Frei: This is a compliment. Sometimes I think Gabe Landeskog is from Flin Flon, not Stockholm
The other night, as I watched and listened to Gabriel Landeskog’s measured responses after the Avalanche’s 4-3 overtime win over the Bruins, I thought of a couple of things.
1, Next September 4, Landeskog will have been the Colorado Avalanche’s captain for 10 years.
2, As he thoughtfully advanced the argument for the need to “answer the bell” as a form of accountability in the NHL, I again wondered if Landeskog really is from Flin Flon.
Landeskog was speaking after Taylor Hall’s hit on Nathan MacKinnon and Hall declining repeated invitations to fight.
(You probably know this, but Flin Flon is the Manitoba / Saskatchewan border mining town where Bobby Clarke was raised and played for the Flin Flon Bombers.)
Seriously, you can go this far: Landeskog’s game and even his outlook certainly seem more in tune with:
a) Kitchener, where he played two preparatory seasons of major junior in the Ontario Hockey League before going No. 2 overall in the 2011 NHL draft and joining the Avalanche; than …
b) Stockholm, where he was raised and eventually played in the Djurgardens program for one season, including three games in the Swedish Elite League at age 16.
His dad, Tony, was an Elite League defenseman with Hammarby.
Gabriel joined Kitchener at age 16.
“I wanted to develop,” he once told me. “I had so many parts of my game I felt I needed to get better at, to make it to the next level. As a young kid in the Swedish Elite League, it’s not very common to get a lot of ice time, with some exceptions. I wanted to play a lot and have the opportunity to get ice time, to learn from my mistakes and get better that way.”
Plus, it was an indoctrination in the North American game, since major junior mimics NHL rules — including tacitly allowing fighting — and has near-pro length schedules. Fighting in European hockey is taboo.
He was a precocious captain at Kitchener, too, at age 17, surprising because of both his age and his “import” status.
His transition was aided by his comfort with communicating with his teammates in his second language.
“I realized it would help if I knew the language well,” he told me. “I try to get better on my own, watching a lot of movies, listening to music, listening to everything as much as I can. And when I went to high school in Canada, that helped.”
Make no mistake, this is not succumbing to the long-ago discredited “Soft Swede” stereotype.
Hello, Ulf Samuelsson. Hello, Peter Forsberg. Hello, so many more. Including Landeskog, who was 19 years and 286 days old when he became the youngest captain in NHL history at the time. Because of an NHL lockout, he had actually turned 20 before he wore the C in a regular-season game on Jan. 19, 2013.
That all was after he won the Calder Trophy in 2012 and during that season drew compliments from his teammates about his maturity. Seemingly the only concession was that he lived with a local “billet” family as a rookie.
The next season, he was the Avalanche captain. The C can be a burden. It also can be energizing.
As he approaches 30 — the milestone birthday will be November 23 — he is married and he and his wife, Melissa, have a young daughter and son.
That’s quite different than Gabriel playing PlayStation with his billet family’s children when he was breaking in with the Avalanche. But his demeanor seems virtually the same.
His captain tenure had some rough moments, most notably when he seemed prone to taking brain-lock penalties and even being guilty of cavalier and dangerous hits himself. He struggled at times with handling the turmoil of the historically awful 2016-17, his fifth as captain, and said it would go down in his book as, “A … season … from … hell.”
By now, though, the thought of removing the C is ludicrous. He’s in Joe Sakic territory there, especially after signing an eight-year, $56-million deal with the Avalanche last summer.
“I think anyone that wears a C in any league, in any sport, but especially hockey, everyone takes it with an extreme amount of pride and honor,” Landeskog once told me of the captaincy. “For me, the first couple of years, I learned a lot. There are things you really don’t know how to handle, whether it’s logistics or players-only meetings or whatever it might be. But you grow into that stuff and you learn how to handle it.”
Even after the tumultuous, come-from-behind win over the Bruins, including his unanswered challenge to Hall to drop the gloves, he had cooled off by the time he was at the microphone in the media room.
He didn’t go overboard in characterizing Hall’s careless hit on MacKinnon, even saying he believed the eventual call — an interference minor rather than the original major — was the right one.
Here’s part of what Landeskog said in the interview room, right from the digital recorder: “The hit itself — I looked at it at intermission — I don’t think it’s that bad. It’s unfortunate the way it happened. Nate kind of crosses over into him, gets his stick up and it’s obviously his stick there that cuts himself. But at the end of the day, when one of your best friends and teammates and ultimately your best player gets hit like that in the neutral zone, you just have to make sure that next time anybody thinks about doing that, they have to pay a price, that there’s going to be some consequences with that. It doesn’t have to be a dirty play for us to feel that way. It’s just the way it is. Hall didn’t want to answer for it. That’s unfortunate. Yeah, I hope Nate’s OK.”
Notice, as he has in other similar instances, Landeskog didn’t come close to pandering to those portraying the hit as far worse than it was. (The effects indeed were ugly, with MacKinnon suffering a facial fracture and concussion. But he was struck by his own stick and his head seemed to have struck the ice.)
More to the point and more credibly, Landeskog emphasized that unwritten, informally Codified obligation to fight as a means of accountability.
By the way, with all the talk about Hall not “answering the bell” — regardless of how you feel about that concept — after his hit on MacKinnon, I’ll add this: The often overlooked aspect of Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore was that Moore DID answer bell earlier in the March 8, 2004 game, fighting Matt Cooke.
Jared Bednar, respected as an ECHL defenseman / captain for having his teammate’ backs, often sounded that bell as a player. In response to my question the other night, he said he still buys into the premise.
The Avalanche are playing the best hockey in the league. Without MacKinnon in the lineup Friday in Chicago, and with Landeskog scoring his 17th and 18th goals of the season, the Avalanche beat the Blackhawks 6-4.
They’re playing with more grit and edge in an attempt to prep for the playoff grind.
Landeskog himself more than ever is more of an avenger than an enforcer, immediately going after those he deems to have crossed the line, especially with MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. He’s mainly the watchman on his line. Whether that’s a good idea on several levels is open to debate. (I don’t think it is.)
Now that Kurtis MacDermid has won the affection of his teammates and seems at least capable of playing a limited-minutes role both at wing and now back on defense, MacDermid has taken some pressure off Landeskog in that department.
But Landeskog obviously isn’t going to shy away from responding and driving home the accountability point.
I’ve mentioned this before, but my major quibble is the premise that even what’s deemed to be a legal, unpenalized hard hit in a game so proud of its physicality is subject to reprisal — especially if it’s on a star.
Does that mean the same hit on Tyson Jost is OK?
I’m NOT talking here of the Hall hit on MacKinnon. I mean in general. You can’t hit stars? If you do, you have to fight? And sometimes it seems any clean hard hit is considered actionable — even if the action is a challenge to drop the gloves.
Also, the league’s 180-degree standard continues to be farcical, whether that’s among players, coaches, team broadcasters, media, journalists and fan-alists. There are exceptions in egregious and obvious situations.
If “your” guy delivers the hit, it’s generally portrayed as a good, clean, hard hockey play. What, do you want them to put on dresses?
But if “your” guy takes the hit, everything flips 180 degrees and it’s portrayed as dangerous, irresponsible, dirty contact. (The phenomenon even can play out on the same hit.)
Landeskog never will be The Sheriff.
But he sure is the Captain.
Terry Frei (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here