March 24 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) reacts back to the crowd after scoring against the Vancouver Canucks early in the first period of the game at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
Gabriel Landeskog was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and immediately a lot was expected from the youngster. A lot of people know the story by now: here was this kid who was so determined to make the NHL that, at sixteen, he was able to convince his mother to let him leave Sweden and go to Ontario, Canada to play in their Junior league, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
He was drafted by the Kitchener Rangers because of his level of intensity during a previous tournament. Steve Spott, who is a coach for the Kitchener Rangers, was one of the Canadian coaches at the world Under-18 championships in 2009. He saw Gabe, who was under-aged at the tournament, and immediately tried to get him. How did Gabe make such an impression? By being, well, intimidating in an environment that he should have been intimidated in. He was 15 years old playing against guys who were a few years older, something he was already used to doing. Not only was he not intimidated, he was trying to intimidate the other bench.
Steve Spott, who was an assistant for Team Canada in 2009, said, "He was in front of the net on the power play and he scored. He came by our bench, he had a full mask on, and he stared down our bench. And he does that as an underage in a very competitive tournament.
"In the back of my mind I kind of said, ‘Who's that cocky Swedish kid?' When I got back to my hotel room I thought, ‘I'd better find out'."
Spott wasn't wrong. In fact, by the time he was sixteen, Landeskog was one of the youngest players to ever play for the Swedish Elitserien, and he was the youngest to ever play for Djurgården. The thing that has always shone through—and what he has always prided himself on—is his work ethic. Once he made the move to Ontario, that work ethic didn't disappear. Gabe worked hard and made the Rangers look fantastic for picking him.
Landeskog likes being the first at everything. During his second year on the Kitchener Rangers, he became the first European-born player to wear the "C". He played in every situation for the Rangers. He is a European who has more of a typical "North-American" feel. He hits and grinds, has had a fight or two, and is not afraid to play the corners. This trend started when he was thirteen.
"I think it all started when we were allowed to hit (in Sweden) at age 13," Landeskog said. "My dad used to play, and he was a big, physical defenseman and he gave me advice. He said, 'It's not bad to play physical, and it's an asset to your game.' I started young and came along with it and have been using (that physical approach) to my advantage now."
While in Kitchener, he got a reputation for never giving up. He could change the game in an instant. When he was on the ice, there was a noticeable difference in the way the rest of the team played. They looked to him to lead on the ice and off. He also has continually worked hard since the third grade to learn English. So much so that he has little Swedish accent left and has more of a Canadian accent. In fact, his OHL coach at the time said his English skills were superior to a number of guys on the team.
His father is a driving force in his life.
"He’s been really big for me. He’s not only been there for me after games and tournaments, but he’s also been there teaching me about life outside of hockey: how you take success and how you handle that kind of stuff and handle yourself off the ice to get to that next level," Landeskog said. "As a player, he was a tough defenseman and I think that taught me a lot about that defensive type of game. You can’t only be playing that one side of the ice—you have to play on both sides of the rink."
His work ethic also applied to his off ice accomplishments. He had the best grades on the entire Kitchener Rangers team, all while netting 36 goals in 53 games (66 points total) in his second, and last, season in the OHL. He also showed his gritty side, getting 61 penalty minutes in those games. If you compare it to his first season in the OHL, it's pretty astounding. During his first season he recorded 24 goals and 22 points in 61 games.
Going into the NHL draft, he was hailed as being the most NHL ready. He was described as gritty, determined, physical, tough and mean. They didn't mention his puck possession skills, his intelligence, and his play-making abilities. Mid-season he was ranked number one. However, he injured his ankle and had to fight his way back; after his injury, though, his ranking dropped. While many Colorado fans watched his points and were hoping that the Avalanche would draft him, he was watching the NHL standings with curiosity. Gabe admitted to watching the Avalanche slip in the standings. He wasn't disappointed about this at all. While he may not have done the fist pump à la Matt Duchene, he was thinking about it before the Avalanche season ended, and well before the Draft.
"I was pretty excited when I saw the Avs started slipping. It was one of my favorite teams growing up. They've always been a team that I've been watching and keeping an eye on. When I saw them starting to lose, you obviously never want a team to lose and do bad, but that was the one team that I was crossing my fingers and kinda hoping for. It worked out well."
As expected, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was drafted first by the Edmonton Oilers. Then it was the Avalanche's turn and they called the Swedish phenom. Once the pictures were taken, Gabe went to see everyone around the Colorado table and waiting for him was a very special phone call. Peter Forsberg was on the other line, waiting to welcome him to the organization, anxiously wanting to tell him how special Denver was. Peter Forsberg was one of his idols growing up and a player that he has tried to mold his game after.
