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Magazine > Celebrity
As seen in the Summer 2012 issue.

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

Coming 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 Leafs microscope.

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 gods.

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 would lie.

"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.

"They 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 thought so.

"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.

For more stories from the Summer 2012 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.


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