Monday, November 2, 2009

Markus Näslund Interview - Örnsköldsvik, SWE

On a sunny August Örnsköldsvik afternoon we met with former Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Näslund at Swedbank Arena to discuss his hometown, illustrious ice hockey career, and recent retirement. These are his stories.

Q: Tell me about growing up playing hockey in Sweden.
A: I started off playing for the local small grassroots called Järved. It’s the same team the Sedin twins [Daniel and Henrik] started off playing for too. I played on an outdoor rink until I was about 14. Then I went to another team and played Division 2 senior hockey for two years. I joined Modo’s junior team when I was 16 and started playing for the elite team at the end of that season. And then for the next three years I played with Modo's elite team.

Q: When did you start playing hockey?
A: I was six or seven I think.

Q: What did your parents do when you were growing up?
A: My dad is an environmental engineer and my mom was a secretary. My dad was coaching me basically all the way up. He was probably been the biggest influence early on teaching me the basics.

Q: What other sports did you play as a kid?
A: I played hockey in the winter and soccer like all the other kids in the summer. Track and field, cross country skiing, and downhill skiing too. I just tried as much as possible.

Q: Was hunting part of your life growing up?
A: Not for me. But a lot of people do that here.

Q: Was it always your goal to play in the NHL?
A: Yeah. For most of the kids the elite local team is part of the goal but for me it was always to make it to the NHL and have success there. Obviously you have dreams growing up first off playing with the Modo team and then making the national team. And then making the adjustment to the NHL after that.

Q: Who were your favorite NHL players and teams as a child?
A: Well actually it’s kind of ironic. I liked Vancouver because I had Thomas Gradin’s mom as a baby sitter. So it’s a small world. I remember I got a signed photo of him when I was probably eight or nine. Obviously I liked Gretzky and the Edmonton group there too. It wasn't like I was a diehard fan of any team. I followed it all a little bit.

Q: Could you watch the NHL growing up in Övik?
A: No. That was the thing. I don’t even think we got highlights back then. We only had two government channels so there wasn't much on TV.

Q: Tell me about the Swedish Elite League?
A: Well it’s changed. I think it’s 55 games now but it was 40 games when I played. It starts at the end of September and ends in March so it’s a shorter season. There’s breaks throughout the year too with national team stuff and World Juniors.

Q: How do the teams travel?
A: With the junior team there’s a bus everywhere. With the elite team there’s like five teams they bus to and they fly to the rest. They travel on the day of the games so that’s a little bit different than what you’re used to in the NHL.

Q: How did you pick the number 19?
A: It was given to me. I had no choice.

Q: What were the biggest challenges transitioning from the SEL to the NHL?
A: There was a few of them. First off, not being in a protected environment like this small town where you've got your parents living here and all that stuff. Moving to a new place where there’s a different language and obviously way better hockey too. A lot of things I had a tough time with. Small things too, like the curve of your stick. We were allowed to have big curves when we played here. So I had to change that. I felt like I missed the net a lot when I started in the NHL so it took a long time to adjust to that because I used that stick for such a long time.

Q: What about the ice size?
A: It’s a totally different game.

Q: Were you happy about the trade to the Vancouver Canucks?
A: I was. I felt like I had a little bit of a breakthrough my third year in Pittsburgh and had some success. I had the fortune of playing with Mario too so that helped. But then after Christmas sometime I started getting less ice time and I just thought I didn’t want to go through that again. So I asked for a trade and it took longer than I expected. Obviously I didn’t have any control over where I was going. We visited Vancouver once and I liked what I saw so I was pleased to hear that I was going there.

Q: Who was your coach in Pittsburgh?
A: Eddie Johnston.

Q: What was he like as a coach?
A: He was pretty laid back. It was a veteran team. There was a lot of future Hall of Famers there. I don’t know if he needed to do a whole lot of coaching because there was a lot of experience. But he was a nice man. I have nothing bad to say about him.

Q: Do you keep in touch with anyone from your Pittsburgh days?
A: Off and on I’ll bump into Ulf Samuelsson. That’s pretty much it. I’ve seen Mario once in a while too. But apart from that, no not really.

Q: Then you went to Vancouver and met Mike Keenan?
A: Yeah [laughs].

