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Huselius' long, strange trip to stardom ends in Calgary

by Larry Wigge

Kristian Huselius has 14 goals and 19 assists in 34 games this season -- better than last year’s pace.
Time stands still for no one. Not even Kristian Huselius of the Calgary Flames, whose litany of slick moves sometimes generates that illusion.

The 29-year-old native of Osterhaninge, Sweden will admit there was a period in his life in North America where he was lost; even though his breathtaking skills enabled him to net an impressive 23 goals as a rookie for the Florida Panthers in the 2000-01 season.

All of that indecision ended, however, when he brought his immense skills to Calgary.

Huselius cleared waivers in December of 2005, paving the way for a trade to the Flames for defenseman Steve Montador and center Dustin Johner in a deal that now looks like one of the biggest steals of this decade.

The flashy forward is presently on fire. He has 14 goals and 19 assists in 34 games this season -- better than last year’s pace when he had a career-high 34 goals and 43 assists.

How hot? Consider a recent three-game sample. Huselius exploded for three goals and two assists in a Dec. 13 game at Tampa Bay, added a goal at Carolina one night later and then one goal and four assists in a 5-3 victory at St. Louis as part of an on-going five-game road winning streak.

"This is the best stretch I’ve had in my life," Huselius admitted. "This team plays a hard, strong game. Nasty. I can’t do that. But I can contribute in my own way. Most of all, I know now that I can compete at a high level in this League every night."

And competing at Huselius’ level is something to behold for the rest of the Flames.

"He can be electrifying. He literally brings teammates out of their seats on the bench with some of the moves he makes," Flames center Craig Conroy said. "He’s a winger, but he handles the puck better than most centers ... and boy does he love to carry the puck.

"His hands are as good as anyone. His vision is next to none. And when you combine the two, he can really confuse the defense, because they have no clue whether he’s going to pass or shoot."

Want more superlatives?

"No one can turn like ‘Juice,’" said Jarome Iginla, the teams captain. "It’s fun for us -- and murder for the opposition -- to watch how he can turn on a dime, get away from defenders and then create a scoring opportunity for himself or a teammate."

When asked what player Huselius reminds him of, Iginla said; "I’ve never played with anybody who has the scary offensive skills that Juice has."

Iginla has more to say.

"He’s got me excited, because I remember when we went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 and lost in Game 7 to Tampa Bay," Iginla said. "Then, we were a push-the-puck-up-the-wing, play-tough-along-the-boards team that liked to play nasty. We were hard to play against. We still have that, but we’ve also changed because of Kristian ...

"He added a different kind of skilled-attack dimension that isn’t always straight ahead to our game that I think has made us even more dangerous."

Calgary’s playing style was a different culture for a skill guy who had already faced a culture shock of his own earlier in his career.

Huselius admits his shortcomings weren’t all his own, but the byproduct of a team that lost a lot in Florida.

I’ll never forget scouts telling me that before he arrived in North America, Huselius was like Teemu Selanne, Peter Forsberg and other Euro stars who, at the time immediately preceding their NHL arrival, were the best players in the world not playing in the NHL.

"It was hard in Florida ... with all the losing," Huselius said. "I was young. I hadn’t figured out this game over here. Far from it. When you’re younger you don’t realize how much work you have to put into the game."

Glimpses of greatness are not good enough in a losing atmosphere. Plus, there was a tinge of negativism in Florida when this talented, young player was benched for long stretches after Mike Keenan took over as coach of the Panthers. Some still feel that Keenan ran Huselius out of town.

Ironically, now Kristian is at his best ... with Keenan behind the bench this season in Calgary.

"It was the worst feeling I've ever had," he said. "I'm in South Florida and we didn’t win games. It was a tough time for everyone. I remember hearing that I had cleared waivers. Think about that, no one wanted me.

"Everyone talked about a feud between me and the coach. But that wasn’t it. It was all the losing. There were really no bad feelings between me and Mike. He may have said some things to get me going ... make me better, but ... I know he’s a good coach. Look at his record. He demands a lot ... and I guess he thought I had more to give."

Keenan agreed with that assessment.

"Young players don’t always realize the desire, the passion, the mental toughness that it takes to play at the NHL level,” Keenan said. “Those are just a few of the many pieces it takes in a player's evolution. The same thing happened after I acquired Chris Pronger in St. Louis. There were high expectations. But some players take more time than others to develop into the team concept.

"Now, Kristian is older, smarter, more responsible. He’s got a wife and two kids. He’s not a young, single guy in South Florida. That’s part of the dimension."

"I don’t even like to think about that now," Huselius said. "I am a different person. I’m older. I’d like to think I’m smarter and I expect a lot of myself."

Smarter? It didn’t take Huselius long to figure out that if he watched the ultra-competitive Iginla, he might pick up something that would help his game.

"I would watch Jarome prepare for a game, get himself focused. Every day he was like that," Huselius said. "And I would watch how hard he worked on the ice. I knew I had to be more consistent like that."

It didn’t take Huselius long to figure out that if he watched the ultra-competitive Jarome Iginla, he might pick up something that would help his game.

The glimpses of greatness began to come more often. And, in Calgary, time and place obviously have spelled time and space for a harder-working Huselius. The past two summers, Huselius has shown a desire to become better by adding more strength in the off-season, when he’s not taking time off to watch the two horses he owns in Stockholm.

Like most hockey players, their demeanor, their values come from their upbringing -- and Huselius is no different. He said he gets his athletic skills from his parents. Lars, his dad, was a soccer and hockey player as a youngster and became a carpenter. His mom, Lena, also was a soccer player, before starting a family that includes Kristian’s three sisters and a younger brother. Lena now runs a day-care center.

When Huselius was young, his dad, built a wooden board to use as a smooth surface for him to practice on in his backyard. Neighborhood kids, a half-dozen or more at a time, would try their luck at taking balls and plastic pucks away from him, helping him perfect his moves.

Those moves, he admits, are probably a combination of some from Wayne Gretzky, Kent Nilsson and Hakan Loob, his favorite NHL players growing up. Ironically, Huselius has finally achieved his success in Calgary, where Nilsson and Loob were at their best.

"I admit practicing some of the moves I saw Wayne Gretzky, Kent Nilsson and Hakan Loob make on TV when I was growing up," Huselius laughed. "To me, it’s ironic also that Kent and Hakan played so well in Calgary ... and here I am playing for the Flames as well."

While some of Kristian’s teammates toss out names like Pavol Demitra and Ales Hemsky as players Huselius resembles, I see Nilsson -- “The Magic Man” with dazzling puck skills and moves in his days in Calgary and Edmonton from 1979 through 1995.

Now, Huselius is providing his own sort of magic. And those kids who used to have so much trouble taking the puck away from him on that wooden platform back home in Sweden have been replaced by grown men in the NHL doing the struggling as Huselius still displays the same pull-you-out-of-your-seat puckhandling magic he did as a youngster.


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