ORNSKOLDSVIK, Sweden — This northern city of some 33,000 is located in the craggy High Coast, the country’s magnificently picturesque stretch along the Gulf of Bothnia. Tiny fishing villages dot the terrain and survive off the sea’s bounty. Lumber merchants, with their humongous trucks stacked high with logs as they stream along the E4 highway, cull the area’s verdant forests of pine and spruce.
It is also rich hockey terrain, yielding a motherlode of local talent such as Peter Forsberg, the Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik), Markus Naslund, Anders Hedberg, Victor Hedman, and other NHL stars who grew up here and played for MoDo, the onetime Swedish powerhouse referred to by locals as “the hockey factory.”
The city’s truncated pronunciation is O-vik (oh-VEEK), and it is also commonly called Foppaland, borrowed from the legendary Forsberg’s nickname. It was Foppa, a baby-faced 20-year-old MoDo forward, who scored the shootout goal at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer that gave the Swedes their first Olympic hockey gold medal. Sweden issued a postage stamp depicting Forsberg scoring the goal, commemorating the moment and cementing the legend.
“I did not grow up thinking about one day being in the NHL, no way, that was a very distant thing — for the talented ones like Peter Forsberg,” mused Linus Ullmark, chatting over lunch in late August inside MoDo’s home arena, the Fjallraven Center. “MoDo was my dream. My goal was to be in MoDo with the big boys.”
Ullmark, 28, pulled on his freshly minted Bruins gear, including sleek helmet designed by noted Swedish mask painter Dave Gunnarsson, for Monday’s captain’s practice in Brighton. Plucked from the Sabres as a free agent in July (four years/$20 million), the former MoDo backstop was hired on by Bruins general manager Don Sweeney to pair with rookie Jeremy Swayman in net, possibly with unsigned veteran Tuukka Rask (hip surgery) returning with the season in progress.
“Very eager to get started,” said Ullmark, who broke into the NHL with the Sabres at age 22 in 2015-16. “Sometimes in my years in Buffalo, it felt more like a revenge tour — wanting to show we were not the worst team in the league, that we could step up. But we weren’t able to put it together for a full season.”
The Sabres never reached the playoffs during his tenure. But Boston, he figures, will be different, a team with expectations for a postseason run and a fan base conditioned to success.
“A very positive thing for me,” Ullmark said. “I don’t see it as stress or pressure. I have that eagerness and excitement to try something new, going to a place I think and believe that winning the Stanley Cup is not a distant dream, but more a close reality.”
Putting fun in the game
Throughout most of August and into the first week of September, Ullmark skated five days a week here with MoDo, tuning up before leaving for Boston along with wife Moa, children Harry (3) and Lily (9 months), and their two energetic corgis (Baron and Count). The Ullmarks late last year bought a hillside home in Jarved, only a couple miles north of downtown O-vik, overlooking the city’s shimmering bay.
During his on-ice workouts with MoDo, with Hedman among the local lads joining the workouts, Ullmark still wore his Sabres mask and Buffalo blue pants trimmed in gold. The new mask was shipped from Stockholm to Brighton early this month.
“As for the blue pants,” he noted to a visitor from Boston, with a tiny bit of sheepishness, “yeah, OK … but those are Swedish colors, too, right?”
Ullmark, 6 feet 4 inches and 215 pounds, is thoughtful and easygoing, reminiscent in size and personality of John Grahame, who manned the Bruins net across four seasons in the early 2000s. Provided all goes as planned, Ullmark will plug in as Rask’s replacement as the workhorse, albeit with Swayman, 22, eager to springboard off his own 621 career NHL minutes and fill a substantial role.
Upon agreeing to contract terms with the Bruins, Ullmark fired a text to Swayman, noting that he was looking forward to being teammates.
“I think that was one of the coolest things,” Swayman said. “Just great for an older goalie, or a player in general, to reach out like that.”
“Just felt it was the right thing to do,” noted Ullmark, one of 10 goalies to guard the net during his six years in Buffalo. “I wanted him to feel we’re in this together.”
Ullmark’s journey was anything but direct. He grew up in Lugnvik, a small village (population approximately 500) just under an hour’s drive southwest of O-vik, and landed a spot on MoDo’s junior roster at age 16 only when the backup goalie packed up with a case of homesickness.
“Linus was a raw talent,” said MoDo GM Henrik Gradin, who in those days coached the club’s juniors. “Word around him then was that he might not be really committed to hockey.
“He was a game goalie — really good in games, but lazy, playing hockey for fun. You want guys to have fun, sure, but you want them to take it seriously. We could lose, and Linus would be, like, ‘Hey, OK, it’s still a great day!’ A little immature, I guess you’d say.”
Ullmark spent six seasons in MoDo, maturing and advancing through the ranks, and was the No. 1 stopper on the varsity his last two seasons. The turnaround, per both Gradin and Ullmark, was the influence of Polish-born Maciej Szwoch and fellow goalie coach Magnus Helin.
“They were like extra fathers for me,” said Ullmark, who has remained in contact with both coaches through the years. “Maciej was the hard one. He wanted discipline. He basically taught me I had to grow up. I could complain to Magnus about Maciej and then Maciej could complain to Magnus about me. It worked.”
