Seemingly growing in importance year after year, the IIHF U-18 World Championships proved to be of great interest once again in 2011, introducing a plethora of young and talented hockey players to scouts from all around the hockey world. This year’s tournament was chock full of players expected to be drafted at some point in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in June as well as several young players expected to go very high in the 2012 NHL Draft. However, the tournament also shed some light on a few young men who were somewhat unknown heading into tournament play, especially when it came to countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Norway, whose lineups featured hardly any players found in the pre-tournament ISS rankings.
Of these young men was a pair of brothers from Norway who rose more than a few eyebrows during the tournament. On the eve of their last game against Slovakia, which Norway managed to win 6-2 despite facing 51 Slovakian shots, Hockey’s Future had an opportunity to speak with goaltender Steffen and forward Markus Soberg.
Hockey’s Future: We’re here this evening with Norwegians Steffen and Markus Soberg, two of the lesser-known, yet very interesting prospects who played at the U-18 World Championships in Dresden and Crimmitschau, Germany. Markus, I believe today is your birthday?
Markus Soberg: Yep, I turn 16 today.
HF: Happy birthday from Hockey’s Future. By turning 16 today, that means you’ve played the bulk of the tournament as a 15 year old, which makes you the youngest player in the tournament. What has it been like for you playing daily against 18 year old kids, many of which you know are likely to be drafted by an NHL team this summer?
MS: It’s definitely fun to play against them. They are some of the best players in their age group. It’s an inspiration for me to play against guys of that caliber. I just keep learning every day; having fun. I mean it’s a dream come true to be at a tournament like this already as a 15, 16 year old kid. I’m already living out one of my dreams.
HF: That’s good to hear. Unfortunately, Norway is now being relegated within the U-18 bracket and this was also the case in the U-20 category. Still, you must be looking forward to representing your country at the respective tournaments next season?
MS: Hopefully. If I’m considered good enough, I’ll definitely be there for my country. That’d be fun for sure and I’d love to help get my country back to where we were this year.
HF: Speaking of these two tournaments: Steffen, you represented Norway for both the U-20 and U-18 tournaments. You are also draft eligible this summer. Coming into this tournament, there weren’t necessarily a lot of people outside of the scouting community that knew all too much about you. Can you tell us a little bit about this past season in Norway and about your two tournaments?
Steffen Soberg: Sure. I played for Manglerud back in Norway. I spent time with the junior team and a good half a season in the top men’s league, GET-ligaen. My season was a bit up and down, and has actually been quite a long one for me. Like you said, I was at the U-20s in Buffalo and that was a great experience. There was of course that one game against Canada….
HF: Sure, could you tell us a little bit about that? There was an interview with you on TSN that got a good amount of publicity. What exactly happened in that game?
SS: Well, they thought that it was a pretty big deal that I chose to leave the game early. It’s something I chose to do myself.
HF: So you took yourself out of the game. You must have had a really good reason for that?
SS: It just wasn’t my day. I didn’t feel like I could help the team anymore. I thought our other goalie may be able to put in a better effort and help the team more.
HF: So you were just doing what was best for the team?
SS: Yes, exactly.
HF: This spring, you and Norway have been playing in the Top Division of the IIHF U-18 WCs. A lot of the team’s hopes were placed on your shoulders. You played an outstanding game against the Czech Republic, having made 48 saves. Still, the Czechs barely managed to win 3-2. What were your impressions from that game, well aware of how important a victory would have been?
SS: I approached it like every other game. I gave my best. I wanted us to win. It’s what I want going into every game. Still, we were in a tough group and we knew the Czechs were the team we just had to beat. We had a chance to beat them. All the teams here are good, but we were so close in this one. It was a tough loss.
HF: Throughout this tournament, you were in for a battle one way or another. You personally ended up facing well over 50 shots per game in this tournament. Have you ever played anywhere before where you saw that many shots.
SS: No, I haven’t actually.
HF: So this was a pretty good experience for you as a goalie?
SS: Oh, for sure.