"I've been looking up to him for so long and he's been such an inspiration for me, and obviously one of the best players in the world," Landeskog said.
Although he was said to be the most NHL ready, the jump from any Junior team to the NHL can be a big one. There are a few differences. One is that you are no longer playing against guys that are within a two to three year age gap. You are playing with, and against, guys who can be upwards of 20 years your senior (as a 18 year old rookie), and in a few rare cases even more than that. The biggest difference that Gabe found, though, was the speed of the game.
"I mean, the speed of the game is so much faster. You gotta think ahead of time. Always. You have to be ready. You have to know what to do when you get the puck and that sort of stuff. It's something you learn as you go along, it's not anything you can prepare for, really. You know, my summer workouts I'd always try to focus on just maximizing the intensity and that sort of stuff to try to be ready for the intensity. The quickness of the game, you gotta get quicker. I gotta get stronger, and a better shot, and everything. So there's always parts that you need to get better at. That's stuff we work on everyday together at practice."
Between the draft and his first game, Gabriel managed to gain about 10 pounds on his 6'1 frame. Any player will tell you that his first NHL game is special. Gabe's truly was. It was against the Detroit Red Wings on the night that the Colorado Avalanche raised Peter Forsberg's number to the arena's roof.
While most players also say their first NHL goal is special, Gabe's first goal is more memorable than special—it went off his skate. He kept the stick from his "second" NHL goal, and that is his memorabilia. Those goals, for two different reasons, are special.
Gabe's a very physical player, but one who likes to shoot the puck a lot. This past season he made a massive 219 hits and took a whopping 270 shots! To put it in perspective, the guy second on the team for shots taken is Paul Stastny with 190. The amount of shots that Landeskog took ranked him 15th in the NHL. There have been 6 rookies (aged 18 or 19) to get more than 225 shots on goal their first year: Wayne Gretzky (1980), Dale Hawerchuk (1982) , Bob Carpenter (1982) , Sylvain Turgeon (1984), Sidney Crosby (2006) , and now, Gabriel Landeskog (2012). That's some pretty good company.
His hard work ethic is still there, and Landeskog says his regular line partner, Ryan O`Reilly, has the same work ethic.
He said, "It's tough to pinpoint one thing, but we both like to work hard. We're not trying to be to fancy out there. We're just trying to communicate a lot out there on the ice which is a big part of it. Off the ice as well and we work hard and stick to the game plan and work hard and then, he's a great player."
This season with the Avalanche, Gabe has played in every situation. He averaged about 1:20 per game on the penalty kill, 2:09 on the power play and 15:07 at even strength.
"I'm pretty fortunate to get that opportunity. Every time you get an opportunity you want to be able to show the coach and the coaching staff that you should be out there. You want to give your all. You try and contribute to the team, like I said before. Not every rookie in the league gets that opportunity so I'm pretty fortunate to get that, but at the same time you gotta earn that as well. I think, probably hard work is the best key to get that opportunity."
Gabe played in every game for the Avalanche this year. There was a close call on breaking that streak on March 12th. He had the flu and was on IV fluids for a few hours before getting geared up and playing in the game. He wasn't having his best game, but he started a new craze called "Landeskoging" when he fell to his knees after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime.
"I didn't have any energy," Landeskog said. "Then when I scored I was just so relieved I fell to the ice".
One of the most impressive things about Gabe is that in his first year in the NHL, he already has pleasing his fans on his mind. He is known for throwing pucks to kids during warm ups, and he tirelessly signs autographs to anyone who asks. The whole time he truly seems to enjoy doing it, the smile never leaving his face. He also has an eye for giving back to the hockey community. At 18, his first year in the NHL, he already gave $2,500 to a Denver youth hockey club and got CCM, his sponsor, to match his donation with children's hockey gear.
He is eloquent and well-spoken; he thinks about what he is going to say. He wants to contribute to the team any way that he can. He doesn't aim for personal success. He wants the team to be successful. He is an unselfish player, who—and this is important—also knows when to keep the puck. His shot total proves that he is willing to take a shot if he sees or even thinks that he might have one. He plays in the crease, in the corners and along the boards and is defensively sound. He can play from one end of the ice to the other without being a liability. That is something that usually takes a player a couple of years to get their heads around. The scouts were right; he doesn't play like a 19-year-old. He will continue to thrive and strive to become a better NHL player both on and off the ice.