Nick Robertson is buzzing around the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room with something on his mind.
The 22-year-old forward was only called up from the Toronto Marlies a week ago and he’s had his short-term plans flipped on their head. Robertson knew the Leafs’ week-long trip to Stockholm for the NHL’s Global Series was incoming, and so too did his family.
As is often the case with mid-season call-ups, nothing beyond the day of the call-up itself is guaranteed. As Robertson kept playing well, he remained on the roster. Once the days ticked by, Robertson’s mother booked a late flight to Sweden to see her son. But front of mind for Robertson right now is the fact that his brother, Michael, who lives in Berlin, also booked a last-minute flight to Stockholm.
“(Michael) hasn’t seen me play in the NHL,” Robertson says.
And now that the Leafs practice, their last in North America, has ended, Robertson needs to connect with his mother and brother to coordinate a schedule to be together in the most unlikely of circumstances.
“I’m really excited,” he adds in his typical hurried tone.
The Leafs trip to Sweden doesn’t just present chances to revisit connections in a country they’ve long been tied to, but also for players to forge new connections in one of the most hockey-mad cities on the planet.
For one week, The Athletic documented how the Leafs experienced their trip to Sweden.
Monday, November 13
The Leafs normally depart for road games shortly after the conclusion of their practice at home, but the unique nature of this trip presents challenges. The team’s staff hopes to acclimatize players to Swedish time as quickly as possible, so their charter flight leaves at 10 p.m., far later than normal. There are no games of poker onboard, just immediately dimmed lights to bring on sleep.
The afternoon before the flight gives forward Noah Gregor a chance to rush home and start filling his iPad with shows and review a lengthy email the team sent to players with advice on avoiding jet lag.
“When you should sleep, to avoid caffeine and alcohol, try and hydrate as much as you can, try and stay up as late as you can that first day,” Gregor says.
Matthew Knies and Joseph Woll bark back and forth across the dressing room, still draped in their sweaty practice gear.
“You downloading anything for the flight?” Woll asks.
“Selling Sunset” and “Prison Break” are two of the options discussed.
To help fall asleep, some players use team-provided blue light glasses to ease the strain from screens. But despite the team’s best intentions, including an upgraded charter airplane with individual sleeping pods, getting a full night’s sleep proves difficult on the seven-hour flight.
Mark Giordano watched “Hypnotic” to help him fall asleep, but still only logged somewhere between three and four hours of shut-eye.
Ilya Samsonov does even worse. With heavy eyes, he describes the 90-minute sleep he got for the night.
Tuesday, November 14
The team lands just after 10 a.m. in Sweden. They head to their hotel to drop off their bags before moving to Hovet Arena for an afternoon practice.
“That’s the toughest part, getting yourself out of that groggy state,” Giordano says.
But the team’s Swedes are wide awake. The injured Timothy Liljegren welcomes the attention he gets once he walks into an arena he’s played in many times before. He is mobbed by young fans wanting an autograph.
When Swedish defenceman William Lagesson takes the ice, his eyes immediately dart to the north stands. He feels at home as memories of his one season playing in the Hovet Arena for Djurgardens come flooding back. Those stands are reserved for the team’s ultras, who chant and play drums in the way the most rabid European soccer fans do.
“The fans can get crazy loud,” Lagesson says.
The practice itself is brief, designed simply to get the team moving.
“You can’t do much today,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe says.
Later in the evening, four of the team’s Swedish players as well as John Tavares gather on the red carpet at a downtown theatre for the premiere of the docuseries “BORJE,” celebrating the life of Borje Salming.
The hordes of Swedish media are overwhelming for some of the players.
“I’ve never been to anything like that before,” Lagesson says.
They’re not overwhelming for William Nylander. Keefe describes the way Nylander handled the multiple off-ice demands with his play on the ice as his forward being a “rockstar.”
What likely kept Nylander grounded was having his family nearby. As soon as Nylander finishes walking the red carpet, instead of being pulled into more media obligations, he turns to head in a different direction once he spots his mom, Camilla. The two share the kind of hug they probably wish would happen more often.
The making of William Nylander: Born in Canada, raised all over, forever at home in Sweden
On the other side of town, on the recommendation of Nylander, Knies, Woll, Conor Timmins and Bobby McMann head to Riche, a lively Swedish restaurant.
While the team’s entire coaching staff waits for their table, the four players find seats deep in the back of the restaurant and quizzically eye up the menu. Swedish meatballs with rich, salty brown gravy and tart preserved lingonberries are a must-have.
“Those lingonberries are really good,” Woll says. “I’m surprised.”
