Rickard Wallin admits it.
He was a selfish player.
Oh, he passed the puck because assists, like goals, equal points. But ask him if he was the kind of player interested in playing only one side of the ice and he will give it up.
“When I first came over to the NHL, I was 21-22,” he said. “I just played from the blue line in.”
Wallin now knows the route out of the NHL for all but the most gifted is to view cruise between the blueline and the crease. Signed by the Minnesota Wild, he bounced between the big club and their affiliate in Houston. When he did play in the NHL, he scored. Wallin had six goals in 19 games stretched over two years and considering the ice time he would have enjoyed under the military defensive demands of coach Jacques Lemaire that isn’t bad at all.
He went back to Sweden to play for Farjestads in 2005 and kept scoring and setting up goals.
Wallin never believed he would get another chance at the NHL. He was in his late twenties and while he remained his club’s top scorer, something nagged at him.
Why couldn’t he be a good defensive player? He was big enough. He was fast himself.
But for himself, and for his team, he committed to broadening his game.
“I figured the defensive game was where I had to contribute more. I needed to help out my teammates whenever I could. I worked the last couple of years to be as a good two-way player as I could be."
Then something altogether unexpected happened. When scouts as well as Leafs’ GM Brian Burke went to Sweden to scout Wallin’s teammate, goalie Jonas Gustavsson
, they noticed Wallin’s two-way game. That landed him a contract. The Leafs, after all, were one of the few teams willing to gamble on a player who would be 29 on opening night. Toronto offered opportunity.
In the Leafs season opening 4-3 overtime loss to the Habs, Wallin was the counterpoint to flashy countryman Viktor Stalberg. Everything Wallin did was lower case but most everything he did was good. He filled in for Ian White when the Leafs defenceman dashed to the net, drifted over to the strong side of the ice to support puck pursuit and got his frame in the way of most everything wearing red. The line he shared with Lee Stempniak and John Mitchell delivered a strong night’s work.
No one is more delighted than Rickard Wallin to be in the NHL. He sat at his stall before Thursday’s morning skate, not quite believing that his name had been burned into a plate above his locker.
This is worth repeating. Wallin bettered himself while believing that no one in the NHL was watching. He had a job in the Swedish league. He was motivated only by the desire to be a better player. It’s what you are doing when you think no one is watching that counts. Rickard Wallin will tell you that.
“As time goes on you have to figure out how you can best help the team,” he said.
“This is what I do best now.”
And then he smiles.
“It doesn’t hurt that I used to be an offensive guy,” he said. “I can figure out what they are thinking.”