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THE GLOBAL GAME

BY RYAN FRANKSON

It was the perfect NHL Global Series moment.

As if eight-year-old Isak Axelsson's day could have gotten any better.

Decked out in his brand new Global Series hat and bright orange and blue Edmonton Oilers hoodie, Isak and his mom had arrived at a Gothenburg pizza café a couple of blocks away from the Scandinavium arena.

They had just finished watching Isak's hockey heroes skate during their open practice at the Scandinavium, one day prior to their first 2018-19 regular season game against the New Jersey Devils.

Hockey. Pizza. Quality time with mom. How do you improve on that?

Enter Swedish-born defencemen Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, arriving at the café to shoot an episode of Oilers TV's new series The Drill.

Oilers Senior Director of Hockey Communications J.J. Hebert was part of the contingent for the video shoot and noticed Isak and his mom in the café as Klefbom and Larsson took their seats and were prepped for their interview.

Hebert brought Isak over to meet the Oilers players and as the youngster approached the defensive duo with wide eyes and a big smile, he asked them the burning question he had circulating in his mind.

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"Do you know where Connor McDavid is?"

Classic. Klefbom, Larsson and everyone else sitting around the table enjoyed a collective chuckle before Oscar had to break the news to Isak that the Oilers captain wouldn't be joining them for lunch and they didn't know where he was at the time.

Though Isak was a little bit disappointed he didn't get to meet the two-time defending Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award winner, he was beaming from ear to ear as Klefbom and Larsson signed his Oilers gear and took some photos with him after Oscar scooped him up off the floor and plopped him down between them in the booth.

At first, the Oilers players assumed their new little buddy was visiting Gothenburg from Edmonton, likely as part one of the many tour groups who made the journey to Germany and Sweden to watch the Global Series games. They were pleasantly surprised to find out that Isak was in fact a local and has been following the Oilers all the way from Sweden.

They conversed a bit more in their native language before Isak and his mom said goodbye to the Oilers players and returned to their table.

"I get this question a lot," laughed Klefbom, reflecting on Isak's inquiry regarding the whereabouts of their superstar teammate.

"Even if we were playing in my hometown (Karlstad, which is about a three-hour drive from Gothenburg) it would be, 'Hey, Oscar, where's Connor?' That's just how it is. I would be the same, so I don't blame them."

The endearing interaction between the pint-sized Oilers fan and two players from his favourite team was an appropriate microcosm of what the Global Series is all about - engaging with international hockey fans and raising the NHL's profile outside of its immediate demographic in Canada and the United States.

In September, the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins played a pair of exhibition games in China as the NHL continues to embrace that rapidly-growing hockey market. Then, it was the Oilers and Devils turn to log some long hours on an airplane as they headed to Europe.

New Jersey's first stop was Switzerland as they played their final pre-season game against SC Bern in 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier's homeland before travelling north to Sweden to take on the Oil in the opener. Edmonton's final tune-up game was contested in Cologne, Germany, hometown of Leon Draisaitl, whose father Peter coached the Oilers opponent for the exhibition affair, the Kölner Haie.

The Oilers stayed right in the heart of Cologne for their four days in Deutschland, directly across the street from the train station and the city's famous cathedral. Each day, more and more Oilers jerseys could be spotted in the area, and by the time Wednesday's game rolled around, a crowd of about 100 fans gathered outside of the team hotel to bid the Oilers adieu as they departed for Lanxess Arena.

That impressive display was just the start of the German fandemonium as a sold-out crowd of 18,400 packed the largest hockey arena outside of North America and made the foundation shake throughout the Edmonton vs. Cologne matchup with raucous cheering.

"The fans like to be loud, they like to bring their drums and just chant the whole game," said Tobias Rieder, the other German on the Oilers roster who grew up in Landshut, about a five-hour drive from Cologne.

One of the loudest crowd eruptions came when Draisaitl set up his fellow countryman Rieder for the game's opening goal, paving the way for a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory for the visiting squad from Edmonton. Some Oilers players had prior experience with European crowds, having played in IIHF events earlier in their careers, but they were still blown away by the boisterous supporters.

"That was one of my favourite hockey memories to date," said Ryan Strome, who scored the game-winning goal with a crafty redirect during the sudden-death frame. "It's great for the game and great to see how much they love their team here… It's not every day we get that kind of experience, so we made sure to soak it in."

"The fans were unbelievable," echoed the team captain McDavid. "It was a fun environment to play in. They were loud. I'm sure the game and the score helped that. They were really, really fun to play in front of. European fans usually are."

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"The atmosphere in the stands, the different emotion in the stands that we don't experience as much at home with the singing and that type of stuff… it was a great experience for our players," added Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan.

Next stop: Gothenburg for the season opener against the Devils and even more NHL fanfare with not one but two big league teams converging on Sweden's second-largest city. Several hundred enthusiasts flocked to the Scandinavium for New Jersey and Edmonton's open practices the day before their game - a healthy mix of Oilers fans who live in Europe and those from Edmonton who joined one of the many Global Series tours.

