Swedish duo adjusting to Minnesota

The Gophers have two freshmen on the team that hail from Sweden.

Ben Gotz

When it comes to the Gophers hockey program, recruits from the “State of Hockey” will probably always dominate the roster.

But this year, Minnesota has picked up a pair of freshmen from an unlikely location: Sweden.

Forwards Leon Bristedt and Robin Höglund are not just the first two Swedish players in Gophers history — they’re also two of only four Europeans who have skated for Minnesota.

The other two, Thomas Vanek and Erik Haula, currently play professional hockey for the Wild.

And while Bristedt has the NHL on his mind for the future, both are happy where they are at now, even if it’s far away from home.

Like Vanek and Haula did before him, Höglund started playing in the United States prior to coming to Minnesota.

Höglund came to the U.S. and played junior hockey before joining the Gophers.

His main goal was to play college hockey, an opportunity he didn’t have in Sweden.

To make sure schools knew who he was, Höglund sent them emails. He initially committed to Notre Dame but later changed his mind.

Höglund said he liked how Minnesotan culture and weather reminded him of home, and the team’s facilities impressed him.

“Everything we’ve got here is just top-notch,” Höglund said. “It’s better than most pro leagues home in Sweden.”

Bristedt, however, didn’t arrive in the U.S. until this August, which head coach Don Lucia said made his transition a little harder.

“Any time you’re coming directly over here, it’s I think a more difficult challenge,” Lucia said. “You look at Vanek coming over here after a couple of years, Erik Haula had been here for the previous two seasons, so their transition, I think, from North America was easy.”

Bristedt said college hockey was in his head for about four years, and eventually he decided it was his best path toward turning pro.

Bristedt initially heard from Michigan and Boston University a lot, as well as a little from Yale before Minnesota came knocking late in the process.

Watching the Gophers defeat Boston College 6-1 last season at Mariucci Arena helped push him toward a decision.

“Mariucci was packed, and I was like, ‘This is the environment I want to play at,’” Bristedt said. “‘This is my place.’”

Contrasting styles

When he first arrived on campus, Bristedt said he faced a bit of a learning curve adjusting to American hockey.

Bristedt described European hockey as more driven by puck possession, more “east-west” hockey.

When playing at home in Sweden, if the defensemen tried to block the forwards in the neutral zone, the offense would circle back and try again.

In Minnesota, Bristedt said the philosophy is “you just chip it by and get after the puck.”

Bristedt said the adjustment to the new style of play has been difficult, as well as the adjustment to new types of players.

“All the guys are bigger, and the guys are stronger. All the guys are better,” Bristedt said. “I was probably one of the best players at my level back in Sweden then, but … I’m not at this level, which is good. I have something to work on.”

Bristedt has still showed enough promise to earn a spot on the team’s top line.

“You see him improving week by week on the ice,” Lucia said. “You see the skill level that he has, the plays that he can make.”

Höglund hasn’t seen regular playing time like Bristedt, but he considers himself more of an “American” player.

While Bristedt’s calling card is his skill, Höglund wants to be known for his physicality. At 6 feet 3 inches, he’s tied for being the tallest listed forward on the team.

“The typical Scandinavian is the guy that you guys might know: super-skilled player, makes fancy plays, kind of scared to get hit,” Höglund said. “That’s what most Americans might think. I am a power forward. I like to get in there and get the work done.”

Adjusting to a new language

Bristedt is still getting used to speaking English regularly, something he didn’t do in Sweden.

He took English classes and was familiar with English movies and music, but having all his classes in the language was a new experience.

But if Bristedt ever wants to give his brain a break and return to his native tongue, he knows he has a teammate to turn to.

“Sometimes it’s just good to talk in your own language and relax and [not have] to think about what to say,” Bristedt said. “I think it’s really good for me to have Robin here to help me as all the other guys have. They’ve been real good to me.”