Springfield Falcon rises to Phoenix

By Aaron Vickers

With his bleach blond hair neatly spiked, and sporting a rather stylish leather jacket, unquestionably, Fredrik Sjostrom felt right at home strolling through the bowels of Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome.

Sjostrom, of course, has been no stranger to the cold corridors and hallways that lead from the dressing room to the home team’s player bench. The native of Fargelanda, Sweden used to make the stroll every other day or so, only as a member of the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL.

Long before his journey to the Calgary Hitmen, Sjostrom competed as a member of Vastra Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League. In limited minutes as an 18-year-old, Sjostrom managed five points on the strength of three assists, through 31 games played.

Such a young player achieving success in the Swedish Elite League was a rarity, something that inevitably aided Sjostrom’s stock in the eyes of NHL scouts. He was rewarded for his efforts, not once, but twice in the summer of 2001.

The summer of 2001 would see Sjostrom picked as a first round selection twice, both in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, as well as the CHL’s Import Draft. The 2001 NHL Entry Draft saw Sjostrom selected by the Phoenix Coyotes. Just five days after Sjostrom’s selection by the Coyotes, the Calgary Hitmen chose him in the first round of the 2001 CHL Import Draft.

Heading into the 2001 National Hockey League Entry Draft, Sjostrom was ranked 9th among European skaters. It was clearly evident, however, that the Phoenix Coyotes saw something extra special in the now 6’1″, 217-pound right winger.

In a deal that would see Phoenix move up three positions to the 11th overall selection in the 2001 Entry Draft, the Phoenix Coyotes sacrificed their 14th overall selection, as well as their 41st overall selection in order to nab Sjostrom, who Phoenix suspected would fall before their first pick.

It was with Calgary’s first round selection in the CHL’s Import Draft, 40th overall, which saw the Hitmen acquire Sjostrom’s rights. It was after this selection, that Sjostrom made his intentions known that he would travel across the Atlantic Ocean to play for the Calgary Hitmen in the 2001-02 season, leaving his Swedish junior club behind. It was only months later when Sjostrom draped the red, white and black jersey of the Hitmen over his head for the first time.

It was for a variety of reasons that Sjostrom decided it was best to continue his development in the Western Hockey League. When asked of his primary reason for making such a decision, it was made clear that playing on such a variety of teams the previous season had taken its toll both physically and psychologically. The appeal of the Calgary Hitmen was clear — one hockey team, one season.

Leaving his native Sweden to play hockey in another country undeniably came with difficult adjustments to make, but Sjostrom’s talent on the ice shone brightly over any off-ice difficulties he may have incurred in getting used to his new environment. Through his first season with the Calgary Hitmen, the then rookie forward set the Western Hockey League on its ear, registering 50 points, including 31 assists, in 58 games.

This was not Sjostrom’s only reasoning however. A season in North America’s most physical junior league would certainly help Fredrik adapt to the North American style of play. Already speaking excellent English, communication would not be a problem for the Swede, and absorbing an entirely new culture would be a much easier process.

The adjustment was made smoothly, which showed greatly in his second and last season with the Calgary Hitmen. Sjostrom, Calgary’s most potent offensive weapon during the 2002-03 season, registered 77 points, including a career high 34 goals and a +23 rating in only 63 games. Unfortunately, Sjostrom’s last season was met with a quick exit in the playoffs. Although the Calgary Hitmen were eliminated from the 2003 post-season in only five games, Sjostrom’s season was not over.

Already under contract with the Phoenix Coyotes, Sjostrom jumped from the Western Hockey League to dress for the Springfield Falcons of the AHL. Sjostrom made his professional hockey debut with Springfield, playing in two games, and recording his first professional point, a goal.

It was Sjostrom, participating in his second playoff series of the season, who registered two goals in six games for Springfield, who were eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs.

Fast forward to the 2003-04 American Hockey League season. Sjostrom attended his first camp with the Phoenix Coyotes as a professional player. Expectations were high for Sjostrom, being a former first round selection. It was decided by Phoenix Coyotes management that Fredrik would be best served starting his first professional season with the Springfield Falcons.

With only seven assists through 17 games with the Falcons, Sjostrom wasn’t exactly setting the American Hockey League on fire, like he did his first season with the Hitmen of the WHL. Adjustments had to be made by Sjostrom, who no longer was a man among boys, but was instead a boy among men.

Sjostrom’s efforts to improve and adjust weren’t in vain, however, as on November 26th, 2003 Fredrik enjoyed his first call-up. Four days later, on November 30th, Sjostrom dressed for his first NHL game, seeing 6:57 in ice time, in a 3-3 draw against the Boston Bruins. By dressing against Boston, Sjostrom became the 15th Hitmen alumnus to play in the National Hockey League.

It took less then two weeks for Sjostrom to make an impact on the scoresheet. After being a healthy scratch for two consecutive games, Sjostrom recorded his first NHL goal, scored in his fifth game. His goal, at 10:41 of the third period against the Edmonton Oilers, put the Coyotes up 3-2, a lead they couldn’t hold.

Hockey’s Future caught up with Fredrik Sjostrom at the Pengrowth Saddledome, when he was taking an opportunity to watch some of his former teammates play against the Medicine Hat Tigers one night before his Calgary debut as an NHL player. Sjostrom spoke softly and candidly about his place in history with the Calgary Hitmen, his first professional hockey season, and the impact of a potential work stoppage with the expiration of the NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement.