But years of visiting his family in Slovakia have given Knies some of the more adventurous tastebuds on the team and he orders a plate of Swedish snails. Later in the week, he’ll snack on pig neck, too.
“Unbelievable,” Knies says. “The waitress kept coming up to us and telling us it was the Rolls-Royce of pig neck. I had to try it.”
Wednesday, November 15
As a more lively Leafs practice gets underway, hundreds of Minnesota Wild fans crowd into one section of the arena. The Wild will practice after the Leafs and are given a standing ovation as they walk by, much to the confusion of the Leafs themselves.
“We want intensity, quickness and pucks on net,” Leafs assistant coach Guy Boucher shouts at his players to wake them up during a power play drill.
The Leafs spend the week saying they want to understand Swedish culture. Woll gets a reminder during the team’s midday practice of how different things can be on the ice for a goalie in Sweden compared to North America.
Advertisements are more prevalent on ice surfaces in European hockey. Woll refocuses multiple times during Wednesday’s midday practice when his teammates shoot at him from inside the face-off dots painted in dark black and green. He keeps losing track of the puck and wonders to himself if European goalies have it tougher.
“First shot, I was like, ‘Woah!’” Woll says.
Following practice, Nylander continues his wild schedule of events. He’s booked on the popular Swedish talk show “Bianca.” Nylander had planned to appear on the show in a buttoned-up shirt, but seconds before he took the stage, he surprised those standing nearby by stripping down into only a tank top.
It’s fitting attire both for Nylander and the show itself: The Leafs star admits, in a roundabout way, to having sent nude photos among other scandalous topics.
“Such a strong, groovy man,” says the cohost as she feels his forearms.
In the middle of the night, jet lag causes multiple players to wake up at random times. Samsonov believes he might have the worst case of it, feeling wired after dinner. Some stare at their TVs or their phones in the dead of night, but in advance of this trip, McMann downloaded a meditation app to help him relax in the middle of the night.
“I’ll run 10 minutes of that, and it quiets the mind,” McMann says. “I know my thoughts are racing, and so that helps me fall asleep.”
Thursday, November 16
The team’s lone off-day starts early for Robertson and Knies, who play ball hockey with children at a Stockholm-based community group. The two donate dozens of hockey sticks and t-shirts to the group after their game and spend time answering questions from the children.
“They were asking why I wasn’t scoring more,” Knies says.
From our house to yours
Today we donated hockey sticks to a priority community in Sweden, sharing our love for the game with local youth pic.twitter.com/X2FZ8bwunr
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 16, 2023
For most players, the day off is spent on foot wandering through the city and admiring Stockholm’s architecture.
“Being in North America, you don’t see these kinds of old buildings. In Toronto, it’s all skyscrapers,” McMann says.
Defenceman Simon Benoit practically bounces with energy as he strolls through the city’s old town.
“Everybody is walking, there’s bike lanes everywhere. You don’t feel scared to get hit by a car because the sidewalks are so big.”
McMann leads a group of players on a walk down Drottninggatan, Stockholm’s pedestrian-only shopping street. He insists they stop at a clothing store called “MQ” to buy some gloves and a toque.
In need of a snack and a rest, McMann and his teammates stop at a café for a chocolate croissant. Rest doesn’t come easy as people at a nearby table break out in laughter at McMann when he struggles with the barista to pronounce the Swedish letter “Ö.”
“Just trying to immerse yourself in the local culture,” McMann joked.
The players go their separate ways after an early team dinner.
Morgan Rielly attends an NHLPA event, and forges his own connection with someone he watched closely growing up in Vancouver: Markus Naslund. Rielly has never met one of his childhood idols, and he smiles his boyish smile when making small talk with Naslund about where each lived in the city.
“Doing stuff that you don’t ordinarily do has been really fun,” Rielly says. “I grew up a Canucks fan, and I’m a huge fan of his.”
Late in the evening in a darkened Italian restaurant, the team’s coaching staff and management gather with Leafs legend Mats Sundin. Shanahan, Treliving and Sundin go back and forth trading stories from their playing days. Their laughter can be heard from multiple tables over.
At the dinner, the team pitches Sundin on a plan: would he be interested in reading out the team’s starting lineup in the dressing room the following evening?
Sundin agrees and feels once again associated with the franchise he represented for 13 years.
Johnston: In Sweden, Mats Sundin and the Maple Leafs revived their relationship
Friday, November 17
Auston Matthews is one of the first Leafs on the ice for the team’s first skate at Avicii Arena, where games take place. Matthews cranes his neck to observe the 85-metre height of the globe that encircles the ice.