Of all those juniors in his MoDo class, specifically those born in 1993, Ullmark has been the only to reach the NHL. Hockey is a game, he firmly believes, that must have fun as its underpinnings. His own circuitous path to the NHL, he says, is proof that fun and love of the game are critical to success.
“It is insane how much pressure there is on kids these days,” he said, reflecting particularly on what he has witnessed since coming to the United States in 2015. “I mean, you are 8 years old and you have to make the team? What? You are playing hockey because it’s fun. You are not playing hockey to make a living.
“Your kid is not going to become an NHL player because he’s the best in his class at 8 years old.”
In 2011, his first year eligible for the NHL draft, the unheralded Ullmark went unclaimed among the 211 picks. A year later, the Sabres selected him at No. 163, making him 17th among the 24 goalies selected that June.
It was Fredrik Andersson, a former goalie and then Buffalo scout, who phoned with the news. Ullmark was back in Sweden with his father and brother, about to drop his brother at a bus station when the call came.
“Sweet!” Ullmark recalled saying to Andersson. “And then it was my father who said, ‘I think we should celebrate’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’ So we drove over to a small market and bought some ice cream and strawberries. That was the party. And I remember thinking, ‘OK, what happens now, I don’t know.’ ”
Youth hockey memories
In Lugnvik, Ullmark and his best pal from childhood, Niklas Sjolund, spent nearly every winter’s day, after school and weekends, playing hockey at the community rink. Sjolund’s father was their coach for 8-9 years, the two boys part of a powerhouse youth team that once went more than two seasons without losing a matchup against a neighboring town.
The enclosed rink, built in part with more than $100,000 in aid from an NHL Players Association grassroots program, was less than a half-mile from the pals’ homes. The rink’s door was never locked. If temps were cold enough to freeze a sheet, the boys would zip down the hill, flip on the lights, and play until suppertime.
“It was really a privilege to have that rink,” said Sjolund.
Ullmark is the only Lugnvik player to reach the NHL.
“It’s been fun to see Linus take that leap from here and go to the States,” Sjolund said. “It’s quite unreal, yeah?”
A remarkable feat, agreed Sjolund’s father, Tommy, who remembers Ullmark as the carefree grammar schooler who, when Lugnvik was thumping the opposition, would stray out of net and maybe make snow angels on the ice or wave to friends in the stands.
“He was more in it for the fun,” said the senior Sjolund. “He took it quite easy.”
“But in big games,” quickly added Niklas, a forward on those teams, “he was the best guy to have in net, because he could focus really good. When we had him in goal, as skaters we felt we only had to play equally good as the other team, because we had Linus in net.”
The Lugnvik rink, constructed in the mid 1990s, had to be razed after the roof collapsed in 2013.
“There was a hockey game scheduled for 11 that morning and my brother was going to ref it,” recalled the younger Sjolund. “But the roof fell in at 9. Luckily, no one was in it.”
The land where the rink stood is now used as an equestrian site. Volunteers relocated the old wooden boards up the street to where a former school has been converted to the village’s sports club. Sjolund and other locals each fall clear out the summer’s weeds, prop the boards back into place, and flood the ground to make a sheet of ice.
“These boards have taken some shots from me and a hell of a lot from Linus,” said Sjolund, standing aside the rink area. “We played a lot of games inside those boards.”
Boston ‘felt very right’
The grown-up version of Ullmark, with 117 games on his NHL résumé along with a 2.78 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage, now takes the job, particularly its fitness requirements, very seriously. He followed each of his daily on-ice sessions this summer in O-vik with dry-land training, typically under the eye of a trainer at the nearby “Training Studio” owned by Jonas Franzen.
“His whole body, I’ve seen him transform from a boy to a young man,” said Franzen. “I think we put more pressure on him with food and diet and sleep and consistency of training every day. We never give him a day off. The key is consistency.”
Last season in Buffalo, a pair of nagging injuries, including one to a hamstring, limited Ullmark’s playing action to 20 games. Sweeney said upon signing Ullmark to the second-richest free agent deal in club history that he believed the Bruins’ medical staff would be able to help Ullmark.
“Pre-hab and rehab,” said Ullmark. “It’s a process. I do it every day.”
Ullmark arrived in Boston in early September and was fully prepared to plug right into his new life. He and Moa, “thanks to a lot of phone calls and the Internet,” he noted, purchased a home in the suburbs in August and pre-enrolled Harry in school.
When the Bruins made him the offer in July, Ullmark said, he felt a “tickle” and “butterflies in the stomach.” He liked Buffalo, loved the fans. But he worried about the emotional wear and tear of staying with a team in perpetual rebuild.
“When Boston came knocking, it felt right, it just felt very right,” he said, sitting inside MoDo’s home arena, some of the club’s teenagers running laps in the concourse before practice as he did half a lifetime ago.
“It was a confidence booster that a top team wanted my services. It felt very honorable that they want me to pick up the torch and bring them, hopefully, to titles. That’s what we play for — to win the Cup.”