Dropping the Ball The
soccer world's loss became the hockey world's gain for
Toronto's stellar defenceman.
By Daniel Squizzato | Photography by Matt Vardy
from a relatively small city in southern Sweden, you
might expect that Carl Gunnarsson would be
ill-equipped to handle life under the Toronto Maple
Or that, perhaps, the 26-year-old would wilt at the
thought of sold-out arenas and constant attention from
the fans and media of the largest hockey market in the
sport's ancestral homeland.
But as Gunnarsson will tell you, nothing could be
further from the truth.
"It's great. I think it's better to play on a
team that people care about than the other way
around," the Leafs defenceman says. "It's a lot
of pressure, a lot of media, a lot of focus on
the team, (but) you've got to be able to tune
that out to focus on what you have to do."
It's this sort of nose-to-the-grindstone
dedication that has helped propel many youthful
dreamers to the highest ranks of pro hockey.
Little surprise, then, that on the rare occasion
Gunnarsson managed to catch NHL games on TV
while growing up in Írebro (a town about two
hours west of Stockholm), he developed an
admiration for the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom.
"I'm kind of defensively minded, whether playing
just for fun or with a team," says Gunnarsson.
"As a kid, I was goalie for a bit too, and
that's as defensive as you can get."
Growing up in the shadows of the 700-year-old
castle that sits in the centre of his hometown,
perhaps Gunnarsson was destined to have that
defensive mindset. And considering his city is
known for an odd-looking tourist attraction (a
mushroom-shaped water tower known as Svampen),
maybe his eventual arrival in Toronto (home of
the CN Tower) was preordained by the hockey
But, in fact, nothing was guaranteed for
Gunnarsson. He played a variety of sports
growing up, developing a twin love for hockey
and soccer, but eventually needed to make a
tricky choice about where his athletic future
"I had a summer (at age 15) where I got some
tryouts with a couple of soccer teams, and
didn't really get the chance," says Gunnarsson.
But when his hometown hockey team, Írebro HK,
gave him an opportunity, he jumped at it.
"I was a junior guy, they picked me up and
wanted me to play, and that made me feel like I
really had the chance."
He would eventually move on to Linkopings in the
Swedish Elite League, where he'd play for three
seasons before making the jump to Toronto.
But though he left soccer behind, his
appreciation for that sport helped prepare him
for what was to come from the fans at the
highest level in Sweden.
"You get two groups,
you get the home team fans and then you've got the away team fans. The
home team fans, the hardcore ones, always do songs or chants, they're
screaming and yelling all the time."
The crowds in Sweden -- though smaller than those in most NHL rinks --
more closely resembled those at European soccer games than the crowds at
any arena in North America, says Gunnarsson.
use flags and all that stuff during games, they have pictures of the
players. They were doing a lot of different stuff (at Linkopings), it's
crazy to see it."
Gunnarsson didn't know what to expect when he was drafted by the Leafs in
2007, other than being excited at having been selected by an Original Six
franchise. Still, with years of songs, chants and flag-waving under his
belt, he was ready for the Toronto hockey machine -- or, at least, he
"Coming here for rookie camp and all that my first year, that was nuts. I
never expected it to be that crazy. I don't think I really realized that
before when I signed and before I got here," he says. "But it's awesome. I
think every player should get the opportunity to play here."
While Leafs pundits wring their hands about whether so-and-so free agent
could survive the Toronto hockey spotlight, one of the team's sturdiest
blue liners is reveling in it -- though he readily admits it's easier for
him to handle than it is for higher-profile teammates such as Dion Phaneuf
and Phil Kessel.
"I'm not a standout guy, people don't recognize me that much," he says.
"I'm kind of flying under the radar, I guess."
And is that just the way he likes it?
"Yeah, as long as the team is doing well, I don't care about attention
from whoever or wherever. I'm happy with being part of a team and trying
to do my best and hopefully we can have a good year coming up here and
give back to the fans."
Ah yes, Leafs fans. Enduring the club's longest-ever playoff drought, and
more likely these days to bring waffles and paper bags to the rink than
flags and banners. Yet amidst all that turmoil, Gunnarsson has been
steadily working for three years to improve his game and increase the
chances of bringing playoff hockey back to Toronto.
"I would love to do that," Gunnarsson says. "Just starting to look forward
to next year. I think we've got a good group of guys, and if we can just
keep our confidence through the whole season, we can make it."
Statements like that are bound to bring more pressure to a team,
especially a success-starved one like the Leafs. But when that pressure
comes, you can expect Gunnarsson will be ready to handle it.