|Senators prospect Mika Zibanejad says he still hears from Swedes about the overtime goal he scored on Jan. 5 that gave the Tre Kronor its first world junior hockey gold medal in 31 years (Andy Devlin/HHOF-IIHF Images).
In Mika Zibanejad's mind, it was merely an appetizer.
Just a warmup for the main course he hopes to savour in the season to come.
"It's fun, high-paced hockey here," the Senators' top choice in the 2011 NHL Draft said earlier today following a brisk on-ice session at the Bell Sensplex on the second day of the team's annual summer development camp. "There's a lot of back and forth and a lot of battles. It's a fun game to play here and if you get a little taste of it, you want it all.
"It's what you're working for and what you're aiming for, and that's what I want."
Just four months after his draft day in St. Paul, Minn., the Swedish forward started the 2011-12 season in a Senators uniform, hoping to be that rare 18-year-old who cracks the National Hockey League on his first try. His moment in the spotlight lasted nine games before Ottawa hockey management decided to return him to Djurgardens of the Swedish Elitserien for the balance of the season.
No doubt it was a tough moment for a teenager with the biggest of hockey dreams. But Zibanejad says now it didn't take long for him to shelve the disappointment and get on with the task at hand.
"I guess on the plane ride back home (to Stockholm)," he said of how little time he needed to shift his mindset. "But once I got home, that wasn't my focus ... my focus was to do the best I could back home and try to develop the stuff I knew I needed to (work) on — get stronger and bigger and better."
It didn't go exactly as planned back home in Sweden. In early January, Zibanejad suffered a concussion that kept him on the sidelines for a period of time (he had to dealt with a second one in March on a fluky practice collision while with the Binghamton Senators). And by season's end, Djurgardens — one of Elitserien's hallowed names — suffered the sting of relegation to Hockey Allsvenskan (second division) for next season.
But along the way, Zibanejad figures he learned plenty that will help him navigate the road ahead. It was, he'll tell you now, anything but a lost season for him.
"You do it all for a purpose, to get yourself on the team (in Ottawa)," said Zibanejad, whose concussion woes are long behind him. "Last year was a good year, having to go through the ups and downs and having to battle through the downs. It's been a good year. Not the best year, results-wise, but it's not going to be that way always. It's good to get a taste of how that is and know how to deal with it the next time."
In the middle of it all, however, was the shining moment of Zibanejad's hockey career to date — the overtime goal against Russia that allowed Sweden to win the world junior hockey championship for the first time in 31 years. It was the shot heard round the Scandinavian nation, one that fans of the Tre Kronor still talk about to this day.
"A couple of people I haven't seen in awhile were asking me about that," he said. "It's the kind of memory you're going to bring with you for the rest of your life. It's a lot of fun, too, to get noticed about (something like) that. It's a big thing and, hopefully, Sweden can win another one next year."
He admits it took some time for him to realize the magnitude of what he'd done.
"It was kind of big to me at first, I guess, but it took some time to realize what happened," said Zibanejad, who's been invited to Sweden's summer camp for the 2013 world juniors in Ufa, Russia. "If you look at it afterward, you see it was pretty big back home, both for me and for Swedish hockey. It was fun to be a part of that."
Once he's done with that camp in August, he'll head back to Ottawa, where the focus will be put squarely on extending the dream that lasted just nine games a year ago. Zibanejad believes everything he's been through in the last year should have him primed and ready to take the next big step.
"Hopefully, I can take that with me through this year and develop everything I need to develop," he said. "You want to get better in every way and that's my goal. Now I know pretty much how it is to be a pro and I'm going to work with that and work hard this summer to make it."