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High Ceiling

Mar 10, 2023
Written By: Randy Cleves

Statuesque Elmer Soderblom has lofty goals for himself as he tries to carve out his place in the Red Wings organization.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Elmer Soderblom is flummoxed.

Confronted by a spontaneous scenario in which a board game might determine the most competitive member of his family, the Red Wings’ prospect carefully contemplates his answer. For a player who takes pride in being resolutely tenacious, this calculated contest of wills has clearly caused him to waver.

“My dad might be the most competitive,” he says with some hesitation. “He gets really mad if he loses. But so do I. Everybody in the family is very competitive.”

Most of Sweden already knows this.

His mom, Susanne Rittedal Soderblom, was a contestant on the second season (1998) of Robinson, the Swedish version of Survivor which preceded the popular reality TV series that pits a group of contestants in an isolated location. She finished third in 2012 when she was one of 14 returning castaways for Robinson: Revanschen (Revenge), the last season to air on Sweden’s TV4.

“It’s one of Sweden’s most popular TV channels, so it was really fun to watch her,” he said. “She did really well. (Editor’s note: She made it to day 34). It was really cool to have mom on TV.”

His father, Martin Soderblom, played pro hockey in Sweden from 1985 until almost Elmer’s birth in 2001 – nearly two years after the arrival of older brother Arvid, now a goaltender in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. Their younger sister, Vera, is a freshman NCAA Division I basketball player at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

“Like most dads, he wanted his kids to be the best. But at the same time, he’s done a good job of making us realize that we are the ones who have to do the work,” Soderblom said. “So he hasn’t been a dad who is pushing all the time. He will share some tips and tricks but he allows us to do the work.”

And in the Soderblom clan, that’s a tall order.

If all three kids have big dreams, it’s because their parents have blessed them with good genes. At 6 feet, Vera is one of the taller players on her team. Arvid, who has split this season between the Rockford IceHogs and the NHL, has good size for a goalie at 6-foot-3. But next to them, Elmer is practically a giant because he stands 6-foot-8, just one inch shorter than Zdeno Chara, the tallest player in NHL history.

Height has been his albatross but also an asset that could work to his advantage.

“It takes more time to get used to your body when you are so tall,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been working on since I started growing. In order to control your body, it’s something that you have to practice every day and just stick to it.”

Elmer quickly outgrew his older brother.

“I think I started using my dad’s skates when I was about 12 years old,” he said. “My feet grew really fast. I think I had to go up a size every season. I’d go up a size, up a size, up a size. It was crazy. Eventually, I started using custom skates that would fit my feet.

“Sometimes it’s not so beneficial to be taller. It’s tough to find the things you want. Sometimes you just have to go with what fits. If you go up a size, it only gets bigger in the body, so you end with everything too short. You learn not to complain so much.”

Although the brothers played on the same team when they were young, Elmer eventually played with boys in his age group. The brothers continued to practice together in the shooting area that they had set up in their backyard, with Arvid occasionally putting on goalie gear to do his best to stop his little brother’s shots.

Their father had been a defenseman, but neither son had any interest in playing on the blue line.

“I was a forward from the time I stepped on the ice. I liked the feeling of scoring goals so I stuck to playing forward from day one,” said Soderblom, who admired Peter Forsberg growing up. “I felt like the style of forward suited me better. Even though as a big man, you could argue that I should have been a D-man, I always liked playing forward because it meant that I could be a little more offensive.”

As a teenager, Soderblom developed in Frolunda’s junior program, which is known for producing more than its share of elite hockey players. He quickly became as known for his stickhandling as for his size, developing the great hands of a goalscorer and not just being a colossal competitor who crashed the net.

“Growing up, I always had patience,” he said. “I was in a really good organization in Frolunda, so I knew if I kept working and played my game and continued to develop, I would have a pretty good chance of playing for the ‘A’ team there, and that’s what happened.”

Still, he was considered a work-in-progress, even after scoring at a goal-per-game pace at ages 15 and 16. Those signs of potential were enough to convince the Red Wings to select Soderblom in the sixth round (No. 159 overall) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

“Getting drafted was a really cool feeling, especially getting drafted by an organization like Detroit,” he said, noting the number of Swedes who had excelled in a Red Wings jersey. “I was super-honored and happy to see my name on the screen.”

Soderblom led his team in scoring during his last season at the junior level. In 36 games during the 2019-20 season, he tallied 29 goals and 26 assists for 55 points, which placed him fourth in league scoring in Sweden’s J20 SuperElit.