HF: Well let’s hope you turned some heads here with your performance. Going back to your season in Norway, where you played a good portion of the year in the country’s top league as a 17 year old, am I correct in saying that you won the Rookie of the Year award back home?
SS: Yes, I did.
HF: Gaining an accolade like that probably has earned you some attention in no less than several of your neighboring countries. Do you know where you’ll be playing next season?
SS: Honestly, no. Not yet. That’s still open right now.
HF: So you’re technically a free agent of sorts at the moment?
HF: Markus, unlike your older brother, you do know where you’ll be next season. Who will you be skating for come September?
MS: I’m moving on to Gothenburg in Sweden. I’ll be playing for the Indians program in Frolunda.
HF: That’s a very well-known club in Sweden. There you’ll be joined by some other young internationals such as Mads Eller of Denmark, the younger brother of Montreal Canadians forward Lars Eller. Hockey fans in North America aren’t always familiar with how things work in the junior circuit in countries like Sweden, or how players can jump from one country to another at such a young age. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve come to join that program as a Norwegian?
MS: It’s similar to getting a good scholarship. Going to Sweden, I’ll see an average of three more ice times per week. I’ll be set up with a schooling situation and that’s generally followed by practice all week long, whether on or off the ice. The goal is also to get into as many games as possible with the junior team, while working towards getting called up within the system along the way. It’s definitely the right step for my development. Naturally, coming from a relatively small ice hockey country, my chances of improving, gaining exposure, and possibly one day being drafted increase incredibly. And that’s my dream too…to come out of Norway and one day be drafted by an NHL team.
HF: The NHL draft is of course a big issue. When it comes to Norwegians, not many ultimately get drafted and there are rarely ever more than two or three Norwegian players in the NHL at any one time. When you grow up in Norway, is the NHL your dream destination or are kids looking for their hockey fortunes in Sweden or Finland?
MS: No, I think everyone who plays hockey wants to make it to the NHL. That goes for a lot of kids back home in Norway. They want to get there too. If it looks like you can be good enough, at some point you have to move on to improve, whether it be in North America or next door in Sweden. The hope is to get noticed by the scouts and play your way into their plans.
HF: Speaking of North America, the NHL draft is not the only draft of great interest for young players such as yourselves. There’s also the CHL Import Draft. Thus, there is of course the chance that you could be drafted by a CHL club. Would either or both of you actually be open to playing Canadian juniors, if the chance arises?
MS: I would, certainly. Going from Canadian juniors to the NHL is of course a big jump, but it’s the top junior circuit on the planet and the one that NHL teams scout the most and have direct access to. That makes it easier to get recognized. You get the necessary exposure and you get used to a schedule not too different from that of the NHL. Your style changes and you learn to succeed in the smaller rinks. I think it’s just the best route to the NHL.
HF: Steffen, do you share the same opinion?
SS: Well, I’m definitely open for it. If an option is there that is clearly the best for my development, then I’ll give it the due consideration. I just have to wait and see what comes my way at this point.
HF: I’d like to touch on one last thing. You have both been born and raised in Norway, but I believe you’re dual citizens. What exactly is the story there?
SS: Well, our mother is American. She was born in the US.
HF: So have you been over there often to see the relatives?
SS: To be honest, no. We haven’t been over there to see them yet, but hopefully it’ll happen someday.
HF: Maybe that chance will come sooner than you think. Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time. Here’s wishing you all the best in your future and good luck with endeavors next season.
Although Norway was relegated in the course of the tournament, the Soberg brothers put on quite a performance. Steffen Soberg finished second amongst all goaltenders with .931 save percentage. In total, he faced 317 shots against in just 17 periods of play, which was 82 more shots than the next most tested goaltender, Russia’s Andrei Visilevski. He even faced 119 more shots than the third most tested goalie, Switzerland’s Luca Boltshauser. Righty shooting forward Markus Soberg officially finished the tournament with one goal and two assists, although he unfortunately didn’t get properly accredited with two assists on a couple of his most brilliant offensive actions.