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Interview: Magnus Nygren on his concussion, journey home, and possible return to Montreal

One of the most promising offensive defencemen in the Montreal Canadiens' system a few years ago, Nygren sustained a serious concussion just as he was hitting his stride.

Färjestad BK

Magnus Nygren started off our conversation by apologizing for not answering the phone when I had tried to contact him earlier in the day. He had just woken up the day after Färjestad's first SHL quarter-final game (a 3-1 loss to Luleå). What follows is a thoughtful, honest, and open conversation.

Did you arrive home late last night?

Nah, it wasn't too bad, we had chartered a jet. But I couldn't sleep and it is nice to be able to catch up on sleep during the day.

Will you be watching the games tonight?

Of course. There is no chance that I'll miss them. I am a hockey nerd. It is almost as fun watching a game as playing one. There is nothing better you can watch on TV than a game of hockey, so I am watching every game I can. Now that the season has almost passed and we are in the playoffs, you don't really learn anything new about the other teams, but it is great to watch hockey, so I am watching every game possible.

What you can see is that most teams makes some changes in their style of play when it comes to playoffs. Even if you still play your kind of system all through the season, there are small changes in the post-season. The game becomes tighter, a bit more straight, tougher and dirtier, too. We might be playing the dirtiest team of the whole playoffs right now [Luleå]. It seems they are trying to get into the spirit of the '96 team that won the championship [with Tomas Holmström as a leader]. Yesterday things turned into their kind of game, so we need to be able to step away from that ... to focus more on hockey than to fall into their traps.

Do you have any favourite league, except maybe the Swedish league, that you watch at home?

Some leagues are easier to access than others. I watch a lot of NHL; KHL when it is on TV here in Sweden. I really want to watch the Swiss league [NLA], but their coverage is terrible here in Sweden, therefore it comes down to NHL and KHL most of the time.

How did you reach the decision to return the Sweden and the SHL?

I am really happy that I can be back at all, and that my body has recovered as well as it has from the concussion. It took such a long time.

The only team that really checked in and cared for me regularly during my recovery was Färjestad. For me it was clear that I wanted to pay back that concern and care they gave me, so it became the natural thing for me to sign with them. This was in order to find my game — my style of play — and to reach a new level, especially when the conclusion was that I wasn't going to stay over there [in North America].

"I wish that I would have been stronger to stand up and tell them I wasn't feeling good"

I was damned determined to do a whole season over there, and I had a really great time before the big hit. I also felt that it wasn't that much further to go before I would get that call-up to Montreal. In the middle of all that, I got hit, and you start to rethink everything.

When you are down eight-to-ten months, you start to get another perspective of life and hockey. You start valuing different things than what you used to. That brought me to signing for Färjestad; and I have absolutely no regrets in doing so.

I mean I am not that old, and I believe that if I continue to play well there is still a chance that I can return down the line. Montreal decided to renew my rights and I think that is a very positive sign. Some might see it as "you didn't get the chance before" and" it will be tougher," but, from my point of view, I can only see that as a positive sign. To me it means that they do see something that maybe down the line can help, given the development, and if they hadn't seen that, they wouldn't have renewed the rights. I am happy they did. I am also happy to play in Färjestad, and I believe that Montreal keeps an eye on me every now and then. It feels good.

Your return: has it been like you expected? Has the level of the teams improved? What is different? You are a Karlstad [Färjestad] guy through and through. I don't think many teams have a chance to lure you away, even if they surely must want to?

Oh they try! [laughs] I think it's a huge difference now compared to when I left: The SHL has become much, much better. There are more clubs that really go for it; to try and win the cup. There are more top players: Swedish top players and foreign top players. It used to be that it was one-and-a-half to two lines that held absolute top class, now I have to think that it is almost three lines on all teams, and in some teams there are even four lines that are at that level.

I said it before and I will say it again, and it is something I firmly believe in: SHL has never been this good, ever! And I don't think it has ever been this even. I think the proof here is that if you look at the table, even with Frölunda and Skellefteå running away a bit before the playoffs, I don't think it has ever been this even between the second- to sixth-placed team.

I shouldn't say that I'm surprised, but I am very happy that the development of the league has gone the right way in regards to Swedish hockey and the SHL.

