Victor Hedman clearly recalls the moment he realized he no longer was in Sweden.
"I had just moved into my own apartment and I was walking to practice and I saw these people that were living on the street," Hedman said. "That was the first time I ever saw that. That was really a life-changing moment. It's tough to see."
Hedman, the second pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, had come to the United States to play hockey for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and life-changing moments would come from everywhere.
At an age when most young men still are enjoying some home cooking, Hedman, 18, had his own home and was trying to figure his way around a new and different country. Instead of carrying his dirty clothes in a pile to the laundry room for his mom to sort through, he was carrying a full load of high expectations on his shoulders.
What sort of expectations? Prior to the draft, USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations Jim Johannson compared the 6-foot-6, 229-pound Hedman to a "mixture of Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger."
SWEDE SUCCESS STORY
Ten years ago, Sweden revamped its hockey development model. Today, the NHL is reaping the fruits of that labor, with more talent to come.
That set the bar high, especially for a young player in the middle of some major changes.
"There was a lot of pressure," Hedman said. "Coming in at 18, it's not easy to make the adjustment from Sweden. Coming over here is a different lifestyle. Even the size of the rink was different than I was used to.
"I had to make an adjustment because when I arrived here, people seemed to expect me to dominate the game and score often.”
And then there was life away from the rink
"All the small things were new to me," Hedman said. "Grocery shopping, cleaning your own place -- it's just different."
In order to ease the adjustment, the Lightning signed fellow Swede Mattias Ohlund, a veteran who had spent his first 11 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. Having a mentor helped, but there were some growing pains Hedman was going to have to work through on his own.
Then came Dec. 5, 2009, and the pressure got worse.
That was game No. 27 in Hedman's NHL career, the night he scored his first goal. It was a picture-perfect goal, too. Exactly what the fans had been led to believe they could expect from the rookie. Hedman joined the rush, took a cross-ice feed from Vincent Lecavalier and launched a one-timer that shot off his stick like a bullet and found the upper corner of the net.
Once he broke through, Hedman went on a tear, scoring three times in his next 13 games. But then it was over and the rookie would be held without a score for the remaining 34 games. Even worse, as he pressed to find a goal, other aspects of his game began to suffer.
"The pressure to score made my game go down," Hedman said. "I was a high draft pick and I wanted to score points to prove to people that I was worth such a high pick."
The second season of Hedman's NHL career began with the arrival of a new coaching staff, as Guy Boucher took over the on-ice leadership of the club. Boucher found his young blueliner still in the midst of a struggle, chafing under the pressure of internal and external expectations. Luckily, Boucher had coached against Hedman internationally three times, and knew the defenseman well.
"People expected Hedman to be a powerhouse on the ice," Boucher said, "but he was never like that. I knew what he was -- a solid defenseman, more of a Zdeno Chara-type, in the sense of his presence on the ice, his mobility, his stick reach and his quickness to retrieve the puck. He's outstanding at all that. If you're expert at something but you focus on all the things you're not good at, you'll lose your confidence. That was what was happening with Hedman."
Boucher thought he knew exactly what needed to be done to get Hedman back on the right track.
"People expected Hedman to be a powerhouse on the ice. but he was never like that. I knew what he was -- a solid defenseman, more of a Zdeno Chara-type, in the sense of his presence on the ice, his mobility, his stick reach and his quickness to retrieve the puck. He's outstanding at all that. If you're expert at something but you focus on all the things you're not good at, you'll lose your confidence. That was what was happening with Hedman." --Guy Boucher
"In his case, first of all, the thing that had to be done was to take the pressure off him," Boucher said. "He was the second pick overall and that creates expectations, and if you stick with that, you're going nowhere, because you're sticking with expectations that are not in the right place."
But learning to be the player he was meant to be, rather than the player he was expected to be, proved trickier for Hedman than learning his way around the local supermarket.
Finally, at mid-season, Boucher and his coaching staff sat down with Hedman and began to re-direct his focus. The message: Take care of business in the defensive end and let everything else take care of itself.
"He began to realize that you have to secure step one, and step one is the basics," Boucher said. "He had been thinking that he had all the pressure in the world to be an offensive guy when really he had never been that much of an offensive player. He was definitely feeling that pressure, and our job as coaches is to relieve that pressure."
The message made sense to Hedman.
"They told me to first become a good defensive player and to concentrate on that," Hedman said. "The role I have now on this team makes me the best player I can be. I want to play big minutes and be a force out there, but I want to be able to kill penalties and block shots. When I have open ice I'll still take the puck and go, but defense will always come first for me."
That was the answer for Hedman, who quickly became a dominant force on defense, and watched his ice time rise along with his improved play.
"You could tell from Day 1 that this is someone who was going to be a special hockey player," Ohlund said. "Now he's learning that he can be an extremely important member of a hockey team without producing as many points as he thought he would need to.
"He might turn into a guy who gets you 50 points a season, but he might also give you 20 or 25 points and be the most important player on the ice. It's going to be fun to follow his career. The sky is the limit for him."
Ultimately, the credit goes to Hedman, who was able to see how his game needed to change, and was able to make the required changes. That's a measure of maturity in any player, even more so for one who won't turn 21 until December.
"Maturity," Martin St. Louis said. "Can I call a 20-year-old mature? Well, he is and it shows on the ice."
It shows off the ice, too.
"I want to be a leader on this team for many years," Hedman said. "I try to lead by example. I go out on the ice thinking about what we have to do to win. That's the proper attitude you need to be successful. I've learned that it doesn't matter if you score a goal; if you can block a shot and help the team, that can be just as important. You need to do what's right at the moment."