STOCKHOLM — Marcus Johansson had never been to an NHL game until he played in one; he made his debut with Washington two days after he turned 20.
Filip Gustavsson didn't wake up in the middle of the night to watch the league, but he saw snippets on YouTube or when NHL Network's "On the Fly" was on in the locker room.
Joel Eriksson Ek also caught the highlights, but "there wasn't as much coverage as there is right now," he said.
Hockey players in Sweden don't have a front-row seat to their sport's best league like their peers do in the United States and Canada, but that hasn't stalled their development to the NHL.
In fact, Sweden is graduating more and more of its homegrown talent with a unique grassroots approach specializing in the skills that still define the Wild's Swedish players who are in Stockholm for the NHL Global Series concluding Sunday vs. Toronto.
"That's how I grew up," said Eriksson Ek, one of five Swedish players on the Wild, "and that's where I became the player and person I am."
Overall, Sweden had or was tied for the third-most NHL-drafted players (behind either the U.S. or Canada) in all but one year since 2006. This season, Sweden became the first non-North American country to have at least 400 NHL players.
Forwards Johansson and Eriksson Ek, goalies Gustavsson and Jesper Wallstedt, and defenseman Jonas Brodin are Swedes on the Wild, which plays Ottawa on Saturday and Toronto on Sunday at Avicii Arena.
The road begins
Alongside soccer, hockey is Sweden's dominant sport, and the game is accessible from a young age.
There's a hierarchy similar to what's in place in North America, where players go from peewee to bantams en route to the junior and college ranks, but Sweden's structure is completely different.
Imagine an NHL franchise like the Wild operating teams from under-8 all the way to the pro level.
That's essentially how Sweden's system works, with players typically joining the network that's closest to where they live. At 16, they can apply to switch to a new program; in Gustavsson's case, he left his hometown team of Skellefteå to move to Luleå, which is renowned for its goaltending.
An organization like Luleå in northern Sweden is a one-stop shop for hockey education. While there are skill camps in Stockholm, Luleå offers all the training a player could need. There's an annual fee of $350 for youth players, and that includes equipment.
"We try to make it so money is not an issue," said Linda Blomquist, Luleå's goalie coach, who mentored Gustavsson and Wallstedt.
Overseeing all these pipelines is the Swedish federation, which regulates the teams and implements the principles that should be taught, creating a brand of hockey that's become quintessential to Sweden.
From "pretty much newborn up to 5, 6 years old," skating is stressed, said the Wild's director of European scouting Ricard Persson.
The ice surfaces are bigger in Europe, so skating is paramount.
Johansson started skating when he was 2 ½ years old, and his stride (which stands out because it's more of a glide) is Johansson's trademark as an NHLer.
"My dad taught me when I was younger and kind of built on it," said Johansson, a first-round pick by the Capitals who's on the cusp of 850 career games. "He was always on me to work on my skating and to move my feet."
Once players progress to organized hockey, they're schooled in an all-purpose style.
With a smaller population than the U.S. and Canada, Sweden isn't producing as many superstars, Persson explained, and the focus is on the team. Players understand every position, with defense being the top priority and offense secondary, and these tenets are reflected in Sweden's best league.
The top goal scorer in the Swedish Hockey League last season finished with 37 goals — 27 fewer than NHL leader Connor McDavid.
"If you look at most of the Swedish players," Persson said, "they're more well-rounded. They play a two-way game."
This isn't the most popular nor the more eye-catching archetype in North American hockey, where goals, matchups and special teams are emphasized, but Swedish players do fit in.
Just look at Eriksson Ek's trajectory.
A first-round draft pick by the Wild in 2015, Eriksson Ek initially took reps as a depth forward who could kill penalties and was strong defensively. Not until 2021 did he finally become a lightning rod for offense, the center exceeding 20 goals in each of his last two seasons.
"They adapt quickly because they're team-oriented," Persson said. "The coaches can use you in many different areas."
While a hockey upbringing in Sweden translates to the SHL, there are specific adjustments made for the NHL.
