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By Joel Reese | Photo: T. Harrison Hillman | Shot on location at Maple & Ash | Garments and styling by Burdi | Grooming by Micah Sawinski with Amy Geister and China Thomas | March 7, 2016
Star Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is settling down in the city—and gearing up for another championship fight.
IT WAS A MOMENT every hockey player dreams of.
The home-ice Blackhawks were tied 1-1 with the hated Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2013 Western Conference semifinals. Under two minutes left. The frenetic crowd screamed with every pass, every hit. The tension was unbearable.
Then Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson came streaking up the left side, pulled in a cross-ice pass, took a few long strides and snapped a laser shot into the Detroit net. The stadium erupted. Hawks lead 2-1 with just 1:47 left. A win was inevitable.
Until it wasn’t.
On the far side of the ice, there had been some sort of minor scrum. The refs waved off the goal, an appalling penalty that Sports Illustrated later dubbed “indefensible” and “clueless.” The game went on, still tied 1-1. The Hawks eventually won in overtime (and later took home the Stanley Cup), so there was indeed a happy ending. But in an all-too-appropriate metaphor for Hjalmarsson’s career, and his calm manner, the steady Swede didn’t get his moment in the sun.
And to absolutely no one’s surprise, he’s completely fine with that. “Calls like that happen every now and then, but honestly I’m just glad we won the game,” he says today. “I don’t really care who scores. As long as we win, I’m more than happy.”
THE 28-YEAR-OLD Hjalmarsson (pronounced JALL-mer-sun) was raised on a cattle farm in Eksjö, Sweden (pop. 9,701), but it was pretty clear that milking cows wasn’t in the gifted athlete’s future. He started skating when he was 3 years old, but also showed a knack for soccer—and was good enough that he was torn deciding which sport to pursue as a pro. “It just came down to the fact that I thought hockey was a little bit more fun, more physical,” he says.
The Blackhawks tabbed Hjalmarsson in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, but he stayed in his home country for a few years to hone his skills. Then in 2007, he moved from Sweden to Rockford to play for the Hawks’ minor-league team. Rockford isn’t exactly Tokyo, but it was still a little much for the small-town native. “It was kind of intimidating,” he says. “There were so many people and so many cars. Four lanes each direction. It was a little overwhelming.”
Hjalmarsson didn’t have to adapt alone, though: His girlfriend, Elina, came with him from Sweden, even though they’d been together only a short time. “Yeah, it was kind of a quick decision,” he says with a laugh. “I think we’d just been dating for six months or something like that.” (The couple is now married and have a 2-year-old son who is so cute he should be illegal.)
Before long, Hjalmarsson was playing big minutes for the playoff-caliber Hawks. In 2009 to 2010, his first full season with the team, they won the Stanley Cup—indeed, the rangy Swede is one of only six current Hawks who have been with the team for all three recent championships.
On the ice, the 6-foot-3-inch Hjalmarsson plays a crucial role as a savvy, reserved leader with an unerring nose for the puck. His numbers on the stat sheet aren’t exactly gaudy: Over the 82 games of the 2014 to 2015 season (note: he didn’t miss one), Hjalmarsson tallied three goals and 16 assists. His contributions are—unsurprisingly—more intangible, but no less valuable.
“He’s an ultimate shutdown defenseman, in the purest sense. He doesn’t care about numbers,” says Bob Verdi, a former Chicago Tribune sports columnist who’s now the team’s official historian. “He’s one of the most valuable players on the team, no question about it.”
Hjalmarsson has earned some renown for blocking pucks with his body—once with his throat in a 2014 playoff game against the Minnesota Wild. (He didn’t miss a shift.) “I don’t really see it as a special skill,” Hjalmarsson said at the time. “You just have to get in front of the shooting lane. It’s just a matter of desperation and [trying] to do everything you can to prevent the other team from scoring goals.”
The Hawks obviously value Hjalmarsson, and in 2010, they backed their faith with money. The San Jose Sharks proposed a lucrative deal, making him the first NHL defenseman in more than a dozen years to receive such an offer as a restricted free agent. The Hawks matched it.
“He’s part of the core that’s going to be together for a long time,” Hawks General Manager Stan Bowman said at the time. “He’s a quiet leader amongst our defensive group. I think he gets overshadowed maybe because we’ve got some other superstars.”
It’s undoubtedly true that Hjalmarsson would likely be a star on most NHL teams. But in Chicago, with names like Kane, Toews and Hossa on the roster, he toils in relative obscurity. “He may go his whole career being the most unheralded heralded player on the team,” Verdi says. “But if you notice in close games, he’ll be on the ice against the other team’s best. The Hawks really lean on him. He’s terrific.”
NOW THAT THEY HAVE been here a few years, Hjalmarsson and his wife have adapted to big-city living and recently bought a house in Wrigleyville. “When we had our kid, I wanted to try to live a little bit outside of downtown and get a little more space,” he says.
Unlike some of the wilder members of the team, Hjalmarsson isn’t one for bacchanalian nights out. Instead, he and Elina spend their weekends exploring the city’s restaurant scene. “We don’t go out quite as often now that we have our kid, but we try to have date night,” he says, listing top-notch sushi spots Juno and Momotaro as standbys (and RPM Steak when the mood strikes).
Another fave is acclaimed Swedish restaurant Tre Kronor on Foster Avenue, a must for people looking to slake their need for sill tallrik or pytti panna. “It’s awesome to get that type of food here in Chicago,” he says. “We go to Tre Kronor for a Swedish Christmas meal, and that’s definitely one of the highlights of the year. The owners are great there—they’re supernice.”
One more thing, and he won’t say it so we’ll just point it out: Hjalmarsson’s sweater is on the wall at Tre Kronor. But he wouldn’t be Hjalmarsson if he told us that. “It’s a Swedish thing not to call attention to oneself,” Verdi says. “He’d rather stick his face in front of the puck than a camera.”