"That’s a nice thing when you have a child—even if you play badly, you know that she's going to smile at you once you come back,” he shared from Chelyabinsk, although Traktor has not given its fans much to frown about this season. The team has risen from eleventh at the end of last season to fourth in the Eastern Conference, with Åberg notching ten points in eighteen games played.
Prior to his KHL debut in September, the 2012 Nashville Predators draft pick logged a number of seasons in the NHL and AHL, most recently in Toronto. He spent the bulk of last season with the Marlies, and ultimately inked his first deal in Russia in July.
We caught up during the KHL’s National Team break to discuss his early impressions of the league, his daughter’s future athletic career (it’s up for grabs!) and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): What drove your decision to move to Traktor this season?
Pontus Åberg (PÅ): I wanted to try something new, but I didn't have anything on the table from North America. Coming to Russia is something that I've talked to agents about in the past. It’s an opportunity I wanted to try—to see how the hockey is here, and if I can do well.
Traktor showed interest right away. I know that [Vityaz] Podolsk had my rights, but Traktor called my Russian agent and expressed a lot of interest. I think it just went from there. The process was a little bit longer than we would have hoped, because Podolsk had my rights. We had to work that part out, but after some time, it finally happened.
GK: As I am sure you are aware, last season was a struggle for Chelyabinsk. Did you sense right away that the team was in redemption mode?
PÅ: They have built a really strong team here. We really play like a team, which I think wins games—especially here. We don't have these big stars, but we have good players who are equally good teammates, so I think that's showing right now. If you compare Traktor last year to where we are in the standings right now, it's an improvement.
GK: To say the least! Local fans were very excited about the return of head coach Anvar Gatiyatulin. How would you describe him, and what are his expectations of you?
PÅ: I mean, he's very calm, and we’ve talked a lot back and forth. Traktor has six imports and everyone is not able to play every game, but he's been saying since day one that they believe in me. I had a tough start, but finally started to show my game more and got some points out there as well. He’s a calm guy who doesn't speak much English, but we have our assistant coach who speaks in English. That’s pretty helpful because Russian is a language I don’t know much about…
GK: I was going to say, you play on an all-Russian line right now. How do you develop chemistry over the language barrier?
PÅ: Our captain [Sergei Kalinin] speaks English. He played in North America for a couple of years, so his English is good. At the end of the day, it's hockey—I think everyone just speaks the same language out there. You don't really have to say much. If you connect, you connect. Like you said, I've been playing with two Russians lately and there's not much English that's getting spoken between us, but sometimes in hockey you don't really have to speak. You just know sometimes.
GK: What were your expectations versus reality in terms of KHL playing style?
PÅ: I had an interview in Sweden before I came, and I said that I was looking forward to playing the offensive style of hockey that I thought Russia had! [Laughs] But they kindof proved me wrong when the season started, because I think it's the most defensive hockey I've played since I left Sweden. It has been a change for sure, especially if you compare it to the American League, which is very back and forth. The NHL is a little better defensively, but the AHL is mostly young guys who want to prove that they can play in NHL. That’s been a difference, of course, from the defensive style of play here.
GK: Where on earth did you get that idea?
PÅ: I talked to a buddy of mine who played here, and he said it was very offensive—so it's totally from there! Growing up playing U17-U18, he played Russian teams that played offensively. Here in the KHL I guess it's very defensive, which you can probably see from the goals they let in, not more than two a game. Good league for goalies, for sure.
GK: Vitali Kravtsov is having a breakout season. What has been your first impression?
PÅ: Yeah, he’s a good guy. He also speaks English, so we hang out sometimes on and off the ice. I like the guy and he's very skilled, which I think has shown. He has eight goals right now— and I asked him about it, he had probably three or four last year. It's a step in the right way for him to hopefully get back to North America.
GK: What’s an average night out on the town in Chelyabinsk?
PÅ: We’ve got some good restaurants here and stuff like that. When we have days off, mostly it's the imports that hang out together. We’ll go for a nice meal, and usually after games we go for dinner too. Other than that, I'm used to having my daughter around, so I usually don't spend that much time out after hockey or after the rink. She hasn't been going to school during the year, so most of the time, I go home after practice and games and stuff like that. In North America, I had my Mom living with us—so they were hanging out when I was at work.
GK: I know that most imports have been separated from their families since the summer. When was the last time that you saw your daughter Molly?
PÅ: Before I left for camp—end of July or early August. They call me or I call them as much as we can. It's not every day that she wants to speak on FaceTime, but usually she does and I'll just ask her about her day and how was daycare, stuff like that.
GK: I've seen some dads around the league getting creative. Ilya Ezhov was playing guitar during a FaceTime tea party.
PÅ: Unfortunately I don't really play guitar, but maybe I'll have to learn. I mean, she likes to sing—but my guitar playing is pretty bad!
GK: Have you noticed a difference in competitive level as teams get their full rosters back?
PÅ: Yeah, I guess. We played Kunlun at the beginning and I don't think they had any imports at all, but then we played them the other week and, of course, teams are going to get better when they have all of their players. This is usually the time of year when games matter the most to get a playoff spot.
GK: What brought you to hockey in the first place?
PÅ: I just know that I tried it when I was three, and I didn't like it. But then my parents tried one year later and I’ve been playing ever since. It's probably because of my dad, he played, and he was my idol growing up. I used to be a defenseman because he was a defenseman, and I always wanted the number he had when I played. Watching my dad playing when I was growing up did it. He played in what was called Division One back in the day, I think it's called the Allsvenskan now—the second division in Sweden.
GK: Is Molly going to make hockey generation number three?
PÅ: She enjoys skating, actually. I know that she's been watching my sister play handball a lot back home right now, so I think she's into sports. They tried to take her dancing, but she wasn't very fond of that—so I think maybe handball or hockey or soccer's the way to go. At the end of the day, it's going to be her decision. All I can do is to take her to all of the sports she wants to try.
GK: What is the most memorable night of your career so far?
PÅ: Probably the playoff run that we had with Nashville, three or four years ago now. All of those nights were pretty special, but when we made the Final there, it was pretty amazing to be a part of. Nashville came together as a city during the time of the playoffs. It was pretty electric and a really cool experience.
GK: Hockey teaches us broader lessons about life. What is one that you will take with you?
PÅ: For me right now, especially when having a daughter, you want to make her proud. I'm trying to do my best every day to make her proud. That’s a nice thing when you have a child—even if you play badly, you know that she's going to smile at you once you come back. At the end of the day, that's really what matters.
GK: Give me a song on your workout playlist right now.
PÅ: I'm into house music, a lot of electronic stuff before games. I think that gets me going the most. So probably something with Diplo or it could be Drake, it could be rap, it doesn't really matter. But to name one song right now, I like Head and Heart by Joel Corry. It's a happy, up-tempo song.
GK: Do you have any passions or hobbies off the ice?
PÅ: Not really. I don't do much with my time except when I have my daughter around. She likes to go swimming in the summer, so that's one thing we do pretty much every summer, after my workouts and she's come home from daycare. Other than that, I chill mostly and play video games with my friends. I’ve been really nerdy about it. Especially this year when I'm alone, a lot of hours go into Fortnite! My friends play from back home, so that's how we communicate. We put the headsets on and we sit here for a couple of hours per day, talk about life and game a bit.