In Blomquist's role with Luleå, that means working with goalies to get them to react to closer shots from a variety of angles and amid more chaotic traffic.
"North American players are more likely to shoot from anywhere," Blomquist said. "In Sweden, they only shoot when they come into a perfect position; otherwise, they're going to pass. Whereas in North America, you have to be ready for a shot from anywhere — everywhere from behind the net, from the corners, from the neutral zone, from everywhere.
"You need to be prepared, and that's different because in Europe there are certain areas on the ice where a goalie can sort of relax. In the U.S. or Canada, you can't relax ever."
Brodin felt ready for the NHL when he represented Sweden at the World Championships in 2012, almost a year after the Wild drafted the defenseman in the first round 10th overall.
"I was actually pretty good in that tournament," said Brodin, who skated ample minutes as an 18-year-old.
More than 10 years later, Brodin is the second-longest tenured player on the Wild, his 756 career games the third most in franchise history.
But making it to the NHL also means leaving home to move across the world.
English is taught in school in Sweden, but other life skills are put to the test with a change like that.
Those lessons are what Blomquist feels she helps with more than hockey.
"It's about teaching them what's right or wrong and how to be a professional athlete," she said, "how to be a good teammate, how to be a good person, how to be happy."
Spotlight on Sweden
Gustavsson was in seventh grade when he wrote down that he wanted to be a professional hockey player.
All the elite stars from the SHL usually went to the NHL and, after he was in net for his first SHL game, Gustavsson knew he had the potential to make it there, too.
"Everyone knows the NHL is the best league," Gustavsson said. "You just couldn't stay up [to watch] it."
The goalie ended up being a second-round pick by Pittsburgh in 2016 before he was traded to Ottawa and then the Wild.
Wallstedt, who's serving as the Wild's third goaltender in Sweden, was a first-round selection two years ago and is 6-2 with a sharp .932 save percentage and two shutouts with Iowa in the American Hockey League in his second season since leaving Sweden.
"Now you're over there and just have a better structure, and I don't think I could have gotten that from any other team than Luleå," Wallstedt said. "So, I'm very thankful for my time there."
Sweden is the only country outside North America to have 100-plus players appear in the same NHL season.
Leo Carlsson went second overall last summer to Anaheim and is already in the league, ranking among the top rookie goal scorers, and on Monday goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Persson, who played in the NHL, Europe and Asia and for Sweden internationally and now scouts all over Europe, said, "Sweden is probably the country who has [the] most depth each and every draft year, and you can tell by the numbers."
Still, the SHL is one of the most reputable leagues in hockey, and there's a sentimental feeling attached to it and the chance to suit up for the hometown team.
"A lot of [players] can actually see themselves having a long career, making a lot of money in the SHL, and being very successful," Blomquist said.
But for the likes of Brodin, Eriksson Ek and Gustavsson, their talent took them away from home.
Now, it's brought them back, a rare full-circle opportunity.
"It's just cool to be playing in front of my family and friends at home in Sweden," Brodin said. "Cool experience to be playing there, for sure."
WILD PLAYERS FROM SWEDEN
International scene: Won a gold medal with Sweden at the 2012 World Juniors, playing six games.
Fast fact: First NHL game he saw in person was the Wild vs. Edmonton while he was in Canada for the World Juniors.
Joel Eriksson Ek
International scene: Captured gold with Sweden at the 2017 World Championships.
Fast fact: Skated for the same Swedish Hockey League team, Färjestad BK, as his dad, Clas.
International scene: Went 4-1 to help Sweden earn silver at the 2018 World Juniors.
Fast fact: Played forward until he was 12 years old before becoming a full-time goalie.
International scene: Picked up a silver medal with Sweden at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Fast fact: His older brother, Martin, has played pro hockey in Sweden and Finland.
International scene: Named the top goaltender at the 2022 World Juniors.
Fast fact: Trains in Stockholm during the offseason; the 2021 first-round pick hasn't played an NHL game yet.