Even though he joined the Dallas Stars at last season’s trade deadline, defenseman Mattias Norstrom didn’t fully get himself and his family settled in the Metroplex until late August as he prepared for training camp.
Now that he is back and comfortable early in the 2007-08 season, the 14-year veteran, who spent 10 years with Pacific Division rival Los Angeles before the deal, is primed to fill an important role on the Stars defense. Being here from the very beginning of the season will only help him and the team, especially after a somewhat awkward initial transition last March when he had to sit out seven of his first 10 games in Dallas with a knee injury.
“I think it will be easier, because you grow together as a team the longer you’re together,” the 35-year-old native of Stockholm, Sweden, said in the days leading up to training camp. “It starts in camp where there are always some new faces and that’s where you set your common goal.”
Many fans lumped Norstrom’s acquisition into the “rent-a-player” category, but that would be far from accurate. Norstrom still had another year left on his contract and that was a big reason why General Manager Doug Armstrong opted to trade for him.
“I think he certainly brings some stability to our defensive group,” Armstrong said. “He’s a veteran player that not only is a solid contributor on the ice, but he’s got excellent leadership qualities. I think he’s going to log a lot of minutes for us and play a very important role as a defender.”
And while some local fans may have been disappointed that Dallas did not get involved in the free agent signing period this summer, one way to look at it is that the gritty Norstrom, the Kings’ captain for nearly six years at the time of the deal, is that addition. He just arrived a little early.
“Just a solid veteran,” said fellow defenseman Philippe Boucher, who played with Norstrom in LA from 1995-2002. “Everybody knows what he did in LA. I got the chance to play with him there, and he’s a true leader, a real character guy that will really help us. It’s always good to add people at the end of the year, but it’s also nice to have them when you go with a fresh start and you can work from training camp on.”
Besides helping anchor the Stars’ blue line as their primary physical, shutdown defenseman, Norstrom will also act as somewhat of a mentor to fellow Swede Niklas Grossman, a 22-year-old defenseman who spent most of last season with the Stars’ development affiliate in Iowa while also suiting up for eight games with the big club. Norstrom takes his role as a veteran leader very seriously, even though he’s still relatively new to a team that has three other former captains in the locker room.
“I think you still have that responsibility as an older player, that you need to be a little bit of a leader,” Norstrom said. “It’s not hard, it’s just a new role, where you need to sit back and learn your place on the new team. It depends on the set-up of the room.”
As for Grossman, he grew up patterning his play after his role model, who just happens to be a teammate now.
“I watched a lot of hockey when I was younger and collected a lot of hockey cards, and I kind of saw Norstrom as a guy like myself and how I play,” said Grossman, entering his third North American pro season. “I play a tough, solid game, make it simple, and I guess that’s where it all comes from - when I was a kid growing up, I just saw him playing in LA, and I just liked his style of play and I tried to take some small things from him and put them in my own kit. Just to be on the ice with him and practice with him, it’s helped me out a lot.”
And as much as it might make Norstrom feel a bit old to have a young teammate who idolized him as a kid, he also views his status as the sage veteran as an essential responsibility.
“I think it’s important,” Norstrom said. “You’ve got to have role models, and sure, it’s kind of funny. Yeah, it’s an honor that he says he’s been looking up to me, but it’s also something that I think is so important for players to have, not one, but a couple of players that you see what their strengths are and what you can do maybe similar or sometimes better. That’s how you’re going to improve as a hockey player.”
Norstrom pointed out that his sense of duty to help up-and-coming youngsters goes back to when he first arrived in North America for the 1993-94 season. He played just nine games in each of his first two years with the New York Rangers, while spending the rest of his time in the AHL, but he’s never forgotten how much the Rangers’ veteran defensemen helped him out.
“I was so fortunate breaking into the league in New York,” Norstrom recalled, “with players that I looked up to like Mark Messier and Brian Leetch. But also, there was an older group of defensemen with Jay Wells, Doug Lidster and Kevin Lowe that really took me under their wings. They took care of me, and to me, that is what it’s all about, not what you’ve done on the ice.”
Just as Norstrom started playing regularly with the Rangers in 1995-96, he was traded to Los Angeles, where he gradually established himself as one of the most reliable, hard-nosed defensemen in the league. He became a leader on the Kings’ defense and was named captain in 2001-02.
Norstrom also became a fixture on Sweden’s national team, suiting up for the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics (he sat out Sweden’s run to the 2006 Olympic gold medal with a concussion), as well as the 1996 and 2004 World Cups of Hockey and six different World Championships, coming home with one gold and two silvers.
By the time he was traded last Feb. 27, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Norstrom was fourth on the Kings’ all-time games-played list and first among blueliners with 780. With all that time invested and the roots he’d planted over 10 years there, getting the news that he’d just been shipped to Dallas was hard to take.
“At first, it was tough because being in one spot for such a long time made it tough to move,” Norstrom acknowledged. “But just a couple of days later, you say, ‘Okay, I was fortunate enough to be with one organization.’ It was a city where we called home, both our kids were born there, but also, you can never get into a comfort zone. That could happen if you stay in one organization for a long time. As a player, I think sometimes (moving on) could be good for you.”
With a trade comes other off-the-ice issues that a player must deal with, such as having to move his family, go house-hunting in his new city and other logistical issues.
“It was tough at first, but both my wife and I went the practical way,” Norstrom reported. “We said, ‘Let’s get the house ready, let’s show it, let’s sell it,’ and we were fortunate that we got rid of the house in a hurry. We found a home here and we kind of planned for August again, where the number one priority is to find school for the kids and to get all of the practical things in order.”
For his wife Kristin, moving was a lot harder.
“My wife made more friends off the ice than I did in LA, so for her, there were a lot of tough goodbyes,” Norstrom said. “But all in all, everything went real smoothly.”
Making things more difficult initially was Norstrom’s status on the ice. Still recovering from a sprained knee, Norstrom sat out his first three games in Dallas. He came back for three contests, perhaps too soon, leaving the third one after just three shifts. He was then forced to watch four more games from the press box.
“It is not a fun situation to get traded and you’re banged up, because you want to get out there right away,” Norstrom recounted. “You want to show the Stars that they did the right thing to trade for me. You don’t want to get traded and then sit and watch your new team play. That wasn’t fun at all.”
Once he was finally healthy again, Norstrom gradually rounded into form and helped solidify the club’s defense. In 14 games, he contributed two assists, had a +2 rating and logged over 20 minutes per game. He probably played his best hockey during the playoffs, forming an outstanding pair with Stephane Robidas
, as the duo were rock solid in helping shut down the Vancouver offense.
“He’s a really good, solid defenseman and really easy to play with,” Robidas noted. “For us, the key was using our speed. We’re two really good skaters and we can play with the puck. We can compete, finish our checks and move the puck around.”
Whether or not he teams up with Robidas again this year, there’s no question Norstrom will have an impact.
“He’s a very solid player,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “Leadership is a very strong asset of his. Now he knows the guys and he’s comfortable with the situation. We think he’s ready to have a very good season for us. He’s just a very stable factor back there that every team needs.”