”
Once he took care of the personal side of things, he still needed to adjust to the new brand of hockey he was playing.
“When David first came over, he had an adjustment to make as far as systems go,” said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano, who coached Ullstrom in Bridgeport before being reassigned to the Islanders. “In Europe, there is a lot of swinging away and different philosophies on puck support. Once David got accustomed to the North American game and the style that we wanted to play, he did exceptionally well.”
Ullstrom agreed, “The game is way faster (in North America). There are more hits and more fights. I had to get used to the smaller ice, but I felt like I had a good first year.”
One other major difference between the pro’s in North America and in Sweden is that the North Americans play 57 percent more games in their six-month season.
“I played way more than I did in the last two years in Sweden,” said Ullstrom, who played 20 additional regular season games in his rookie AHL campaign than he had in 2009-10. “That was a big step forward. I got used to a lot of ice time and a lot of minutes, on the PK and the power play, five-on-five in the last minutes. That was a big step in the right direction.”
All that extra ice time paid off for the young Swede.
“He had to get adjusted to the more physical game,” Capuano said. “He’s done that. His battle level was never at a lull, but playing on a smaller ice surface, there is a lot more contact. He won a lot of 50/50 puck battles and his faceoffs started to improve as the year went on.”
Now that he’s had a year under his belt, Ullstrom feels more capable of succeeding in the North American game.
“I can’t wait to get to training camp to really get to feel how it is over here and to play against the big boys,” Ullstrom said. “I felt really comfortable playing in ‘The A’ (AHL) and I felt like I had a pretty good year overall.”
His point totals speak to his growth. His 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) this past season represented a career high, but not just because he played more games. From the 2009-10 season with HV71 Jonkoping to the 2010-11 season with the Sound Tigers, Ullstrom increased his points-per-game output from .34 PPG to .61 PPG.
“The one thing that really impresses me with David is if you go look at his stats, in the past, he wasn’t a guy that put up a lot offensive numbers in Europe,” Capuano said. “When he came over here, he was put in a role to succeed and David has shown the ability to make plays and put numbers up as well.”
Though he was happy with his first North American campaign, Ullstrom plans to spend a lot of time in the gym this summer, preparing for another long, grueling schedule.
“I mostly want to work on my body getting bigger and stronger,” Ullstrom said. “When you play all these games, it was a huge difference (from Sweden). So I want to be in even better shape when I come to training camp, be in the best-possible shape.”
In addition to adding size, Ullstrom also has his sights set on improving his on-ice performance.
“I want to be a two-way centerman that the coach can put on the ice in every situation,” Ullstrom said. “The power play, the penalty kill, doesn’t matter. I want to play over 20 minutes every night and be a reliable guy that comes to practice and games every day to show up and contribute.”
Prior to his North American move, Ullstrom was drafted by the Islanders in the fourth round of the 2008 Entry Draft. He played three seasons in the Sweden Elite League with his hometown team, HV71 Jonkoping, spending his first season primarily with their junior club and splitting his second year with Boras HC.
From year one to year three, he went from playing seven pro games to 47 games, each year improving his offensive output and completing his third season with five goals and 11 assists for 16 points and 27 penalty minutes.
He’s not afraid to go to the net. He’s a courageous kid. He’s on the right track. He’s working very hard to make an impact and is making tough decisions for some of the personnel on the island. - Jack Capuano
If Ullstrom can make the same strides from his first year in North America to his second, there’s no doubt he could be a dominant offensive force on the Islanders and in the NHL.
“I’m really pleased in his development and where he’s come from,” Capuano said. “Offensively, not that he surprised me, but he can make plays when they are needed. He’s not afraid to go to the net. He’s a courageous kid. He’s on the right track. He’s working very hard to make an impact and is making tough decisions for some of the personnel on the island.”