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Hjalmarsson's hometown ready for Cup visit

by Risto Pakarinen
The Stanley Cup landed in Gothenburg, Sweden, and continued its journey to Jonkoping where Niklas Hjalmarsson played with HV71 in the Swedish Elite League. But instead of the Kinnarps Arena, Hjalmarsson wanted to make a stop at the Ryhov Hospital's children's ward, where a dozen kids got to see the famous trophy up close, get Hjalmarsson's autograph and exchange a few words with the Stanley Cup champion.

And, of course, see Hjalmarsson hoist the Cup, like a true champion.

"It's so cool," the 23-year-old defenseman said when the Cup was set up on a table before the children arrived. He let his hand slide down the trophy.

"I saw a couple of weeks ago, but I've missed it," he said with a smile.

But Jonkoping was not the end of the road for Stanley. On Monday night, it was the guest of honor at a party hosted by Hjalmarsson in Nassjo, the next town over, some 25 miles from Jonkoping, a city with a population of 125,000.

Nassjo only has 10 percent of the population of Jonkoping, but it's a little bigger than Hjalmarsson's hometown, Eksjo, the next town over. That's where the parade will take place on Tuesday, starting at the local rink, the Storegardshallen, and then going through the city's main street.

But to get to the starting point of Hjalmarsson's journey, you'll have to drive about another 10 miles to Russnas, a village of about 90 people where, according to an local, um, rural legend, half the people are named Hjalmarsson.

"My town in Sweden has 90 people. They watch tonight's game at 2 in the morning, then go milk cows at 5. They are more tired than I am. Wait until I bring this Cup there. They will not be tired," Niklas said during the Stanley Cup Final.

After about 300 meters off the main highway, a visitor comes to a T intersection. And if you're unsure of whether you're in the right place, the insecurity is quickly removed by a huge sign welcoming you to Russnas -- "Välkommen till Russnas" -- and a big photo of Niklas Hjalmarsson, the Stanley Cup champion with the text, "Grattis Niklas," or, "Congratulations, Niklas" on it. Next to it, there's a replica Stanley Cup.

Turn left, and the road -- wide enough for just one car at a time -- takes you through the village, with cows on both sides of it, until it comes to a dead end about five-eighths of a mile later.

The people in Russnas weren't tired on Monday as they were working on the preparations of tomorrow's festivities. Not all of them are related to Niklas, either, although the one he was talking about, the one who went to milk the cows after the game, was his father's cousin.

They were busy setting up tents and hot dog stands for the village's big day. A choir will sing, there will be a lottery, and Hjalmarsson will get to show off his hockey skills in a competition.

Hjalmarsson and the Stanley Cup's visit are good advertising for the village. There's hope that the Eksjo municipality will now help build a rink to the playground where Niklas used to play as a kid. His old rink, on the other side of the highway, is gone; buried under the railway.

The only thing the people in Russnas were slightly worried about is the number of visitors.

Somebody had heard that 800 people might show up, all the way from Linkoping, about 75 miles north of Russnas. And they only have 500 hot dogs.

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