8A normal teenager?
Rasmus Dahlin steps into the drab conference centre next to the locker room at Frölunda Indians ice hockey club, looking much like any other 17-year-old in this part of Sweden.
Blond, tall, slightly awkward, and far from physically imposing.
But the boy who is almost everyone’s stone-cold prediction to be number one pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, is far from that on the ice.
Obviously he’s still blond and tall. But awkward?
Tell that to the veterans he has turned inside out with his improbable puck skills, played hundreds of thousands of times on social media by fans.
Not physically imposing?
Rasmus Dahlin is a defenseman. He has played and excelled in Sweden’s top professional league for two seasons now – remember, he’s 17 years old – and was the best in his position at the 2017 World Juniors.
Looks are deceptive. Dahlin packs some serious functional strength, as he shows at training the next day – one of his last before he headed out to Pyeongchang 2018 as the youngest ever member of Sweden’s hockey troop.
“Amazing…in the beginning it felt unreal,” he says of his selection for the Tre Kronor, when we sit down for what could be a precious pre-superstardom interview.
“I wasn’t expecting that but now it feels like it’s going to be a so fun trip and yeah… I can’t wait.”
Dahlin answers questions politely, while giving the impression that the questioner is a bit daft for asking something so obvious: Yes, it’s exciting to be in the position he is, but he’s just focusing on hockey… he’s successful because of the opportunities given to him by Frölunda… yes, he can handle the fame, he’s just focusing on his hockey…
It’s not false modesty. Dahlin knows he’s good. He also knows he’s only just starting out in the big time. He’s looking forward… but still incredibly grateful to already be playing pro hockey with some of his heroes.
They are also grateful to be playing with him. If you really want to know about Dahlin, ask anyone who has shared ice time with him.
Matt Donovan laughs when asked what the teenager has to look forward to in the draft, with his history as 96th overall pick for the New York Islanders in 2008 – so different from the Swede’s likely position at number one.
But he’s dead serious about how good the youngster really is.
“He’s got it, and he uses it”
“A lot of people have asked me about him, whether it’s guys that are in the NHL right now that are excited to see him next year…”, begins the 27-year-old American – who set his own mark as the first Oklahoma born-and-trained player in the National Hockey League.
“I tell them that he’s the real deal. He can handle the puck like no one I’ve ever seen before. And I’ve played with some really good guys, really good players.
“You see a lot of forwards with that kind of skill but it’s pretty rare to see a defenseman with that kind of puck-handling ability. I mean, some guys are afraid to use it when it comes to playing in games.
“He’s got it… and he uses it.”
One of the things that has allowed Dahlin to shine is the shift in Sweden over the last decade – from rigid conservative defense, to allowing players to express themselves.
It means Sweden are armed in PyeongChang with a player that can launch offenses straight from D, as anxious forwards buzz around him trying not be be made fools of. Keeping the opposition partially on the backfoot, even as they mount attacks.
In Frölunda, a suburb of Gothenburg an hour or so north of Dahlin’s hometown of Lidköping, it’s won him a fan in the player whom he grew up idolising – Joel Lundqvist, the team’s captain, center, and twin brother of New York Rangers goaltender Henrik.
“Of course people see the nice moves with the puck, but the way he moves and reads the play makes it easier for the other guys on the ice too,” Lundqvist says after coming off the rink at Gothenburg’s Scandinavium stadium.
“His hockey sense is brilliant.”
“We heard the coaches talk about him before he came up and practised with us. We heard he was a really talented guy, but first practise he came up and did some sick moves right away and then we understood what they’ve been talking about.”
Dahlin has been working on those sick moves for a very long time.
From bro to pro
He first started playing at age two, beginning a childhood spent competing and learning with his older brother Felix.
His Instagram feed is a colourful glimpse into a hockey-crazy family, against the backdrop of idyllic Swedish summer lakes and training sessions in a town where kids grew up playing Bandy – ice hockey’s older big brother, played on rinks the size of football pitches.
Dahlin’s own big brother had to stop playing the sport after developing arthritis. But the impact on Rasmus means he could have already played his part in future NHL and Olympic history.
“He stopped playing two years ago,” says Dahlin, his back to the open door of the locker room, facing out into the conference centre where around a dozen Swedish print, radio and TV journalists wait for their interview slot.
“But he supports me and I support him, and I don’t know where I should be without him.”
Where Dahlin is right now is very clear when talking to the team’s defense coach, Pär Johansson.
“What can I say that’s not been said? He’s a tremendous talent. A hardworking kid one… of the best players in this league at the age of 17,” he says.
“That’s what it is.”
PyeongChang 2018 is going to get a glimpse of the future on the ice. Could it help Sweden to their first victory since 2006?
When talking about his team, Dahlin’s modesty ends.
“The Olympics is going to be a tough tournament and with great players,” he says, brushing off the absence of NHL stars.
“We have a very good chance to win and I think we’re going for gold.”
Whether or not he heads across the Atlantic with a medal round his neck, the boy making his senior debut in blue and gold could be the man to beat for many years in the NHL.