April 1, 2011
Gustav Nyquist was just starting to wind down. With the possibility of his University of Maine Black Bears making the postseason looking pretty slim, Nyquist took some time to make a decision about his hockey future. Within a few hours of making that decision, he found himself on a plane to Texas, where he made his professional hockey debut for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“It all happened really quick, I think the contract was done late Thursday night,” said Nyquist, who signed an entry-level contract with the Detroit Red Wings before inking an amateur tryout contract to join the Griffins for the rest of the season. “They called me and said they had a plane ready for me Friday morning. I went down there at 4:30 and played at 7:00.”
Upon signing, Nyquist was rushed down to Cedar Park, Texas, where he played his first two AHL games, notching an assist in his first game and adding a goal the following night.
“It was long and stressful, but also fun,” recounted Nyquist. “That was a blast.”
The hectic day provides Nyquist with one of the more unique stories surrounding a professional debut. Perhaps it's fitting for a player on a unique career path in general: Nyquist is one of just 13 Swedish players who played NCAA DIV. I hockey this season.
“I've always thought education is important,” Nyquist said. “In Sweden, you can't really do both, you have to choose if you want to go to school, or if you want to play hockey.”
In doing so, Nyquist had to stick to the Swedish junior leagues for a few years, turning down the opportunity to make money and play professionally in Sweden in order to maintain college eligibility. Education is something Nyquist, a finance major, takes seriously, and he felt the University of Maine was the right fit for him.
“I felt really comfortable with all the coaches there,” explained Nyquist. “I liked the teammates and coaches up there, and the fact that it's the biggest sport around. I think we sell out almost every night at home. That's probably the biggest reason I decided to go.”
One of the concessions Nyquist made in deciding to make the jump from Sweden to Maine was less exposure for the NHL Entry Draft. Most top prospects in Sweden see some exposure on the professional level in their draft year. Nyquist didn't get selected in his first pass through the draft, but was selected by the Detroit Red Wings with the 121st pick of the 2008 draft.
“I had higher hopes that year than my first year, but I didn't really expect anything,” said the 21-year-old. “I was really happy since Detroit was my favorite team growing up, mostly because of all the Swedes there. It's a huge honor to be drafted by them.”
Nyquist wasted no time in making himself known to the hockey world, putting up 32 points (13-19—32) in 38 games as a freshman. For his efforts, he was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team, proof of his quick adjustment to North America.
“In Sweden, it's more of a trap game,” said Nyquist. “In college, you get to forecheck and backcheck hard, exchanging chances for and against. It's a lot more physical here as well, there are a lot more hits.”
In three years with Maine, he recorded 144 points (50-94—144) in 113 games, including 61 points (19-42—61) to lead the nation in both assists and points as a sophomore. That led to a Hobey Baker nomination, awarded to the top player in college hockey, a feat he accomplished again this season.
“It's such an honor to be nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, and luckily I was nominated again this year,” said Nyquist. “It's tough to expect a thing like that because it's such a big honor, but it's a lot of fun to be nominated.”
His success led him to a difficult decision that many top prospects face. Players such as former Jimmy Howard, Justin Abdelkader, and current Griffin Brendan Smith have signed contracts following their junior seasons in order to accelerate their development.
“It's been an unbelievable three years, and I have everything in the world to thank them for that,” said Nyquist.
Although he's joining a new team very late in the season, Nyquist is familiar with some of the player's on the team already. He played with fellow Swede Joakim Andersson for the country's national team, and met a few more while participating in a few summer prospect camps held by the Red Wings.
“I think all the guys have been really nice to me and have taken care of me so far,” said Nyquist. “They seem like a great group of guys and it's going to be fun to join them here for the last stretch.”
Nyquist was familiar with coach Curt Fraser from the camps, which helped Fraser to know the best way to put him in the lineup on such short notice.
“His skill level is tops in college hockey,” said Fraser. “He's been in the top scorers all three years, he's a very talented young man. In the prospects camps, he's always looked strong. Now he's got a chance to familiarize himself in the American Hockey League in this handful of games left.”
Nyquist was a little bit surprised to learn that he was playing in the March 25 contest against Texas, just hours after joining the team.
“I didn't really know what to expect,” said the native of Halmstad, Sweden. “I was really happy when coach told me I was playing. I had a good opportunity out there. I had a lot of fun in the two games down there.”
After getting a few days of rest following the conclusion of his collegiate season, Nyquist came out with a lot of energy against the Stars and was able to contribute two points on the weekend. Some hard forechecking earned him his first career point in his first game, assisting on a goal by Andersson. He also added the lone tally in the Griffins 5-1 loss to Texas on March 26.
“Meech got it down low to Tardif, and he made a great centering pass to me,” Nyquist said of the goal. “I came down the middle and one-timed it, it went low glove. Unfortunately, it didn't mean much, but it was fun to get a goal.”
It's always difficult to tell how a player is going to adjust to the AHL after a collegiate career, but both Nyquist and Fraser thought his two-game debut showcased how Nyquist will be able to perform at this level.
“They're a lot stronger up here, we're playing against men,” said Nyquist. “It's tougher to protect the puck since they're stronger. It's tougher to get to the net.”
“I wasn't sure how he'd fit in,” explained Fraser. “The first game he didn't play too much, but the second game we played him a lot more. He looks like he's been here all year. He's one of those players whose talent and skill level makes it easier for him to fit in, because he can play with our guys. He's a good skater, he's smart, and he reads the ice really well.”
The late season experience will help ease Nyquist's transition to a full-time AHL role next season. His play at both ends of the ice gives the Griffins a boost as they attempt to force their way into the playoffs.
“Hopefully, this will give him enough experience so he'll be more than prepared to start strong next year and do the same things in this league that he did in college,” said Fraser.
“I'm going to have to work hard this summer and improve my strength, a lot of time in the gym hitting the weights,” said Nyquist of his future plans. “My biggest dream in life is to play for the Red Wings, and this is a good step along the way. It's been a really fun experience so far.”
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