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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. He ranks fifth on Sodertalje’s all time points list, fifth on its franchise goals list, and fourth on its all time goals-per-season list.

He made the right choice — hockey was in his blood.

A growth spurt around age 17 helped propel Carl’s speed — his newly-bigger body combined with his work ethic resulted in a lethal combination.

“His legs just got so explosive,” said Johan Ryd, one of Carl’s best friends and a Sodertalje native. “His last year of juniors back home, he was just unstoppable on that big ice. He has worked unbelievably hard to become a great skater. But he has that magical burst, that first couple strides that not a whole lot of players have. That came somewhere when he was 17, 18.”

This was the speed that propelled Carl up the Big House stairs as a freshman — and every year since then.

***

At the crack of dawn, Carl and Johan would get up, run outside and start immediately.

They woke half the neighborhood up, but it didn’t even faze them.

The game was called “power play,” partly because that’s literally what it was, but partly because they didn’t care what it was called.

As long as the two high-school age boys could play street hockey during their summer breaks, they were content.

“We always played street hockey,” Carl said. “We had some other neighbors that would join us. (Bobbie) was four years older, so every time he was there it got a little bit rougher. I usually started crying because he was rough on me, and then my mom always blamed Bobbie for being too mean. I was four years younger, and he was kind of early too in his development, so he was a lot bigger than me.”

On a court, five guys would play 3-on-2 for as much time as they could. If you gave up a goal, you got a minus. If you went minus-10, you were out. Johan — a current forward at St. Norberts — was always in goal.

Johan and Carl grew up next door to each other, living in old estate-style houses. There were only five or six houses nearby, but all the boys came out to play street hockey. Johan hypes it up every summer — talking about recruiting and even making a blog.

“Every morning at 8:30 or 9, whenever we had time, whenever we were off school, we would wake up, go out and we would play street hockey,” Johan said. “Every day. There was not a day that went by … I was always in net, and he was always shooting at me. We would play full Stanley Cup playoffs and playoffs in Sweden.”

Street hockey evolved into a full-on summer hockey league as the boys grew up. According to Boris, friends from other nearby towns would come to play, because not only was it entertainment, but it kept you moving and could help with your stick handling.

Spending entire summers playing hockey on an asphalt court with two nets is a memory both Carl and Johan will associate with growing up forever.

But there is another person Carl and Johan will always think of when they remember those summers — Carl’s uncle, Carl Axel.

Boris and Axel married two sisters and, as Axel lived nearby, he was very close to Carl and his family. Axel passed away while on vacation in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit, but will always remain a fixture of those long street hockey summer days.

A constant supporter of Carl both in and out of hockey, Axel used to peek his head outside of his house each summer morning and razz ‘em a little bit.

“(Axel) would come up and do some Swedish cheers,” Carl said. “We always had fun with that guy. He was always joking around, just being the funniest guy on the block. He did so many funny things. (When) he was watching us score, he would give us some celebrations we should do, some moves we should do even though he wasn’t really into hockey.”

Added Johan: “When his uncle lived next door to us, we would be up before everyone else in the neighborhood. He would always stick out his head and yell at us and cheer us on. Carl would always love it and play even harder because (Axel) was doing that.”

***

Thousands of kids have flocked to Ann Arbor to skate at the Red Berenson Hockey Camp during the summer.

The boys, who range between 10 and 17 years old, receive hands-on training with Michigan coach Red Berenson and the rest of the hockey staff, practice at Yost Ice Arena, show off their skills and then head home to brag to all their friends about the week.

Both of the Hagelin boys skated at Berenson’s camp, but Carl was 11 or 12 years old at the time and had no idea he would soon call the confines of Yost home.

Participants may be Michigan hockey fans for the rest of their lives because of the camp — but rarely does that week make them Michigan hockey players.

A lot of Swedish hockey players stay put to play professional hockey in their home country. To leave Sweden to play North American college hockey is a risk that many don’t take — that is, until Carl and some of his Sodertalje teammates started paving the way and made their moves pay off.

For Michigan, it was undoubtedly a gamble. Carl was still a smaller forward, he was shy and would be thousands of miles away from home — but it was a move the Wolverines were ready to make.

“It’s pretty amazing to look back, that there was a kid coming over from Sweden that he ends up playing for us,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “Now, because of Carl and the success of a few other Swedes … I think hopefully we’ll start seeing a few more. As a matter of fact, I was in Stockholm after The Big Chill, trying to find the next Carl Hagelin.”

His dad told him: “If you have the opportunity to play hockey at Michigan, you take it.” And after this conversation and a week in France mulling over the offers he had in front of him, there was no question about where Carl was headed.

***

Sixty minutes after hearing the Swedish national anthem played in Yost before his last regular season home game, Carl sent the seniors out on a bang.

“I can’t believe we’re almost done,” Carl said after the win.

Against Western Michigan, he muscled out two goals. With 40 seconds left in regulation and then again with just three seconds left in overtime. It was his time to do what he does best. Neither goal was pretty — the tying tally came off a soft wrist shot that hit a Bronco defenseman before passing Western Michigan goalie Jerry Kuhn, and the game-winner was a slap shot from the top of the left circle that sealed the win for the seniors.

But they were both goals by a player determined to impact the outcome, as he came up big when the Wolverines needed it most — twice.

“He plays with energy everyday but it seemed like he was trying to do something special,” Berenson said. “And we knew what that was, and obviously he did that. Maybe we have to play the Swedish national anthem every weekend.”

On senior night, with the Wolverines down by one near the end of the third, he took over the game when the team needed someone.