Q: That must have been a transition from Mr. Johnston.
A: Yeah for sure. It was quite the experience to have a coach like Mike. I think he's mellowed out quite a bit over the last few years. It took me a while to handle the way he was coaching with intimidation and all that stuff. And I was one of the young guys where he could do that to me. It made me stronger. Looking back at it I think it helped me handle tough situations.

Q: Tell me about your trade request in Vancouver that was denied.
A: I came to camp ready to prove Keenan wrong. I think I played one out of 7 or 8 exhibition games. I felt that I wasn't going to be given a chance so again I had to ask for a trade. At that point Brian Burke had been hired as the GM and he said no I want you to have some patience, I don’t want to trade you now. It was lucky that he responded that way. So basically I just tried to work as hard as I could and stay ready for when I was finally going to get the chance to play.

I think Pavel sat out that year and something else happened so I got a chance to play and it worked out well. I played with Messier and started having some success and scoring some goals. Then it kind of just snowballed and I started having more confidence and playing better.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with Messier and what you learned from him.
A: Even though I was a young guy he was always really good to me. I felt like I had a dialogue with him. He showed me a lot of respect that way being a young kid. What I took away from my time with him is how he wanted the team to be tight and made sure everybody got along and had that friendship atmosphere in the locker room. He was intense and tough at times but I think with the young team we had we learned a lot from him. So he was a good guy to have.

Q: Did you see Messier in New York when you were playing for the Rangers?
A: Yeah I saw him a few times. He was there quite a bit. I saw that he just got hired working with Glen there. I bumped into him once in a while and it’s nice to see him.

Q: What did it mean to you to be named captain of the Vancouver Canucks?
A: I think it’s, I shouldn’t say everyone's dream, but it’s very much a big honor to where the ‘C’. Especially in a Canadian city. You realize how much that part means. I was very honored and excited when they announced me captain, actually here in Stockholm. It was a special day for sure.

Q: How did the captaincy process work? Did Burke speak with you about it?
A: Yeah, at first they had a process where they talk to the players and the coaching staff and a lot of people around the team. Then they talk to the individuals that they were considering captaining. It was a great honor when he came up and asked me if I was interested. It was a no-brainer for me to say yes.

Q: Was Burke a presence in the Canucks locker room?
A: Brian knew when to come down. He didn’t do it often. But he knew when to come down and motivate the team. With Brian as a GM I think you feel that everyone is on the same wave length. There’s a vision with everything that he does. One of the things he does is he trusts the coach but he also wants the chain to be connected from the GM down to the players. He sees the full picture.

Q: How does Burke's GM technique compare to that of Nonis or Sather?
A: There’s differences for sure. Nonis I think has learned from Brian so they’re fairly similar. Glen is a different GM. But he would do the same thing. I really enjoyed playing under Glen as well. I think he's an old school type of guy with a whole lot of experience. He made everyone feel at ease but everyone obviously respected him. I think he was very helpful to have as a GM.

Q: Discuss the impact of the injuries you sustained from the hit by Steve Moore?
A: I hyper-extended my elbow when I fell. I ended up having surgery on that elbow after the season was over. I don’t know if it affected me that much. I think the media they try to look at everything in detail. It could just be that you go through your slumps at times too. I felt that I recovered fairly good. But what happened was the injury and the suspension to Todd [Bertuzzi] and all that stuff it kind of slowed things down because we had such a great chemistry prior to that.

Q: What’s your relationship like with Todd Bertuzzi now?
A: Well it’s good. We don’t maybe talk on a weekly basis but we keep in touch. He’s probably the guy that I’ve been the closest to throughout my career. I just felt that we had a good friendship on and off the ice.

Q: Did you ever speak with Steve Moore?
A: No. We never spoke.

Q: Tell me about your final game in Vancouver which was also Trevor Linden’s last?
A: Yeah it was a bad game. It was a lot of emotions for Trevor. At that point I didn’t know my future so I don’t know if I felt anything special that way. But with Trevor we all kind of expected that it was his last game. The way the crowd responded was pretty special. And I would have obviously liked to have finished it off on a better note looking back at it and knowing it was my last game in Vancouver. But at that point I didn’t know that.

