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Race to the Top: Carl Hagelin's unique impact on Michigan hockey

Hannah Chin/Daily
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BY CASANDRA PAGNI
Daily Sports Writer
Published February 20, 2011

That September day always tells a lot.

A longtime tradition of testing endurance, running up and down sets of stairs is not alien to most athletes. Sometimes used as punishment, other times for fitness evaluations, standing at the bottom and literally eyeing your task up and down, step by step, is daunting for anyone.

But the upperclassmen know what to expect. They’ve been there before, done it before. They’ve suffered through the pain and felt the pleasure of being done.

They are supposed to set the standard that day.

The captains pick teams before the races begin and the freshmen start behind everyone else. Already exhausted from the mile-run the day before, running stairs is a quick way to evaluate stamina. It’s something the Michigan hockey team has been doing for fitness testing for years.

Hit every step. Hit every other step. Do the bunny hop.

If you’re not puking up your lunch or guzzling down water, you’re stretching out your legs to get ready for the next round.

But this team doesn’t climb just any old set of stairs on that day — they have to conquer The Big House.

Starting at the bottom, Carl Hagelin was going to try give it his all. After passing a few of his teammates on the way up, he didn’t know what came over him. At one point, he felt like he was running for his life.

“What really put him in everyone’s eyes was when were in the stadium, with how good his conditioning was,” former Michigan defenseman and current Boston Bruin Steve Kampfer said. “To win every race that he was in (as a freshman) was phenomenal. For him to come in his first year and win every race and beat out the seniors and everyone down, it opened up eyes.”

The Swede’s record in Michigan Stadium is 60-0.

Four years ago, the Big House met a new all-star — though he preferred ice to turf.

***

New York Rangers draftee Carl Hagelin has made quite a name for himself in Ann Arbor.

But even with the multiple hockey influences around him — his father, Boris, was an avid fan when attending Western Michigan and his older brother, Bobbie, played professional hockey in Denmark — Carl juggled both soccer and hockey until he was a teenager.

Growing up in Sodertalje, Sweden, Carl was smaller than most of his peers. He didn’t hit a growth spurt until his late teens, so despite ambition and natural athleticism, he was constantly competing with the big boys in both sports.

All his teammates were bigger than him, but Carl also had his older brother to measure up to.

Four years older than Carl, Bobbie was a natural on the ice. A physical, skilled kid, Bobbie played two levels above his age group in Sweden and set the bar extremely high for his younger brother.

Carl was a talented hockey player. He scored a lot of points and made those smart plays that just can’t be taught. But none of that made up for the fact that he still played with his own age group.

He was a small kid — good, not great.

At 14 years old, with practices for both sports becoming too demanding, Carl had to pick. Would he be Sweden’s next Henrik Larsson? Or, would he follow the family tradition of lacing up skates each day?

With an insatiable love of anything athletic, he wasn’t about to let his size hold him back.

“I wasn’t that skilled in soccer, but if you play as a defensive midfielder, if you work hard and you win battles, you can get your striker’s ball,” Carl said. “I think that really helped me out on the ice. I really wanted to win battles, be strong on the boards. Now it’s just continued on, it comes with it still. I don’t think about working hard, it’s just there.”

Newly devoted to working out and getting stronger, and with Bobbie and his father as hockey mentors, Carl was finally rewarded for his decision.

“(Bobbie) taught me everything there is to know about working out and being committed to something,” Carl said. “He was a good hockey player himself growing up. We didn’t have that much contact because he was so much older, and he was hanging out with guys two years older than him. It was actually like a six-year, instead of a four-year gap. But then when I turned 14, 15, I started to realize all the time and hard work he put in to become a good hockey player.”

Playing as a forward on the Sodertalje J20 SuperElit team from 2005 to 2007, Carl scored 44 goals and tallied 51 assists in two seasons.