But he struggled a bit after jumping to Frolunda’s top club during the 2020-21 campaign. In 28 games, he recorded three goals and two assists.

“When you’re a young talent, you don’t get much ice time,” he said. “In Sweden, teams only dress 13 forwards and sometimes you’re the 13th forward, so you get only a limited amount of ice time, which means that it’s hard to find your game.”

Even so, he showed flashes of brilliance. During the 2021 World Junior Championship, he scored a highlight-reel goal when he backhanded the puck between his legs to score a third-period, power-play goal against Team Czech Republic.

“That was amazing,” he said. “I felt like I had the time to be able to try it and it just happened. I think it gave me a little breakthrough because it happened on a big stage where you can show off your game. I was really happy with my performance during the World Juniors.”

Soderblom continued to shine last season, his first full year in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). He led Frolunda in goal-scoring, posting 21 lamplighters along with 12 helpers in 51 games. “As soon as I started to get more ice time and get the feel for it, things started to go pretty well,” he said. “I felt like I could play my own game. I started to play really well and get some points, which felt good.”

When he is playing his best, Soderblom is using his size and his substantial skill to his advantage.

“I like scoring goals and last year I think I shot the puck more,” he said. “I was playing with good players and I got to play on the power play, so a lot of things just clicked. It turned out to be a really good season for me.”

Bolstered by newfound confidence, he signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Red Wings last June.

“I was really excited about coming [to the U.S.],” he said. “Of course, I was nervous about moving from Sweden because it was something new, but at the same time, I was pumped up because it was an opportunity to show what I can do. It felt like a big opportunity to learn and take new steps.”

Soderblom had been listening closely to the advice and amiable admonitions of Niklas Kronwall, the former Detroit defenseman who now serves as the Red Wings’ surrogate coach in Sweden for the numerous young prospects playing there.

He might have been as surprised as anyone when he made the Red Wings’ opening night roster, although he was not shocked.

“My goal, of course, was to earn a spot, but I didn’t know how it would go because I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I just played the best that I could and did what I could to show what I’ve got. It turned out pretty well when I took a spot in the lineup on opening night.”

He hardly could have imagined a better introduction to the NHL. He scored what proved to be the game-winning goal when his third-period tally led the Red Wings to a 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens at Little Caesars Arena.

“It was almost too much to take in because it was my first NHL game and it was also a home game in front of the Detroit fans,” he said. “The year before I was playing in the SHL and two years ago, I was in the junior league in Sweden. It’s cool how fast things happened.

“I was just really honored to be out there. On top of that, scoring my first goal in my first game was extra special. I’m really happy about that. I’m sure I will remember it for a long time.”

Watching the replay of his first NHL goal, one wonders who was happier: his parents who were in attendance or Soderblom himself, who seemed delighted in his good fortune after knocking in the rebound of a Michael Rasmussen wraparound to break a scoreless tie. “Before the game, they told me just to relax and enjoy it, have fun,” he said.

Soderblom appeared in 21 games for Detroit, notching five goals and three assists, before being assigned to Grand Rapids in early January. He had previously appeared in two December games with the Griffins during a brief conditioning stint following a lower-body injury.

“I think I could have played better,” Soderblom said, reflecting on his start with the Red Wings. “I think maybe I was afraid to make mistakes. I need to play my game and keep working to get back there.”

He agrees that it was a challenge to adjust to the way that hockey is played in North America but suggests that the game here works in his favor.

“The ice is so much smaller, but I think it suits me,” he said.” It brings me closer to the net and I can take shots from almost every angle. I think I’ve adjusted to the smaller ice. I like it.”

It is inevitably a disappointment for any player to be told that he needs to improve to play in the NHL, but Soderblom insists that he is determined to “stay positive and just work hard.” He is, after all, still a 21-year-old rookie who needs to learn how to use his considerable skill. “They want me to use my size and play more physical,” he said.

Soderblom scored four goals in a three-game span for the Griffins after going scoreless in his first six games with the team. Still, he knows that his play will not be judged on points alone.

“The game without the puck is important, too,” he said. “I need to move my feet, I need to improve my play without the puck and be reliable defensively, so the coaches trust me out there. At the same time, I need to play with an edge. I want to use my size and use the things that I am good at. You need to find something to bring to the team every night.

“I want to be a special player.”

Soderblom already stands head and shoulders above other players. Now he wants to play like it.

“Things are starting to click now,” he said. “I want to help this team win while I develop as a player. I’m just trying to be my best and to improve every day to become a better player.

“Hopefully, sooner or later, I will be back up there.”