Q: What memories do you take from Vancouver, the city, the fans, and the organization?
A: I have very fond memories of Vancouver. It turned out to be way better than I expected it to be living and playing. I was there for the tough years when we had a tough time selling out. I went from that to I don't know how many sellouts in a row. It was neat to be part of that journey. The thing that frustrates me the most is that I felt we had teams that were good enough to win there for a couple of years at least. We grew up together. We had a core that the team was built around. Unfortunately we didn't end up winning. And that was probably my biggest regret.

Q: The year the team lost to Minnesota in the second round seemed like it could have been special.
A: Yeah. And the next year was a very unfortunate year because we had the suspension to Todd, we got Magnus Arvedson injured, Mats Lindgren injured, Cloutier went down in the third game of the Calgary series. We almost beat Calgary anyhow. I felt that we almost were a better team if we had gotten everyone in the lineup that year. But those were the two best teams that I think I’ve played for.

Q: Why did you decide to go to New York?
A: When it came down to July 1st I talked to my agent Don Baizley and he wanted me to make a list of teams that I would consider playing for. New York was one of the teams that I was really interested in going to. And right from the opening minute of free agency they were really up front that they wanted me to come. So it just felt like the right thing to do.

Q: How did you like living in New York City?
A: I had a great time. It was different from everything I’ve experienced in the past. I’m very happy that I had the chance to play there. It was a different year in many ways. I didn’t feel like I had the pressure of being a captain. There was a lot of young guys that I could interact with more than I had in the past. I just felt that I got a great response from the players there. It was a fun year overall.

Q: It was an interesting season in New York with coaching changes.
A: There was a lot of things happening. We started off with the best start in franchise history, then slumping a few times and struggling to make the playoffs, then making the playoffs, then the coaching change and all the other stuff too. There was a lot of stuff that happened but looking back at it I enjoyed it.

Q: Were you close with Henrik Lundqvist?
A: Yeah I enjoyed playing with him. I've talked to him a few times this summer.

Q: Is there a Swedish connection in the NHL, looking out for each other when you join a new team?
A: I think they do a little bit but at this point at my age and stuff I feel just as close to the Canadians or Americans. I get along with all of them. I didn't feel that I needed a whole lot of guidance now. I was lucky to find a house in the summer. I lived a little bit outside of the city. We had a good bunch of guys and I hung out with pretty much everyone.

Q: Why did you retire?
A: I felt that I didn’t have the drive. It’s not like I’m miss putting the equipment on and going out and playing. I enjoy the game still but all the other stuff that comes with it I felt that I have been doing it for such a long time now that I want to do something else.

Q: Are you going to play for the Swedish team in the Olympics?
A: No. I’m done playing now.

Q: So it wasn't just a retirement from the NHL?
A: No. I wanted to play in the NHL until I felt that it was time to go. And I just felt that it was the right thing to do now.

Q: Would you consider coaching, managing, or scouting for a team?
A: Maybe. I don’t know. Right now I’m just going to take it easy for a while. And then we’ll see. I’m not going to rush into anything.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with Forsberg growing up together in Övik and competing in the NHL? Are you two close?
A: We’re good friends. I’ve got three kids and stuff so we’re at different stages in our life. It’s hard to find time for everything. That's the thing. We started off playing against each other. We had a lot of guys from that 1973 birth year in this region that did really well. I think we had 11 guys if I’m not mistaken that made the World Junior team from our team there. So it was an extremely good squad.

Peter started with Modo and I started with the other team that I said. It was always good battles and tough games. I think that pushed everyone to do better. And then we played three years with each other for Modo and then I turned pro one year sooner than he did. When he came over we played against each other especially when I ended up in Vancouver and he moved to Colorado. There was a big rivalry between the teams and that added a little bit to our rivalry as well.

Q: Did you ever try to play together in the NHL?
A: I was hoping that we would have the chance to do that but it just never panned out that way. When he went to Philadelphia we talked about it that summer because we were both free agents. But I was set on going back to Vancouver. When there was no room for him in Colorado he couldn’t at that point go to Vancouver. It felt weird to go to a divisional rival. Two summers ago we tried for him to come but he ended up staying back and signing late with Colorado again. And then last summer he wasn't playing so he ended up signing with Modo for a few games. It just for some reason hasn’t worked out that way.

Q: Is Peter still trying to play?
A: I think he is. We played a couple of charity games here in early August with Icebreakers.

