Brunnstrom … the one who got away from the Red Wings
When he saw a sports section, he read accounts of the best, most-storied NHL franchises bidding against each other to sign him to a contract. When he went online, Brunnstrom saw commentaries about his hockey value and Youtube highlight reels that made him look like a hockey prodigy.
"Last year, it was too big this hype," said Brunnstrom. "I'm not as good as the papers wanted me to be. It's something that grew over the newspapers and internet. I'm just going to try to work hard."
Here's what Fabian Brunnstrom was last spring -- a free young player, a 23-year-old unrestricted free agent with NHL talent who would cost an NHL team no assets to sign. That was the key to Brunnstrom's appeal. An NHL team wouldn't have to give up one player, one draft pick or $1 to any other team to sign Brunnstrom, just be responsible for his contracted salary.
He became an anomaly in a world-wide system of hockey scouting where players' rights are often locked up at the age of 18 by NHL teams.
"This media frenzy gets so big that you wonder if Bobby Orr showed up if it would be good enough," said Detroit general manager Ken Holland last spring. "There's this hype that I think that people are thinking that he's going to show up next year and get 120 points and 50 goals. … How good is he? He's got good potential. He's got good skills. There's not a big track record to go back on. So how good is he going to be? He certainly looks like he'll be an NHL player."
Last Saturday, Brunnstrom made his North American debut, playing for the Dallas Stars at an eight-team NHL prospects tournament in Traverse City that concludes Wednesday. The tournament is hosted by the Detroit Red Wings, one of three teams that Brunnstrom visited last spring (Dallas and Montreal were the others) as finalists in the bidding for his NHL services.
All three teams offered Brunnstrom the maximum allowed for an entry-level NHL contract. Brunnstrom selected Dallas.
"There was a lot of thinking I had to do," said Brunnstrom. "They were all good teams. I liked Detroit. I liked Ken Holland. I liked Montreal as well. I thought a lot and tried to make a good decision. I'm sure all three of those teams would have been a good decision. I couldn't go wrong. I just felt Dallas was a good fit for me."
Meeting Brunnstrom is like meeting the Wizard of Oz, except he wasn't the one pulling the switches and levers. Brunnstrom was such an unknown commodity that an image was built of a Swedish wunderkind who was about to cross the Atlantic Ocean like the Beatles in 1964.
Brunnstrom is unassuming and friendly. He isn't arrogant and he doesn't have elusions of grandeur. Less than four years ago, Brunnstrom was a 20-year-old working at Burger King in the small Swedish town of Helsingborg, playing hockey after work in front of very few fans and no scouts.
Having just left the ice in Traverse City, playing for the Dallas Stars in front of dozens of top NHL executives, Brunnstrom grins like a high-schooler when he talks about working at Burger King, realizing how far he has risen in a short time.
"I worked from 11 (a.m.) to 2 (p.m.) so that I could skate before work and then play games at night," said Brunnstrom. "Being here, it feels like I'm in a dream."
Fabian Brunnstrom was a late-bloomer in hockey. At the age of 20, he was still playing in the fourth level of professional hockey in Sweden for Helsingborg, his hometown and that of Red Wing Andreas Lilja. (Detroit teammates teased Lilja last spring after Brunnstrom called him for information about the Red Wings and then chose to play for Dallas.)
Lilja described the lifestyle of a fourth-tier hockey player in Sweden as something akin to a North America semi-pro … players worked 9-to-5 jobs and played games at night. Practices were rare.
Although his abilities grew, Brunnstrom's reputation did not. Elite-level Swedish clubs rarely scout for prospects, often relying on word of mouth and making unseen signings.
Were it not for one lower-level game that he played in the home rink of an elite club, Brunnstrom would not likely have been seen by a top Swedish team.
That game and his talent (Brunnstrom tallies 73 points and 37 goals in 41 games with third-tier Boras in 2006-07) led to Brunnstrom being signed by Farjestad of the 12-team Elitserien (Elite League) in 2007-08.
Brunnstrom had a solid rookie season in Sweden, compiling 37 points and nine goals in 54 games with fourth-place Farjestad.
Brunnstrom came over to Dallas this summer to get an apartment and take part in some workouts with Stars like Mike Modano. He's still trying to get comfortable with American roadways. ("It's hard to drive the highway," he said. "I know it's really simple, just straight to the practice facility, but to keep on the right road … I don't know.") And he apologizes for his English although he speaks fluently.
This week is Brunnstrom's beginning as an NHL player. He'll go from this prospects camp to the Stars' main training camp this weekend.
"I'm really glad I'm here," said Brunnstrom. "It's been my dream since I was a little kid. I'll work hard and maybe I can play for Dallas."