Every Leaf follows suit as they skate toward the middle of the ice. There, a Leafs media relations representative guards the Global Series logo. It is time for a team photo to celebrate the trip, and the Leafs must avoid digging their blades into the ice to taint the logo.
The news of the photo came late to players, and Benoit’s hair can politely be called ruffled. He stares at his reflection in the glass to do some damage control.
“I should have run some water through my hair,” Benoit says.
Just before the photo is taken, Mitch Marner looks antsy.
“I wanna stomp on this ice so bad,” he says, laughing.
Once the photo op ends, Tyler Bertuzzi is the first player to scratch up the ice surface with a mischievous grin.
Hours later, the Leafs sit anxiously in their stalls before taking the ice. To the shock of the players, Sundin steps into the room to read out the lineup.
Our connection to Sweden runs deep 🔵⚪️🟡
Thanks for stopping by, Mats! pic.twitter.com/J72r64UqZl
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) November 17, 2023
As Lagesson and Calle Järnkrok hear their names called, both of their minds instantly recall Sundin’s heroics for the gold medal-winning Swedish national team in the 2006 Winter Olympics.
During the game, Bertuzzi continues to grin late into the night as he has one of his best games as a Leaf. The team looks sluggish through the first two periods, feeling the effects of the jet lag. But Bertuzzi and his line come alive in the third period. He leads the Leafs with seven shots on goal and tallies a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Nylander is named first star of the evening thanks to his dynamic playmaking and three points on the night and is gifted a Rolex watch for his efforts.
Saturday, November 18
Sundin returns to watch over practice. He brings his seven-year-old son Julian’s hockey team along for the ride. The team screams “Oh!” when Matthews buries a shot in a power play drill, though Rielly’s good-spirited “Woo!” overpowers the noise of the children.
Minutes later, when Nylander fires home a goal of his own, there’s no chance of drowning out the screams that come from the fans.
Toward the front of that group of fans stands seven-year-old Rielly Hasson, a Leafs fan. Her parents, Kim Martin, multiple Olympic medallist and one of the best Swedish goalies of all time, and Jay, named their lone daughter after the Leafs defenceman. They travelled two hours from Linköping to see the Leafs practice.
“He does everything the right way,” Jay says of the Leafs defenceman.
After practice, Morgan Rielly lifts young Rielly over a barrier to meet her in person, present her with a signed stick and take photos. Young Rielly stood silent in amazement.
Nylander walks slowly with bags under his eyes to the dozens of fans to pose for selfies and sign autographs. His eyes finally widen when he is gifted Swiss chocolate and pencil drawings of himself, asking the young artist, “How long did it take you?”
After practice has concluded, outside a sports store in central Stockholm, Camilla Nylander eagerly steps out of a black van and walks toward hundreds of people lined around a corner. In a way that only a mother on a mission to see her children can, Camilla cuts through the line to knock on a large window and wave.
The crowd is gathered for a quick minute and an autograph with her son, the unquestionable face of this Global Series. She beams with pride at the newest NHL star. Nylander looks up from the photograph he’s signing to stand, wave back and smile as wide as he has all week.
In Sweden, William Nylander cements his status as a true NHL star
Sunday, November 19, 2023
A popular theory goes that for every hour of time change, it takes one day to adapt. If that theory is true, then this sixth day of the trip ought to see the Leafs fully acclimatized.
But in reality, the Leafs still wear long faces as they step off the team bus late in the morning ahead of an afternoon game against the Minnesota Wild.
“We think the time spent together will help us in the long run. But it’s been a tough week, honestly,” Keefe says. “But the time change has been a grind. Not many of us that I’ve talked to have had great sleeps. We’ve been fighting it all the way through.”
The combination of fewer people in the arena compared to most NHL arenas (13,356) and a surprisingly quiet crowd means that so much more of what players say on the ice echoes throughout Avicii Arena. That includes a forceful four-letter word from Jake McCabe directed at referee Jon McIsaac after his second-period slashing penalty. That word led to a few parents shaking their heads side to side to their nearby children.
But as has been the case all week, the children in the crowd likely go home happy thanks to Nylander. After the Leafs are caught sleeping and surrender a 3-1 lead in the third period Nylander’s dazzling overtime goal seals a 4-3 win for the Leafs and caps off a week very few hockey fans in Stockholm will forget.
Rielly to Willy pic.twitter.com/aknMyJ8bVY
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) November 19, 2023
“We’re so proud,” Sundin tells the crowd during the intermission, “to have the best hockey in the world come to Sweden.”
(Top photos: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)