Could you take us through the impact that set off the concussion to the end of your recovery? It's a story that hasn't really been told over in Canada.

To start it off, I was drained at the end of that shift, so there was nothing I did in order to actually protect myself. I was just thinking about getting the puck away and to go and change. I got hit, his shoulder pad hit the tip of my chin, and because of that I was more or less catapulted into the plexiglass. In our home arena, Copps [Coliseum, now FirstOntario Centre], the plexiglass was quite stiff and it didn't really benefit me at that time. In the end, it was more of a double effect, and the biggest problem was maybe not the hit itself, but rather that I went out and played directly again. I actually played the whole game, and the hit was in middle of the second period, so I had more than half the game to go. Then it went to overtime.... So I played the whole game and then I tried to do a practice on the Monday after the game. It wasn't, in retrospect, one of my brightest ideas.

I suffered because of those decisions for a long time after the game. I wish that I would have been stronger to stand up and tell them I wasn't feeling good, but also I was in a moment where things were starting to go my way, both on and off the ice. The last thing you want in a moment like that is to get injured. I wanted to be there to help the team as much as possible, as well as putting myself in a better position for the future.

I had, like everyone else, heard whispers about a call-up, and that made me feel like I could have played with a broken leg at that time. Just to show that no one would take my place, and that I wouldn't be pushed around, I was thinking 'this is my time.'

I felt I was getting into it all over there; I got more responsibilities from the coaches ... I had a great time. In that regard, that concussion ... they never come at a good moment, but that one was extremely badly timed. But a concussion is not something you can choose to have at a certain time in life. 

The recovery process, that took quite some time as well, was it one doctor, or different doctors? What really happened?

At the start it was only the Bulldogs' own doctor, and after a while Montreal wanted to check what really was going on. I got the chance to meet Dr. [Michael] Mazurek of McMaster University Department of Medicine. I just believed in everything he said. He is a warm, honest person. He is also very interested in hockey, so he knew who I was and knew all my teammates, and that helped in some ways for him to gain my confidence.

In the end, I just absorbed everything he said. He almost felt like an extra dad, which was great for when I was feeling down. He was the one that made the decision to cut the season short, and for me to fly home to Sweden. His idea was that, as long as I stay in Hamilton, the only thing that would be on my mind would be sitting and hoping for a miraculous recovery when I woke up the next morning, so I could put on my gear and go down to the rink and play.

He saw how I really wanted to play, and that mentality would only slow down the recovery process. "Just leave your hockey gear here and fly home." That's what he said. When he decided that, it was him that called up Montreal to tell them that, and, in collaboration with Montreal, that was the solution we all decided upon.

I didn't need much to gain confidence from someone at that time, but this was needed; there is nothing that helps in regards to recovery from a concussion. It also felt good that it was him driving this. I had been hoping for someone to make the final decision, and when he did just that, it was easy for me to just follow along, and that was probably what Montreal, as an organization, was waiting for as well.

After he came into the picture, everything went very fast and it took just a few days before I was on an airplane on my way home to Sweden. In hindsight, it was the best decision someone has taken for me during my whole life. To come home and to be with your family and not think about hockey at all ... it was needed and I couldn't really think about getting back on the ice — I wasn't even in the same country anymore!

When he decided to cancel my season for me, it felt like a peacefulness came over me and I could let go of hockey. I had been sitting and hoping for a quick return, to wake up one morning, be good to play my game, have a laugh with the guys, and be that leader that I was pre-injury. But when I had that decision made for me, I felt it was the best possible solution. I was still suffering for another three-to-four months after I returned home, so no matter what had happened, I wouldn't have played anymore that season either way.

I would assume it was good to get out of the big city. Nature and the forests are close when you are in Karlstad.

Exactly, and what I did when I got home was actually to get out of Karlstad as well. It's a small city and many people know who you are, and I didn't really feel I could handle that bit either at the time. Therefore I wasn't home in Karlstad for that long; I went to other places. As you say, a bit outside, even further away sometimes to be alone with your girlfriend, your family, and friends. To just do simple, nice things; different things from what you normally do in a hockey life. Things I hadn't done for a hundred years.

Do you have any contact with any players in Montreal or the Canadiens organization at the moment?

