When a kid grows up playing ice hockey in either Norway or Denmark and shows above-average abilities or an innate understanding of the game, he’ll often find his way to one of the many excellent junior programs that dot the Swedish ice hockey landscape. This is exactly what has taken place for the currently 5’10”, 170-pound Norwegian defenseman Mattias Norstebo (written Nørstebø in Norwegian and Nörstebö in Swedish).
Ultimately hailing from the Trondheim region of Norway, Norstebo just completed the busiest season of his young career, his second with the famed Brynas IF Gavle hockey program. Having turned 18 at the beginning of June and thus having spent the whole season as a 17-year-old, he found himself playing the great majority of the year with the club’s U20 team, where he collected five goals, 14 points, 14 penalty minutes and a +8 rating in 24 total games. This was supplemented by three goals and 10 points in 12 total games with the U18 team. The highlight of the season was nonetheless his promotion to the men’s pro team in the SEL, where he suited up for 17 regular season contests and another four playoff games, a feat rarely seen from a defenseman of his age, much less heritage.
Featuring skating abilities that appear practically effortless in all directions, he has a keen ability to skate with the puck with his head up at just about all times, allowing him to constantly seek out the best options, be they passes or shots, without missing a beat. His hard work in his own zone, overall on-ice instincts and above-average understanding of the game have allowed him to hop over a number of older, more physically intimidating players in rapidly ascending the Brynas depth chart. In light of his achievements in Sweden, he has become a mainstay on Norway’s junior blueline, which he patrolled this past winter with both the U18 and U20 clubs, having chipped in two assists and a +1 rating in Norway’s gaining of promotion back into the world’s elite for the 2014 WJC in Malmo, Sweden.
Just barely eligible for the upcoming draft as one of its youngest entries, Hockey’s Future had an opportunity to ask Mattias a few short questions about his hockey career to date and his thoughts on the big day in New Jersey.
Hockey's Future: Outside of Norway and now Sweden, you’re not exactly a player a whole lot of people know about yet. What would you say are your strongest attributes? What do you feel are some aspects of your game that you simply must get better at?
Mattias Norstebo: I definitely like to join the rush and put an emphasis on actively taking on a role as an offensive defenseman. The power play is part of the game I feel I can excel at. Technically, my skating ability is the strongest aspect of my game and I feel very good about my movement, but I‘m not the biggest guy around. In general, I definitely have to work on my overall body strength.
HF: Where does your interest in hockey come from? How did you discover it and how long have you been playing?
MN: Well, my father played pro hockey. He played in a number of countries, including Germany, Sweden and Norway, so my whole life I have traveled around with my family while he was pursuing his career. He has also been the coach of some of my junior teams in Norway. I guess it’s safe to say that he is the reason I started playing. Like a lot of hockey sons, I wanted to be like him. And like a lot of hockey sons, I have been on skates – mostly with dad – since I was 3 years old!
HF: Now, like many other young Norwegians who display some top-flight skills at a young age, you moved over to Sweden to take the next step in your development. How did you decide to latch on with the program in Brynas, where the top Swedish draft candidate, Elias Lindholm, also spent this past season? What adjustment did you have to make in your first season there, which was the 2011-12 season?
MN: I have always wanted to play in Sweden. I like the type of hockey that is played there, the overall hockey scene and how popular the sport is. As luck would have it, I got a chance to partake in one of Brynas’ camps and they decided they liked what they saw. My first season was really tough though. It was a whole new level of play for me and it took me a while to adapt to everything, both on and off the ice. There are truly so many good players in the program and alone the internal competition is quite heavy.
HF: You spent the majority of this past season playing for the club’s U20 team, something that is no easy task for a 17 year old kid. How was this past season for you in this team?
MN: I had a great start to this past season and was given the chance to play with the older guys, which was a totally new and exciting experience! The players were better, faster and stronger, but getting to play with them and in that environment really helped my skating a lot. My overall level of play developed considerably there.
HF: You also found your way into 17 games for the men’s pro team in the SEL. Can you describe this experience? What type of feedback did you get from the club? Are you currently planning on spending next season with Brynas?
MN: That was something I had dreamt about since I was a kid. It was just a huge, incredible thrill and experience! The SEL team had suffered some injuries on the blueline and gave me a shot. Depending on the opponent and the game situation I was getting 5-12 minutes of playing time a night. Brynas really seems to believe in me and that’s a wonderful feeling. As a player, this is something that just pumps you with confidence. It’ll be a lot of work, but hopefully I can take the next step there and in my development next season, as the plan is for me to play again in Brynas next season. I’ll start with the U20 team again and then we’ll see what happens.
HF: You have represented your country in both the U18 and U20 teams this year. How was this experience for you and how tough was it for the Norwegian program to just miss out on promotion at the U18 level in losing to arch-rival Denmark a few months ago in Italy?
MN: It always feels good to play for your country. I think all hockey players enjoy that. At the U20 level, it was gigantic winning the B group and moving up to the top level. It’s amazing knowing we’ll be part of the concert with the big boys at the WJC in Malmo, Sweden, which is all the more incentive for me. It would have been huge to gain promotion at both levels in the same year, but unfortunately that didn’t happen, despite being so close. That loss to Denmark was very bitter. It didn’t feel good then, and it still doesn’t. It’s a tough thing to swallow.
HF: Looking forward to the WJC in Malmo, experts assume you’re going to have to play a big role for Norway if the team is to have any chance whatsoever. How excited are you about that tournament? How big is the challenge considering you’ll be facing Sweden, Russia, Switzerland and Finland in your group alone?
MN: The WJC is going to be a fantastic experience for all of us in the team. We’ll be getting the chance to play against the best players at this level in the world. The teams in our group are pretty much all generally considered amongst the eight best hockey countries on the planet and for us it will be all about trying to survive. We will learn a lot on this journey and hopefully develop more as a group and as players.
HF: You are eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft. Have you thought much about that this winter? What thoughts are going through your head about it right now?
MN: I don’t try to think too much about it, but of course it’s something you dream about throughout your hockey childhood. Not many Norwegians are picked, so it’s a real big thing if one does get taken. Naturally I’m excited, but you’ve just got to take a wait and see attitude. I’m trying not to think about it too much.
HF: How are you going to follow the NHL Draft on June 30th?
MN: I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching it. It’s practically a tradition to watch the draft and see who is going to be the first pick, etc. I’ve always liked the drama and it gets you dreaming about the opportunity you may one day have. Now I’m one of the guys whose name could possibly be called and I’m pretty excited, but I feel the chances of me being taken are ultimately pretty low at the moment. It’d be a bit of a dream come true to see my name as one of the drafted players.
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