The Oilers spearheaded one of those tours for fans in the Edmonton area, with Season Seat Holders getting the first opportunity to purchase the Germany and Sweden package. Spots didn't last long, according to OEG Executive Vice President Stew MacDonald.

"We thought, it's our first chance to go over to Europe to kick off a regular season in the franchise's story and there may be a few Oilers fans who may want to go," said MacDonald, who joined the group on the Euro trip. "We partnered with a travel company and thought there might be 20 or 30 seats sold, but we wanted to provide them with the opportunity. Within a day, all 100 seats had been spoken for."

Richard Carignan, an Oilers Season Seat Holder for the last 12 years, was one of the fired-up fans who jumped at the opportunity to cheer on his team abroad while also seeing the sights of Amsterdam, Cologne and Gothenburg.

"Right away we said let's go," said Carignan, sporting his bright orange McDavid jersey shirt during one of the group outings at a Cologne restaurant and beer hall. "We love watching the Oilers and this was the trip of a lifetime. We didn't want to miss it."

For some Oilers fans on the trip, the chance to have an international experience with their team was supplemented by some meaningful personal connections.

"It's been a dream of mine to watch them play in Sweden," said Mary-Lou Sinclair, another Oilers Season Seat Holder. "My ancestors are from Sweden and we are such big Oilers fans so we didn't think twice about this opportunity."

No matter how far they travelled to be there or what their motivations were, Oilers fans were out in full force at both NHL Global Series games, providing their team with a home-away-home-ice advantage.

"You look at it from both sides," said MacDonald. "It's cool to be here and have European fans wearing their Oilers jerseys who are following the team and fans of the team from thousands of miles away. But to have this many fans say hey, this is going to be my vacation this year, I'm going to jump on a plane, come over to see a bit of Europe but be there for two games for the Oilers and, most importantly, the regular season kick-off, really feels good for not just us as an organization, but even the players have commented extensively about it, having the orange jersey in the stands in both of these cities."

Unfortunately for the Swedish Oilers players, the team wasn't able to cap off the trip with a win over the Devils - in front of 12,000+ at the Scandinavium - but they didn't let the result sour an experience they wouldn't have even imagined possible a short time ago.
 
Klefbom and Larsson agreed the NHL's popularity in their home country has skyrocketed since they entered the league, due in large part to increased online accessibility to games and highlights.
 
"It's crazy… if we would have come here even five years ago, Connor wouldn't be that big like he is today," said Klefbom, shortly after the comical interaction with the diminutive Oilers fan Isak. "It's crazy to see how big of an impact social media has had and how easy it is now to see highlights, to see games online. It's crazy how fast the league has just exploded over here."
 
Neither Klefbom nor Larsson watched a big league game in its entirety until they traveled to North America for their respective World Juniors experiences, Larsson in Buffalo in 2011 and Klefbom in Edmonton and Calgary the following year.
 
The blueliners said when they were growing up it was much tougher for people in Europe to be fans of the NHL, considering the majority of games were contested in the wee morning hours local time.
 
"I did not follow the NHL too much to be honest with you," admitted Larsson. "When you're a kid, you're kind of looking up to the local hockey players. Or that's what I did, at least. Our hometown team. NHL was so hard to see on TV, being up at night. You just didn't do that as a kid. I didn't get into the NHL until I was probably 15 or 16.
 
"The NHL is getting more popular over here the last couple of years. Nowadays, it's so much easier to watch highlights and games."
 
"Back in the day, you couldn't stay up all night to watch an NHL game and then go to school," added Klefbom. "That was probably the biggest difference. I would have probably seen a lot of NHL games if it was like today and you had the option to stream the games whenever you want.
 
"It's not the same nowadays. Young players are looking up to Connor, Crosby, Ovechkin. We didn't really do that. It was so hard for us to follow."
 
Klefbom said his childhood hockey heroes played just down the road from him, rather than across the Atlantic Ocean.
 
"If someone asked me when I was younger, 'If you could dream a little, where do you see yourself in a couple years?' it was not the NHL," he said. "It was Färjestad, my hometown team. That was the deal. But the older you got, the more you learned about the NHL, the big league overseas. It was so far away but then when you start getting older and playing with the national team and getting more information about what's happening overseas, you start figuring out, "that's where I want to be, that's where I want to end up.'"
 
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly spoke in Cologne as the Oilers played their Global Series Challenge game against Peter Draisaitl's club. He said the league is committed to engaging with more international fans and introducing the NHL to fledgling hockey markets.
 
"The buzz that a National Hockey League team and a National Hockey League game can create can do a lot for the sport, can lift the sport, can lift the importance and relevance of the sport," said Daly.
 
"There are markets where hockey is relevant and significant but may not be the most popular or among the most popular sports. And then there are markets where we want hockey to be relevant and we want to kind of plant the seeds."
 
It's only a matter of time until there are mini fans like Isak Axelsson all over the world, cheering on their favourite hockey team from afar and hoping to one day have a chance encounter with their hockey heroes.

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