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Helber's Swedish adventure becomes a career

by Dan Rosen /
Mike Helber went to Sweden for the hockey and wound up staying for the adventure. Eighteen years later, the former Winnipeg Jets draft pick and current president of the Linkoping Hockey Club isn't sure when, or even if, he'll ever return home.

"My wife, Cecilia, wants to move tomorrow; she wants to come to the United States," Helber, a University of Michigan alumnus who grew up in the college town of Ann Arbor, told "I keep refusing."

Can you blame him?

Helber has developed a life, a family and a career in Linkoping. He's in the eighth year of a job that he admits he would never have landed in the United States after spending 10 seasons as a pro hockey player in Sweden.

Helber has also become an influential voice in Swedish hockey circles and has seen Linkoping HC go from a fourth-division program to one of the top teams in the Swedish Elite League, good enough to play an exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues.

Linkoping will host the Blues on Sept. 29, St. Louis' final exhibition before starting the regular season in Stockholm against Detroit as part of the Compuware NHL Premiere.

"I really enjoy the Swedish mentality," Helber said. "It's been a great experience and now I'm president of a business that has $23 million budget. That's fun to be a part of."

So how does a Michiganite and U of M grad end up in Linkoping, the fifth largest city in Sweden, leading a multi-million dollar company?

"By total coincidence," Helber said.

Helber was selected in the ninth round of the 1988 Entry Draft by the Jets, but after four seasons playing for Red Berenson at the University of Michigan, he was asked to go to Fort Wayne, Ind. to play in the East Coast Hockey League.

He wouldn't do it.

"The ECHL today is not what it was 20 years ago," Helber said. "I refused to play there and a friend of mine who played at Michigan had come to Sweden and had a good year. He said, 'Why don't you come here?' He said it was a great place to come."

Helber was looking to get into business school, but everywhere he applied required two years of experience. When he found out that playing two seasons of professional hockey would count toward that experience, Helber crossed the Atlantic, hockey bag and all.

"Two years went by and our team was in the second division, which is four behind the Swedish Elite League," he said. "We did well and moved up to the first division. I stayed."

After completing his fourth season, he was determined to head back to the States to finally attend business school. He got into both the U of M's school as well as the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School.

"I heard enough from Red Berenson that I wasn't a hockey player, to go get a real job," Helber joked.

Giddy as you would expect, Helber was contemplating his options -- Ann Arbor or Philadelphia -- when Linkoping's chairman of the board offered him a contract to stay and the option to go to business school in Sweden at the Linkoping University. So, he decided his journey wasn't over yet.

"Long story short, I was here for an adventure and am now in my 18th year with a wife and three kids," Helber said. "I'm back in Ann Arbor every summer, but I'm Swedish now."

For how long, though, remains up in the air.

Helber already stated Cecilia, a Swede, is itching to move to the United States and he told that he would go if everything fell perfectly into place. He would need a comparable job in the Ann Arbor area so he could live near his family, including his parents and three siblings (two others live outside of the Ann Arbor area).

Working in the Michigan athletic department always has been interesting to Helber, but it's not reality now.

"This is not the time to go to southern Michigan looking for a job," Helber said. "On the other hand, if a Swedish company would start doing business there and want me to go there to do business for them certainly I would love to do it."

Until that door opens, Helber is focused on leading his team into the future. He has been a driving force in Linkoping's ascension to the top of the SEL and there is still much work to be done within the organization and Swedish hockey as a whole.

It's not a bad gig for an American living out his adventure abroad.

"I consider it every year; do we want to do this again?" Helber said when asked if he wants to stay in Sweden. "We discuss it and maybe somebody will come knocking on my door and ask, 'Would you do this for us?' I would have to figure out what would be fun to do. I have a job now that I wouldn't have been given in any other organization."

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