Growing up in Sweden, Detroit Red Wings’ defense prospect John Wikstrom always maintained the same goal.
“The dream has always been there and will always stay. To play in the NHL is of highest importance to me,” said Wikstrom recently.
As a youngster, his primary goal was to reach Sweden’s TV-Pucken, a countrywide tournament for junior hockey players. And as Wikstrom’s hockey career progressed, larger goals became realized.
Drafted in the fifth round by Detroit in 1997, Wikstrom spent several years toiling within the Lulea organization in Sweden. Wikstrom’s years with the club were frustrating, and he was never given the opportunity to become a regular in the Swedish Elite League. He saw most of his ice time with Lulea’s junior squad.
Wikstrom is a hulking defenseman, standing 6’4″ and weighing 205 lb. A decent skater for his size, he continues to improve. Wikstrom plays a tough and physical defensive game, and with his great size he is a force. However, in Sweden, his rugged type of game does not fit in, and the rules make it difficult for him to take full advantage of his size.
“I have more of a North American hockey style,” Wikstrom explains.
Following his draft year, Wikstrom ventured across the ocean to the Red Wings’ 1998 training camp in an attempt to make Adirondack of the AHL.
“The training camp I attended is the best hockey memory I have. Perhaps the best memory I’ll ever have,” said Wikstrom, fondly recalling his introduction to the Detroit Red Wing organization.
“The people were so inviting and friendly. It was a wonderful atmosphere over the whole place,” Wikstrom explained. “I just did the best I could and enjoyed it as much as possible.”
And while it was an excellent experience for the hulking defenseman, Wikstrom was deemed unprepared for North American hockey. Under Detroit’s watchful eye, Wikstrom returned to Sweden. Leaving Lulea, Wikstrom found an excellent opportunity to develop his game with Morrum of Sweden’s first division. The move was to important for Wikstrom’s development.
“I definitely feel that it was the right thing to do,” he said emphatically. “Partly because Detroit wanted me to but also because I felt that I had some more training to do before I was ready for North America.”
Wikstrom adapted quickly to play in Morrum, and was soon on the team’s top defensive pairing. An exciting season lay ahead, but injuries began to take their toll. An initial hipbone injury was worsened by a groin pull followed by a badly strained thigh muscle. Wikstrom’s season was over before it started.
Nevertheless, he benefited from the move to Morrum.
“Playing in Morrum definitely paid off and I feel that it has made my body stronger,” said Wikstrom.
Wikstrom is the type of determined, character player that Detroit has coveted in recent drafts. Casual observers of Morrum have taken notice of Wikstrom’s leadership and his ability to boost a team’s morale. Generally a quiet person, his voice speaks volumes because what he says is usually very important. Morrum’s head coach last season, Mikael Norman, speaks glowingly of Wikstrom.
“John is a wonderful person on the ice as well as off it,” said Norman. “He’s got a very big heart which makes it easy to like him and he’s socially very competent. He quickly adapts to a group and becomes part of it.”
In July, Wikstrom signed an entry level contract with Detroit. He is expected to arrive at his second training camp, and although he may begin the year in the ECHL, Detroit management is hoping he can earn a spot on the Cincinnati roster in the AHL.
“I’m very excited to perform well (at training camp) and that I might take a place in Cincinnati,” said Wikstrom.
“A place in Cincinnati would be a lot more beneficial for me than a place on any Swedish team,” he said, discussing his future. “I need to play in smaller rinks.”
Wikstrom has worked hard throughout the summer to prepare for North American hockey.
“It’s up to myself at this point to train enough to become a better hockey player,” explained Wikstrom. “If I train a lot I have a chance to play in North America next season. It’s all up to me.”
Certainly, Wikstrom needs to improve in several areas. His play with the puck in his own zone needs work, and his defensive positioning also requires improvement. However, there is no reason to expect that this will not come with time and experience, and Wikstrom is willing to do what it takes to succeed.
“John is more then willing to train and he reaches every goal that he and others set for him,” said Morrum head coach Mikael Norman.
And now, the ultimate goal.
“Now my goals lie in North America,” explains Wikstrom. “To play in the NHL.”