I have a bit of contact with some of the guys over there. Jacob de la Rose is the guy I talk to most, but also Morgan Ellis, Tim Bozon, and Sven Andrighetto. I am a bit older than Jacob, but there was by no means a situation where I had to take care of him. We used to hang out, and it is obviously nice to be able to speak a bit of Swedish for a few hours every now and then.

"I would not hesitate at all for a return to Montreal."

In regards to the organization, there is not much discussion. I get along very well with Christer Rockström, who is a scout here for Montreal. We meet at games and he calls me up. We speak about everything. We have a great connection, and it is through him that I get to hear that they still have an eye on me. He is an incredibly honest person that I trust completely. Honesty might be both good and bad, but at least you know the truth at any given time.

You can't say it is something that might happen soon as I don't hear from anyone else in the organization. I believe that if I were to quit hockey and start working at ICA [a food chain in Sweden], Christer would still call to check in and talk with me. But that's the extent of it. It's not like Montreal calls me all the time and begs me to come over.

But you still follow Montreal when you are at home watching the NHL?

Of course. I try to see as many matches as I can, and if I can't catch them live I will at least watch the highlights in the morning. Sometimes I watch a full period on a recording. I love it when I can watch a full game, though. You can't really say anything but that it has been a roller-coaster ride this year: a flying start and then the complete opposite. I do believe that there is a strength and knowledge within the team. In the long run, I think it can have made the team stronger with the adversity that they have faced, and could you get through it, before it's too late, you can become a more powerful team.

Now they play because of pride, and you have to understand that when you get to Montreal, you play for pride more than anything else; for the badge on your chest. It might sound strange that it is me saying this, but I got that impression directly. You should be proud. You need to wear that badge with honour. If you don't do that, then you are not a fit for the organization.

It's a tough mentality for those who don't make it, and I include myself in this as I returned home, but I also think it's an amazing place to be. To succeed as a player in Montreal must be among the best things you can achieve in all of the NHL.

And you are open for a return to Montreal?

Absolutely. I would not hesitate at all for a return to Montreal. But it is up to me to present them with a reason, with good play, and Montreal needs to want me as well as there needs to be a position for me. I think it is a long way to get there, but I haven't given up one inch to make it.

Even if that means a stint in the AHL?

At present, it's not something that's close to happening, but it would depend a lot on how the contract is framed. You can sort of see the role they have for you and where you will spend the season in the way the contract is written. It is a difficult question, and I have not thought about it that much to give a good answer.

The second season in Hamilton, I thought things were going alright, and with that in mind, why not? If you get a contract that you think is fair and the organization presents a good direction for your development.... Spontaneously, I wouldn't mind going over if these circumstances were all met.

Can you compare the AHL, SHL and KHL to each other? You have played in two of the leagues and you must have an opinion from watching KHL. I think it's a question quite a few would be interested in an answer to from someone that has been there.

Comparing these three leagues, I would say the KHL is the most skillful, in regards to the number of individually skilled players. The AHL might be the most north-south and the most physical. The SHL would be the most even, where the difference between the top and bottom team in the league is the least.

Nygren Photo credit: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo

I think that the KHL and AHL are quite similar in the regard that you have two, maybe two-and-a-half lines that are absolute top class, where you then fill up with another kind of player. And by that I don't mean worse hockey players, but rather a different type of player: role players, checking lines, and fighters, maybe.

There are quite a few teams in the AHL that have NHL-ready players in their lineup, and you can get blown away if you are not ready for that. Then you might end up facing the bottom two lines, which might just be out there to dump the puck and hit you hard, and they are very good at it as well. In that regard AHL is a very difficult league. In one way, and I am certain of it, many teams have fully developed NHL players, and then you face big burly forecheckers on the next change.

The KHL is similar in that regard, as they will fill up the rosters with domestic players that are on the way up through the ranks.

I spoke with Louis Leblanc earlier this season. You two played together in Hamilton, and he was happy to hear about your return to the ice. When he was in Bratislava he said "You are going to play against Russians that you have never heard of, and they are going to skate circles around you. You are going to be like 'wow, where did this guy come from?'" It seems they hold onto their domestic talent a lot longer.