All this in front of his parents, in front of a crowd so appreciative of his four years that students signed the Swedish flag that flew proudly in the Yost crowd after every goal, in front of his teammates.

He wasn’t just good on senior night. He was great.

“I just told him, ‘Aren’t you glad you came to Michigan’, and ‘Aren’t we glad that you came,’ ” Berenson said. “He’s set a standard here. He’s been a terrific kid, student, player, teammate, just a terrific kid. He’s the first Swedish player we’ve had, and we’ll always remember him.”

***

Sitting at Espresso Royale on State Street, his out-dated, tiny flip-phone vibrates on the table.

Carl answers, and in less than 10 words, makes plans for the evening.

“Yo. (pause) Oh yeah. At Langer’s? (pause) Yeah, I’ll go to Langer’s (senior defenseman Chad Langlais’ house).”

They don’t need to say much. Best friends just know.

***

The Italian kid from Ontario makes friends no matter where he goes.

The sound of his constant laughter, his slight Canadian accent, or one flash of his smile is enough to make anyone feel instantly at ease. A jokester who has strong values and loves to talk, Louie Caporusso is a people person.

But when Carl came to Michigan, he was reserved. He was the foreigner who would only jump into conversations when he was absolutely certain he knew what he was going to say, even though his “hockey English” was good.

With high-profile players like Max Pacioretty and Aaron Palushaj headlining the freshman class, Carl was one of the freshmen the rest of the team knew the least about coming in. A quiet guy who was always concentrated on giving 100-percent, he spent much of his freshman year closed up.

As a senior and a two-time captain, he still isn’t the rah-rah, speech-in-the-locker room kind of person. A true leader by example, once inside of Yost, Carl is nothing but focused.

But thanks in large part to Louie, Carl also knows how to let up. According to Kampfer, he’s a “goof away from the rink.”

Now comfortable in his own skin and confident in himself, he knows how to have a good time.

“But as Red says, ‘(Carl’s) been North Americanized,’ ” Powers said. “He’s more comfortable now communicating with people. He’s normally quite shy, and with home being so far away, I think his first couple of years was a feeling out process. Once him and Louie identified themselves as really good friends, Carl had no choice. He was going to come out of his shell because of Louie.”

They met at freshman orientation on Carl’s birthday. Both born away from the U.S., the foreigners bond was one that both united them instantly and has kept them close since.

Louie visited Carl and his family in Sweden this past summer and has plans to return this summer with their other best friend, Matt Turner. Matt and Louie even took part in a few games of power play during their trip to Sodertalje.

And Carl has been up to Ontario multiple times. He can’t get enough of Mrs. Caporusso’s cooking when he’s there.

“I was comfortable talking to (Louie), so freshman year when it was just me and him, I talked a lot,” Carl said. “He’s never made fun of my Swedish accent or anything, which probably helped a lot. I felt comfortable talking to him.”

Now, roommates for the past three years and best friends, neither of them can stop talking.

“Louie and Carl, they’re one person,” former Michigan defenseman and current Phoenix Coyote Chris Summers said. “They are always kind of playing off each other, whether it’s an inside joke … even during plays during practice and in games, you can definitely tell that these two have something that really just connects between them and there is something (there) that really works.”

They’re movie guys. They’re hockey guys. They’re play-FIFA-to-unwind guys.

But even with Carl’s soccer history, their FIFA competitions are pretty even.

“We go through eras,” Caporusso said. “I’ll give the edge to him, though. But only because he’s European.”

Most importantly, they’re both family guys.

“We live (life) the same way, try to enjoy every day but also be serious when it comes to hockey,” Carl said. “It’s important that family is your biggest thing and we both have that. I think that
really makes us click.”

***

It was four years after racing up his first set of stairs as a Wolverine.

Eight minutes into the second period and the Wolverines led 2-0. Off a faceoff in the Michigan State zone and on the power play, Brandon Burlon ripped a laser from the point that bounced off Drew Palmisano’s pads.

On the rebound, Carl put it over Palmisano and the crowd went crazy.

He was in the right place at the right time — literally to the right of a sprawled out goaltender.

Skating around the back of the goal, he threw his hands up in celebration. He lifted his left leg, extended his left arm and used his stick as the bow of a violin, sliding it back and forth across his arm four times before his teammates bombarded him against the glass.

Carl had just scored his eighth goal of the season, and this one was not only in front of his entire family and all his friends, both adorned in custom-made maize jerseys with Sweden on the front and Hagelin on the back — it was in front of a world record crowd.

“Two of my cousins (came from Sweden) and one of them said ‘You should do the violin, (Axel) would’ve loved it,’ ” Carl said. “So we talked before, and said ‘That would be great, my dad would’ve loved if you did that.’ We were kind of joking around then. But when I scored, I felt like that was the right thing to do.”

For those few seconds as his stick was used in celebration, the goal wasn’t just about hockey. For Carl, the violin was something much bigger — it was about family and heritage.

It was about where he came from and where he’s going.

It was about Carl Axel.

“His cousin told me, with tears in his eyes … that (Carl’s celebration) was something for his uncle,” Turner said.

This wasn’t any regular sort of game, though it was no surprise that Hagelin played hero here too.

“I think it was just exciting the whole weekend when I had all the people there and my brother showed up, my sister, my mom and dad and their friends,” Carl said. “They were all talking about how excited they were, they were probably more excited than I was. That night is just something I’m going to remember my entire life and something I’m going to tell my kids for sure.”

This was The Big Chill at the Big House. This was in front of a Guinness World Record 104,173 people.

And Carl made everyone in Michigan Stadium take notice once again.


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