When Robert Rosen swapped Vaxjo Lakers for Sochi, it wasn’t an easy decision. The forward had been part of the Lakers organization as it climbed to the top level of the Swedish Championship and went on to win the country’s biggest prize twice. The second of those triumphs, in 2018, was Rosen’s swansong; after 11 years with Vaxjo he decided to try his hand playing abroad for the first time in his career. Unusually, perhaps, he was already 30 when he decided to make the switch: typically, new arrivals in the KHL are rather younger.
At that time, he told hockeysverige.se: “The decision to play abroad was an on-going process over a number of years. It felt like I was reaching the time when I had to try something new. It was time for something different.”
And so, at the age of 30, Rosen found himself as a rookie. Arriving in Sochi following recommendations from two of his KHL compatriots, Viktor Fasth and Richard Gynge, he was the sole Swede on the roster beside the Black Sea last season. Adaptation didn’t take long: his debut season brought 40 (13+27) points in the regular season plus a further four in post-season as he topped the team’s scoring and earned another year on his contract.
Rosen was enthusiastic about the campaign, which culminated with Sochi winning two playoff games at home to Lokomotiv – something the club had never previously achieved. “It was an interesting experience,” he told the club’s website. “I’m happy that I came here to play in another country, another league, and got to know all the guys on this team. We’ve put together a really classy bunch here.”
He also talked of the differences between hockey in Sweden and in Sochi. “The KHL has some of the best players in the world, they are more highly-skilled than some of ours. The top Russian players are world-class masters. That individual skill is probably the biggest different. Also, in the Swedish leagues there is more pressing all over the ice, whereas here there’s more emphasis on tactical play.”
And Sochi itself made a good impression on the player and his family: “I really like living in Sochi and my whole family was excited to come back here. Now I’m hoping that the whole team can make another step forward this season and play some good hockey to make our fans happy.”
This season, Rosen is still scoring. Despite some uneven early-season form that saw head coach Sergei Zubov lose his job, the Swede has 15 (7+8) points from 25 games and potted his first KHL hat-trick last week. That helped secure a 3-2 win over Dinamo Riga in dramatic fashion as the club steadily makes progress under the guidance of Alexander Andrievsky.
“That was my first hat-trick in the KHL, my first for Sochi, so it means a lot to me,” he told the club website after the game. “I’m really happy about it. These things don’t happen so often, at least, not to me. I’ll enjoy it today, but it’s back to work tomorrow.”
And he’s no longer the only Swede on the roster. Malte Stromwall has joined him beside the Black Sea – at least partly on Rosen’s own recommendation – and the 25-year-old is leading the team in scoring, a couple of points ahead of Rosen. The two played together at Vaxjo, where Stromwall emerged in the adult game, before their paths diverged.
Now back together, there’s a promising partnership developing, with the two combining for 32 points so far this season.
Vaxjo’s rise from hockey obscurity to the pinnacle of one of Europe’s highest-rated leagues could serve as something as an inspiration for Sochi. The Black Sea resort had little hockey heritage prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics, but the local team joined the KHL in the following season and has steadily been gaining greater support and better results. In Vaxjo, what was once a football town is now hockey crazy, beating out traditional strongholds like Skelleftea, Frolunda or Farjestad in the title race.
Discussing Vaxjo’s progress after its second title win in 2018, Rosen highlighted not just the efforts of the coaching team and the on-ice activities, but also the club’s off-ice direction.
“Everyone is always trying to make the whole thing better, more consistent,” he said. “Against that background, you always want to strive to be better.”
“Then in the town there’s a great commitment to the club. All the talk is about hockey, and people love going to see the Lakers. This is a big step forward; there are people who care and, as a player, I want to give something back to them by playing good hockey.”
In a week that the KHL announced new attendance records for the start of the season, and identified HC Sochi as one of the fastest-growing fanbases in the competition, it seems that the Leopards could be following a similar path to the Lakers.