The other kids in the neighborhood looked down on Magnus Hellberg — both literally and figuratively. They were older. They were bigger. But they included him in their game.
“Every time we played street hockey, I was the youngest, and they forced me into the net,” he said. “After a while, I thought it was fun, and I was pretty good at it. So I just kept going that direction.”
That direction, it turned out, was up.
Years later, he stands 6-foot-5, which makes him one of the tallest people in any room he enters. At 20, he is two years older than the vast majority of players selected in the 2011 NHL draft. More than ever, though, people — the Nashville Predators in particular — want him in goal.
The Predators took Hellberg with their first selection (38th overall) and made him the first goalie picked overall in the draft. In so doing, they added him to an organizational depth chart topped by the tallest goalie tandem in NHL history: 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne and 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback.
In no way do they believe they got stuck with him the way others once did.
“We’re sort of evolving that position with Rinne and Lindback and Hellberg now,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re all big, big guys. Goaltending is sort of the backbone of us. It’s really, really strong.”
Hellberg grew up in Uppsala, the fourth-largest city in Sweden. It is divided between east and west by the Fyris River and is home to Scandinavia’s largest church, the Domkyra. He has an older sister who was athletic in her own right, and his early focus was on involvement more than specialization.
“I played a lot of sports when I was young,” he said. “I tested a lot of different things like soccer, hockey, tennis, some Thai boxing. I like to try a lot of stuff. Then I was good in soccer and hockey until I was 15, and they both took so much time. So I had to choose.”
The watershed moment came when he was about to enter high school. Having weighed all the relevant factors, he made his decision the way a lot of other teenage boys might have: He saw a way to lighten his class load.
“When we began high school, you could choose to go into a hockey class — to practice hockey during the day,” he said. “That was one year before the soccer began. So I got into the hockey class, and I just grew away from soccer, because all my friends were hockey buddies and we spent a lot of time together.”
Yet the decision was not universally endorsed. In fact, it still has not been.
“Some people who know me from back then tell me, ‘Man, you should have gone with soccer. You were pretty good at it,’ ” Hellberg said. “Hockey is a tough sport, and you have to put a lot of time into it, and that’s something I like to do.”
So much so, in fact, that he was willing to stick with it even when it seemed to offer little future. At 18, the typical NHL draft age, he was relatively anonymous in the hockey world. Even midway through the 2010-11 season, he was not listed among the European goalie prospects by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service.
Playing in Sweden’s second division, though, his performance over the second half of last season began to attract attention. When the season-ending CSS rankings were released, shortly after his 20th birthday, Hellberg was No. 2 on the list of European goalie prospects.
“Some people say I’m a late bloomer, but I worked with a goalie coach a lot of he told me to be patient, that my time will come” he said. “I listened to him a lot, and it worked out pretty good last season.”
Hellberg was in St. Paul, Minn., a little more than a week ago. That worked out pretty well too, given that he heard his name called ahead of every other netminder, European or North American. And he’ll go back to Sweden this year, where he figures to play in that country’s top division. What happens after that depends on what the Predators need and what he wants.
“One year in Sweden is not going to hurt,” Hellberg said. “It’s going to be good for me, and I don’t think so much into the future. I try to be in the present and focus on each training and each day one step at a time.”
There is every reason — or at least two — to believe that a return to Europe is the appropriate next step.
Lindback actually spent two years in Sweden after he was drafted. Rinne remained in Finland for one season before he came to North America.
“I think the thing that’s really intriguing about [Hellberg] — the obvious thing — is just how similar he is to the guys we have,” Nashville’s chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty said. “It’s kind of a formula that’s worked. He played last year on the same team that Lindback was playing on when we drafted him. Same
stature. Same athleticism.
“He came on late as a 20-year-old, a late bloomer. We look at it as everybody develops at different stages.”
Some, of course, never develop at all. Of all the kids who played those street hockey games, when he was “forced” to play goalie, Magnus Hellberg is the only one who is now a pro.