Yes, And they get paid for it as well. I don't think it is that much of a difficult choice to stay in your native land when you get paid with a few more zeroes on your contract. They have that security, and many don't speak English, making a move to North America less attractive. In that regard it is much easier for us Swedes to cross the Atlantic when we don't get that big contract and we learn English from an early age.

I have a couple of questions left, and thank you for taking the time. It is very much appreciated by everyone. You should hear the Eyes On The Prize crew, when I speak about Sweden most of them start speaking about you, so you are not forgotten.

Oh no, not a problem at all. It makes me happy to hear that!

If we have a look at the Swedish World Cup team, with Erik Karlsson, your old colleague, we also have Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Klingberg and Victor Hedman among others. We could add you to the list. Why has this Swedish defence explosion happened? Is it all thanks to Niklas Lidström, or is it something else?

It is my belief that the recruitment of Swedish junior coaches has been amazing for quite a long time actually. Enormous resources have been expended on this task, along with a huge number of hours to develop skilled Swedish prospects — not only on the defensive side, but at every position.

Then we have to remember that their biggest development has been when they went over and took that step into the NHL. They are all drafted from among the elite talents, and have been given every chance to succeed and become the players that the NHL clubs want. This usually starts at a junior age: U18, U19, or somewhere thereabouts. You need to have a coach that believes in you, but also the coach needs to be authoritative and get the confidence of the players to believe in what they should be doing.

I feel that the guys that have really succeeded over there had that confidence. They believed much more in themselves than what I did at that age. It was at that time they took a bigger step forward than what I did at 18 to 20 years of age. I was maybe stomping at the same spot wondering a bit if I was to become a hockey player, and they just blossomed out.

I think that is something that is dependent on yourself and your strength. They never second guessed themselves, had a little bit of that attitude 'move over, I am here now,' whereas I was the guy that knocked on the door asking if I could play.

That has changed. Now I am one of those guys, as well. Or at least more than before, and you can see that in the roles I have been given on my teams [both in Hamilton and Färjestad], and I am the captain now in Färjestad. You wouldn't become that if you were a nice little boy that asked if you could be included. You have to take up some space. If you don't do that you get a left behind. No one calls you up and asks if you want to participate.

All over the world this has come to be the normal thing — all over society not just in hockey. You have to use your elbows, and a bit of attitude makes it a easier to succeed than to just be a good guy waiting to be included.

You have been here for a full season. You have played with and against some young talent within the SHL. Is there anyone that stands out, and that you see as a future NHL star?

I am totally convinced that Minnesota has drafted very well in regards to Joel Eriksson-Ek, and I am not just saying that because he plays for Färjestad and I'm coloured by that fact. I see him every day, and I have taken him a bit under my wing. He is so mature as a person, but also like I said 'move over, I am here now,' but still very humble. He works his ass off, and is very goal-orientated. I am convinced he will make it big. I think players like [Lukas] Vejdemo will make it, but Joel, he is a different kind of player: a bit burly, tough, hard, but he still has the hands and the vision and the shot. I think Joel almost has it all. He has his bed made for him in some ways. A lot of it is up to him, but that day he goes over — and I hope he is smart enough and waits for another year or two — I am convinced that there won't be that many AHL games played.

We saw with Mattias Janmark last year, that if you stay that year extra, you might not even need one.

That's true, but in that case you might need to be damn lucky. You might need some outside help as well in regards to open positions, and maybe even injuries during the pre-season. In that case it is up to you to really go for that position, and when they show you the little finger you really need to grab the whole hand.

In my case, Montreal was the best team to get drafted to in regards to position and contracts, but when I signed my contract, it might have been the worst in regards to contracts and open positions. There wasn't one open position even if you looked with a microscope. There might be even fewer positions open now, but that's the way it is. You need to get a bit of luck, a bounce here and there. But in the end, it all comes down to the fact that you need to be ready for it, and you have to be one hell of an ice hockey player.

Thank you for taking this time Magnus. I am happy to hear that all is good. Your return to the ice was something that made us all happy. We all love hockey and even as an opposing supporter in Sweden, your return was something I really appreciated.

Thank you, it is nice to hear that!

Good luck in the playoffs!

***

A big thank you to Magnus Nygren for taking this amount of time to talk to EOTP, and to Färjestad BK for helping out with facilitating it.