CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - When Henrik Borgström arrived on campus at the University of Denver last summer, the lanky, wide-eyed hockey player from Helsinki, Finland admittedly didn't know what to expect as he prepared for his first extended stay away from home.
Borgström, a first-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2016, had turned down multiple offers from teams in both the Finnish Elite League (Liiga) and Canadian Hockey League, believing that the NCAA route would actually provide him with the best way to refine his game and prepare his body for the rigors of the NHL.
One year later, Borgström has no regrets about his decision.
"If somebody asked me about college, I'd recommend it, for sure," said Borgström, who is continuing to fill out his 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame. "It was probably the best decision of my life. It's so much fun. You have hockey and you have friends."
Although his surroundings were new and unfamiliar, Borgström's life on the ice remained the same, as the 19-year-old forward took the collegiate hockey world by storm by leading all NCAA freshman in goals (22) and finishing third in points (43) in 37 games during the 2016-17 season.
In the Frozen Four, Borgström remained hot, notching a goal and four assists in four tournament games. In the championship game, he had two shots on goal as the Pioneers defeated Minnesota Duluth to win their eighth national title.
"I know how championship teams are built," Borgström said of the experience. "In Denver, we had a great team last year and we'll have a great team next year too. You know what it takes, especially playing against teams like Minnesota Duluth. They were an old team, you know, a lot of strong guys."
"When we played against them, I was like, 'these guys are so strong. I still have to work a lot.' I think playing those games are the best experiences. You get the best memories out of them. Of course, it taught us a lot and I got a lot from it."
For Borgström, life away from the ice was also full of lessons.
In addition to living in a new country and learning a new language, the Finnish center was also adapting to the day-to-day life of a college freshman - going to class, making new friends and, of course, trying to figure out how to get around campus.
"It was different, the whole way of life," Borgström said. "Everything is so close but still so far away. I mean you don't even have a car. It was a big adjustment, I feel like. Personally, I don't think going to class was the most exciting thing about college, but it was great doing it with all of my friends, you know, the boys. They made it fun."
A key member of "the boys" was Evan Cowley, the Pioneers backup goaltender.
"In the beginning, when I didn't know all the guys and the language was, well, different, it was great to have Evan," said Borgström, who was reunited with Cowley at Florida's development camp earlier this month. "He helped me a lot during my first months there."
A fourth-round pick of the Panthers in 2013, Cowley had already befriended Borgström at last summer's development camp, taking the incoming freshman under his wing in order to make sure that he would feel comfortable in the fall.
"Every freshman comes in and it's up to the rest of the class to welcome them in and show them the ropes," said Cowley, who posted a career-best 1.13 goals-against average and .955 save percentage in 11 games during his senior season. "We try to assimilate them pretty quick. He came in and obviously had all the skill in the world."
"I think the other aspects of just living on your own and being away from home was probably difficult, but we just tried to do what we could to help him out and get him settled in. Now, he's one of the most loved guys on the team and everyone wants to be hanging out with him."
While no decision has been made yet on when Borgström will leave college for the professional ranks, Cowley is confident that the dynamic goal scorer he now describes as a "goof ball" will eventually be just as popular in South Florida as he is in Denver.
"He's got the most upside I've seen in a long time," said Cowley, who signed a contract with Florida's AHL affiliate this summer. "He's super crafty with the puck, exciting to watch. He's the type of guy that puts butts in seats. [The fans] are almost as amazed as we are when he pulls stuff off in games. He's going to be exciting for a lot of years to come."