HF: Although it’s almost three years since the event has passed, obviously the 2001 NHL Entry Draft holds a special significance to you. The Phoenix Coyotes selected you 11th overall after trading up from the 14th selection with the Calgary Flames, a move that obviously showed a significant interest in your abilities. What thoughts or emotions were running through your mind when Phoenix called your name?

FJ: It was amazing, you know. Especially having Wayne Gretzky meet you up at the podium to hand you a Phoenix Coyotes jersey. It was definitely a special feeling when they name you a part of their club, and you’re kind of in awe, thinking ‘this is me’. It’s an indescribable feeling, but it’s one of the biggest moments I’ve ever had in my hockey career, if not the biggest.

HF: What’s it like playing for an organization that’s headed by such a historic name in hockey?

FS: Oh it’s great. He’s always out and about, walking around in the locker room, pretty much every day. It’s having the greatest hockey player in the history of the game walking around. It’s pretty cool. A few seasons ago he used to skate with the team during practice too, but now he’s taking on more of the ownership role.

HF: What was it like signing your first professional contract?

FS (laughing): Obviously nice, I mean, everybody’s got to look at the money. The money’s good. Sure, the money’s great and everything but just, you know, to put my name on paper next to the Phoenix Coyotes was awesome!

HF: Tomorrow night you step on the ice of the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary for the first time since leaving the Calgary Hitmen, where you spent your entire junior career, registering 127 points in 121 games. What kind of emotions are going to be running through your mind as you step in front of your Calgary fans for the first time again?

FS (laughing): I’m obviously going to be very nervous all day tomorrow. I mean, this is a huge game for me. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. It’s going to be very nervous for me but I’m going to go out there and try to keep everything simple.

HF: During the Calgary Hitmen game tonight, they featured you in a segment they call ‘Time Capsule’, in which they showed a clip of a beautiful goal you scored, dropping the puck and stick between your legs and shelving it on a fallen goalie, something the crowd tonight responded wildly to.

FS (laughing): Nice memories! I have some nice memories here!

HF: What kind of feeling do you get knowing you were part of such a great thing here, and are still appreciated as a Hitmen alumnus?

FS: Oh, I mean, I don’t know if I’m alumni already or anything. It’s great though. I think this organization has had some really great players and I just happened to be a big part of it. The guys in this locker room are going to play in the National Hockey League just like myself. Guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Egener, the new kid here (Andrew) Ladd, they’re going to be in the NHL too. They’ve got talented players still.

HF: Did you have any expectations heading into the 2003-04 season? Were you expecting to spend the entire year with the Springfield Falcons (Phoenix’s AHL affiliate), or were you expecting to see NHL duty?

FS: I was expecting to get called up a few times, but that was about it. I was focusing on what I’d do when I got called up, and play for that, trying to make the most of it when I do get called up.

HF: November 26th, 2003 was the first time in your professional career you were recalled from Springfield of the AHL to the Phoenix Coyotes. Four days later you played your first game against Boston. What was it like stepping onto NHL ice for the first time?

FS: It was pretty wild, man! It was a lot faster. A lot faster and the guys are bigger, but I was pumped up so I was just running around as much as possible. I don’t think I had the puck much my first couple of shifts, or my first couple of games. It was basically me running around hitting guys, trying to keep it simple.

HF: What do you suppose has been your biggest adjustment you’ve had to make in stepping up your game to the professional level? Has it been the speed, like you’ve indicated, the physical element, or something else?

FS: You know, consistency will be my biggest problem in making it at this level. As a young guy you might have a tough time playing good all the time, but being a professional now you have to step up to that level and be good every night.

HF: The Phoenix Coyotes have a relatively young squad. How does it feel knowing that they want you to be a huge piece to their puzzle now, but especially in the future?

FS: Oh, it’s such a nice feeling! We’ve got a great rink, you know, and it’s a great city to play in. Plus, ownership is great as well. Right now, we’re not doing so well, but in three or four years, we’re going to be a contender, for sure.

HF: Since your initial call-up, you’ve registered seven goals and eleven points through 38 games. Would you consider your call-up a success at this point?

FS: Eleven points for me, I mean is good. It’s more then I expected.

HF: What adjustments do you see your game needing in order to become that point producer that the Phoenix Coyotes inevitably expect you to become?

FS: That’s why they’ve got me, to score goals, but you know, you’ve got to keep shooting the puck. It’s hard to say, but I’ve got to be selfish like that, but you have to, you’ve got to keep it going.

HF: You were such a big part of the Calgary Hitmen when you were a part of that organization, and undoubtedly you saw a lot of minutes with Springfield. Has it been difficult coming to the NHL and only averaging 9:51 in ice time a game?

FS: It’s tough in the beginning, but you get used to that in a hurry. Some games you’ll play more then that, and others you’ll play less. It’s something you have to get used to. I definitely want to play more, that’s for sure, but that’ll come with my play and my consistency.

HF: The labor negotiations between the league and the National Hockey League Players Association will inevitably affect you. What is your take on the whole situation at a glance?

FS: Oh, no question it doesn’t look very good for anybody right now, that’s for certain. I mean, I really hope something is going to happen because I really feel like I’ve got my foot into the league and I just want to keep going and I want to play in the National Hockey League. It’s going to be really bad for the league as a whole if there is a work stoppage. You know, I think someone’s going to have to give a bit, whether it is the league or it is us (the NHLPA). Someone’s got to give. I think right now both sides are being very stubborn and are refusing to give up anything, not even an inch. I’m not too involved really, to be honest with you, but I just hope it’s going to be okay for next season when the season starts, if there is one.