Q: What’s Icebreakers?
A: It’s a charity team that Peter started in 2002 and we’ve played every summer since then a couple of games each year. And the money we raise from those games we give to kids in this region who are sick or handicapped. So every summer we have a couple of people that can apply to get the money we raise.

Q: Who else plays with Icebreakers?
A: Everyone from this region Sammy Pahlsson, the Sedins, Enström. You got the Modo guys too that used to play in the NHL. Henrik Zetterberg was playing. Freddie Modin.

Q: Tell me about the role of religion in your life and the NHL?
A: They’re working on it. I was raised very religious. My grandfather was a pastor. My mom and dad are still very active in the Pentecostal Church here. But I haven’t been active for a number of years. I know that there’s a Christian organization called Hockey Ministries International where they have chaplains for teams that accept it. They have to get permission from the GM and coaches to do something. I know there’s a few teams that do that. But I haven’t been on any teams that have it.

Q: Did you feel a physical connection when you got to Vancouver in terms of the landscape similarities to Övik?
A: A little bit. The Vancouver landscape is way more powerful. Higher mountains. It feels bigger. I feel that Vancouver has a European vibe to it. It’s more what I was used to than what Pittsburgh would be like. I think it’s tough to beat anything Vancouver has to offer in terms of the nature and beauty of the city itself and the closeness to Whistler and even going over to Hawaii.

Q: Do Swedes want to play in Vancouver because of the Canadian city and the landscape, or is it more that they want to follow in your footsteps or Thomas Gradin?
A: I think once they’ve seen a number of Swedish players play for a certain team, like Detroit, then I think kids growing up look forward to playing for a team where they know the fans like and respect the Swedish players.

Q: Did your family enjoy living in Vancouver?
A: Oh yeah. We all had a great time. The kids talk about it regularly. Their time there, their friends, going to school there, and all that stuff.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever return to Vancouver to live?
A: Yeah I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m taking it year by year. Who knows.

Q: A lot of fans in Vancouver never had a chance to say goodbye to you. Has Mike Gillis reached out to you to discuss having you return for such an event?
A: No. I talked to him briefly when I announced my retirement. But I haven’t spoken to him this summer.

Q: Would you consider returning for something of that nature?
A: Yeah. I wouldn’t rule that out. But I haven’t really thought about it too much either.

Q: What were your favorite cities to visit in the NHL?
A: I liked the warm climates so it was nice when we got to go to Florida or LA for a couple of days. I don’t know what it’d be like to play there full-time but definitely nice to visit.

Q: Who were your favorite linemates?
A: That has to be Bertuzzi and Morrison. I just felt that we complemented each other well and we had fun while we’re doing it too. We were joking quite a bit with each other and giving each other a hard time. So it was good memories.

Q: What will you miss the most about playing in the NHL?
A: I think the friendships. All the stuff that the fans maybe don’t see what happens in the locker room. And all the time you spend on the go, on planes. Just the comradery on the team.

Q: What won’t you miss?
A: The frustration of not playing well and dragging that with you after games. Being away from your kids for long periods of time. Yeah, so there’s stuff that I definitely won’t miss but there’s going to be a lot of stuff I will miss because it’s a great great life.

Q: Who was your favorite coach?
A: I got to say Crawford because I had him the longest and he gave me so much freedom and made me the player that I ended up being. But I really enjoyed playing under Tortorella too. I wish I had more time playing under him because I think he was very fair but knowledgeable coach.

Q: How was Tortorella’s coaching style different from Tom Renney’s?
A: He told you what he wanted from you and he held players accountable. Pretty tough but I think fair.

Q: Did you play poker with Luongo and some of the other players on the Canucks?
A: No, I was always in the back listening to music. There was a couple of tables that were playing there. I guess every team has that but especially Vancouver with all the travel. There’s a couple of set tables there but I was never interested in that. I played a few times but not a whole lot.

Q: What kind of music do you like to listen to?
A: I like pretty much anything. Everything from rock to soul to rap.

Q: What are your travel tips for visitors to your hometown of Örnsköldsvik?
A: They should take the ferry over to Ulvön (Wolf's Island). It’s an old fishing island with a lot of history. It’s very beautiful. Go and watch a game if you’re here during the season. It’s a big part of the lifestyle here. And go to try go out on a boat and see the archipelago. I think that's the most beautiful area.

Many thanks to Markus for speaking with us. Enjoy the retirement.

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