Surely, Mika Zibanejad
— all of 18 years old — has already cemented his place in the Scandinavian county's puck lore forever, with a goal that all who worship the Tre Kronor won't soon ever forget.
"He's a huge hero. The whole team is," Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
said today in the wake of Sweden's epic 1-0 triiumph over Russia in the gold-medal game at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship — a victory sealed by Zibanejad's brilliant overtime goal late on Thursday night.
The Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft seized a loose puck just outside the Russian blue line, dashed in on the right wing and beat netminder Andrei Makarov on the backhand to touch off a wild celebration at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Not to mention the partying that still is likely going on back in Sweden, a country which last tasted world junior gold in 1981.
"Reading the Swedish papers this morning ... there's headlines in every paper," said Alfredsson. "It's been 31 years and they've come close so many times. It's great for Swedish hockey. They've done a great job of really overhauling the whole program and they've seen the results the past few years.
"This validates all the work they've put in and it's a huge boost for Swedish hockey."
Zibanejad's status in Sweden has skyrocketed since his historic goal. The 6-1, 200-pound centre was trending worldwide on Twitter within minutes of netting the game-winner.
"Everybody is talking about him right now," said Senators blueliner Erik Karlsson
, a member of Sweden's silver-medal winning team at the 2009 WJC in Ottawa. "I think he made a lot of Swedish people realize who we are and what kind of player he is ... Mika has the skills to change a game and he showed that in the overtime there.
"I'm happy for him, that he scored that goal. It's something that's going to be on TV for a very long time and something he can look back on when he's older. It will probably never be forgotten."
One Swedish paper has already suggested Zibanejad's goal is worthy of being immortalized on a postage stamp — an honour previously reserved for Peter Forsberg's shootout winner at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, still widely considered the most significant goal in Swedish hockey history.
While Alfredsson doesn't put Zibanejad's goal in the same class as Forsberg's — "that was the Olympics" — he says "it's up there with the big goals" in the eyes of his countrymen.
"It's a huge goal and it was a beauty, too," said Alfredsson, an Olympic gold medallist for Sweden at the 2006 Turin Winter Games in Italy. That being said, Alfredsson wouldn't be surprised if Sweden gives Zibanejad's goal the stamp of approval, so to speak.
"Everybody is talking about him right now ... Mika has the skills to change a game and he showed that in the overtime there. I'm happy for him, that he scored that goal. It's something that's going to be on TV for a very long time and something he can look back on when he's older. It will probably never be forgotten." - Erik Karlsson
"You never know," he said. "It's been 31 years and it's quite an accomplishment."
Alfredsson and Karlsson were among a group of Senators watching the final minutes of the WJC drama unfold on a TV in the players' lounge. When Zibanejad finally ended an affair in which the Swedes held an unfathomable 58-17 edge in shots in goal, his two future teammates went for a quick victory lap.
"I sprayed water all over the cafeteria room," said a smiling Karlsson, who wore Zibanejad's No. 93 practice jersey at the Bell Sensplex earlier today as the Senators began preparing for Saturday's matinee against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center (1 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet, Team 1200). I didn't have any champagne, so I had to take water. I was pretty excited.
"It was pretty nerve wracking. Every shot can go in (during) overtime and anything can happen. It's only one goal and you don't have any time to repair it if any team scores. But when Mika got that chance, I kind of knew that he was going to score."
Karlsson texted a message of congratulations to Zibanejad afterward, but figures he wasn't alone.
"He probably got over a thousand texts, if I know him ... he's got a lot of friends" said Karlsson. "He hasn't responded yet, but he's probably still celebrating. He should be, by all means. The whole team should be. I think it's going to be a good night for every Swedish city."
Senators fans have plenty of reason to be enthused about the future as well, given the efforts by Zibanejad and forward Mark Stone
, a sixth-round pick (178th overall) in the 2010 NHL draft who's blossomed into a top-end scorer and led Team Canada at the WJC with seven goals and 10 points. Blueliner Fredrik Claesson
, a fifth-rounder (126th overall) in 2011, contributed solid minutes for the gold-medal winning Swedes, while forward Jakub Culek
(third round, 76th overall, 2010), contributed four points to the Czech Republic's cause.
"A lot of our prospects had a great tournament," observed Alfredsson. "When Mika scored that goal, I was really happy for him ... That's going to be something he'll always have with him for the rest of his career."