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Pettersson more comfortable entering second season with Canucks

Forward learning to embrace spotlight after winning Calder Trophy as top rookie

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

STOCKHOLM -- Elias Pettersson is trying to embrace the spotlight he once dreaded.

And when the Vancouver Canucks forward steps onto the ice for his second NHL training camp at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, British Columbia, on Friday, he'll admittedly be much more prepared for the constant media attention that follows him.

"I'm just having fun with it," Pettersson said last month at the NHL European Player Media Tour. "I'm living my dream life. I'm just trying to make the most of it."

On the ice has never been an issue for Pettersson, it's always been his second home. Whether it was dealing with a defenseman trying to wallpaper him against the boards, or the reduced room to maneuver on the smaller rinks in North America, he adapted his game magnificently in his first season with Vancouver.

Pettersson, who the Canucks selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, led all NHL rookies with 66 points (28 goals, 38 assists) in 71 games last season, 21 points more than Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk, en route to winning the Calder Trophy. It was the most points by a Vancouver rookie since Pavel Pure had 60 (34 goals, 26 assists) in 1991-92, and he was the first rookie to lead the NHL in goals, assists and points since Artemi Panarin did it with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16.

Off the ice, it was a more difficult transition for the 20-year-old. 

New country. New language. New expectations. New status as a star player in a hockey-crazed city. All for a kid from Ange, a town of about 3,000 in central Sweden.

"It was definitely new, especially playing in Canada," Pettersson said. "The media attention was a lot more than I was used to. Getting used to that was definitely a little hard for me, talking my second language."  

That language barrier was Pettersson's biggest growing pain, saying he was afraid to say certain things that might get lost in translation. Simply put, he didn't want to look, or sound, stupid.

"I remember being in school, I wasn't that good in English," Pettersson said. "I remember my first interview in English, I could barely get the language, get a word out.

Video: Expectations for Elias Pettersson in 2019-20

"I think my English is pretty good now. I think moving to Vancouver and speaking it every day really helped."

Rasmus Dahlin can relate.

The 19-year-old defenseman, a fellow Swede who was selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, was under much the same public microscope as Pettersson last season.

"I understand what [Pettersson] means," Dahlin said. "You can't really show your real personality because you don't know the language as much. For me, it kind of looked as if I was pretty shy at the beginning to my teammates and all the people around, but it was just I didn't know the language."

But language wasn't the only barrier. 

Pettersson, after all, was a teenager when he entered the NHL. He had to navigate countless grown-up tasks from the beginning, including where to live, securing a driver's license, and assimilating into a new culture. 

"There was quite a bit (of growth) in him last year," Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. "He's a good kid from a great family. But he's still a kid, right? That's not taking anything away from him. He's allowed to be a kid. But you get thrown into the situation he was thrown into in the market he was thrown into, he did incredibly well. 

"This is just a kid that wants to come to the rink and play hockey, score goals, and make nice plays. But there's a whole other side to it. You're getting your first paycheck. I had summer jobs as a kid for sure, but not those paychecks. Finding a place to live, taking care of a car and making sure that side of your life is being taken care of. He lives an [nine-hour] time difference from his friends and family. That's a long way to go. It's not necessarily as simple as flying to a new place and stepping on the ice and playing the game. There's a whole bunch of different angles as well." 

Simple things, like going out for dinner, were productions for Pettersson with his profile growing rapidly. He said it took a while to get used to being recognized the moment he left the aren, that it made him uncomfortable. 

"I wasn't used to it at all," Pettersson said. "I probably still am not used to it that people idolize me and stay up late just to watch me play hockey. That's just crazy.

"It happens even here in Sweden. I remember walking home from a restaurant here in Stockholm and a guy came up and said, 'Hey Elias, great season! Go hard,' and there was nothing more. I mean, [Stockholm] is not my hometown. It's the capital of Sweden, so …

"I think for me just to make kids happy is the best thing ever. That I can make someone's day just by signing my ugly autograph -- OK it's not ugly, it's all right, it's my first one -- but that I can make people happy is awesome because I've been that kid, too."

Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Pettersson

As a boy, Pettersson was "that kid" when he saw Nicklas Lidstrom, the Detroit Red Wings defenseman who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015, at a hockey camp his older brother, Emil, was attending in Sweden.

"I was actually too nervous to come up to him just to say, 'Hi Nicklas, can I have your autograph?' So I always have that in the back of my mind when people come up to me. They will remember the short conversation they had with me, so I just try to make them happy."

In preparation for his second NHL season, Pettersson bulked up during the summer but still looks fragile at 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds. 

In his mind, though, he's not worried, so why should others?

"I was always small and light. Now I'm tall and light," he said with a laugh. "I've always been like this.

"Look at Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames). I weigh more than him and he's doing pretty good. And also, I think I weigh the same as Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), and he's also doing pretty good."

Although Pettersson took the NHL by storm last season, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in his first 10 games, the wear and tear of an 82-game schedule began taking its toll. He missed six games with a concussion and five later in the season because of a leg injury following a hit by Montreal Canadiens rookie forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

He admits he started to run out of gas near the end of the season, getting 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his final 19 games, and realized that opponents were keying on him, a tactic he now feels the Canucks can use to their advantage.

"Guys were trying to get inside my head, play harder on me," Pettersson said. "But I think that's good because maybe they'll play me too hard and I can get through that and we get a 2-on-1 situation out of it, something like that, or another teammate gets open.

"I learned so much last year. On the ice, I don't have personal goals in terms of stats, I just want the team to do well. As for me, I always and will always believe in myself. Because if you don't have self-confidence, you'll always have problems to perform.

"I couldn't have been drafted to a better place. I love Vancouver."

Even with the spotlight that goes with it.

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