Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Sochi newcomer Magnus Hellberg is among the toughest KHL goaltenders to score on, but snipers have an extra incentive to beware. If you happen to catch the Swede’s neck, you will have more than just a 6’6 World Champion to contend with later. You may also need to answer to his mother—a force who used to reprimand the street hockey rascals that made her five-year-old future NHLer cry.

“She still does that,” Hellberg admitted from St. Petersburg, where Sochi played the Puchkov Memorial Tournament last month. “If I get a bad shot to my neck or something, she says, ‘I'm going to tell them not to shoot on your neck.’ Your mom is always going to be your mom, right?”

I would imagine that Mrs. Hellberg was a welcome ally in one of the loneliest positions in professional sports, a role that her son has owned from Madison Square Garden to downtown Shanghai. Hellberg was selected 38th overall by the Nashville Predators in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, logging starts with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones and the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals before his trade to New York in 2015. While the majority of two seasons were spent in Hartford, his first NHL win was celebrated with childhood idol Henrik Lundqvist on stand-by in Madison Square Garden.

Hellberg moved his career to the KHL after the 2016-2017 season, joining Kunlun Red Star during their extended stay in Shanghai. His performance with the Chinese club attracted the attention of perennial favorite SKA St. Petersburg, where he has impressed for the past three seasons. Hellberg inked a one-year contract with Sochi in June, and while the team lacks a recent track record on-par with Bragin’s army on the Baltic, he is optimistic about the new challenge.

I caught up with one of the league’s top netminders to discuss a number of topics—from Hellberg’s globetrotting career to his first impressions of Matvei Michkov.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): How did the Sochi move unfold from your perspective? 

Magnus Hellberg (MH): I was with SKA for three years, and we had a goal to win the Gagarin Cup. When you don't achieve that, obviously the team has to consider changes for the next season. I was one of the guys that they wanted to trade, and it's part of the business. Of course I had a great time in St. Petersburg, and my goal was to win the Gagarin Cup with them. We lost a tight series against CSKA that could have gone either way. I know there were a couple of teams interested, and they made a deal with Sochi. That's how it started.

GK: SKA is always a contender. Did the move to an underdog team make you nervous in any way? 

MH: I’m an optimistic guy. I think that a lot of it is mental—how you look at life. Of course the situation is not the same as in SKA, but Sochi is going to be a great challenge. I was in Kunlun before I went to St. Petersburg, and I would say it is the same situation here as it was there. I'm hoping I'm going to play a lot of games here, and I see myself as a leader. I’ve gathered a lot of experience throughout the years—how to be a pro, how to act when things go well, or when you don’t have the best day or the best game. I think it's going to be a good challenge for us in Sochi.

People say that we're underdogs, but I see a lot of potential in our group. I think that if we can come together as a team, we can have a good year. Obviously we're aiming to make the playoffs, and I want to be a big part of that. So I think development-wise, for myself, it's going to be a really good year. I became a goalie for a reason. I want to be one of those guys that puts the team on my shoulders when I have to, and I want to take responsibility.

GK: You just played against SKA, and got one of the first professional looks at young phenom Matvei Michkov. 

MH: He’s obviously really good already, and you see that he has a lot of talent. It was fun to play against him, to see him. Too bad he got a goal past me, it was my mistake— but hats off to him. I got my revenge in the shootout! For being sixteen years old, he's a great player. He plays with confidence too, and even tried to do the lacrosse behind the net. I saw that coming.

The young guys coming up now play with a lot of confidence. Some people might say they are a little cocky, but it's the generation—they really know what they want, and I respect that. It was fun to play in the Ledovy and to see the [St. Petersburg] fans again. They were happy to see me as well. It was a tough game, and you know that SKA will always go hard. 

GK: You shared duties with Igor Shestyorkin in Saint Petersburg for a time. Were you surprised at his seamless transition overseas? 

MH: No, not really. I was in the USA for five years before I came over here, and I worked with some great goalies. When I was subbed in for the Rangers, I played with Lundqvist. When I was in Nashville, I saw Pekka Rinne up close. Shestyorkin and I had a great relationship when I was with SKA. He's a great goalie with really strong technique. He's flexible, good reflexes. I knew he was going to make it there. I'm really happy for him that he got the shot with the Rangers, and that they see him as their next guy now. We still keep in touch and talk.

GK: Lundqvist recently announced his retirement. Any particularly fond memories of playing with him? 

MH: Oh, there's a lot. But the thing is, it was just so cool. Growing up, I had him as an idol. He paved the way for Swedish goalies. I've never seen a guy work that hard in my life. He works so hard in practice. He stays on late and takes extra shots. His preparation for the games is insane if you compare it to other people, but it reflects on who he is and how badly he wants to win. When I had my first NHL win in Madison Square Garden, he was backing up and congratulated me after the game. He was a part of it too, so obviously I'm never going to forget my first NHL win—but to have my childhood idol by my side? That was so special.

Magnus Hellberg. Credits: Yury Kuzmin

GK: How did your professional hockey career wind up in Shanghai? 

MH: I was in the States for five years trying to get my shot in the NHL. I was up and down a little bit, but I didn't get that one hundred percent spot. After that last season, I asked myself if I should sign one more year in the U.S. or try to go to the KHL. If I went to the KHL, I had a better chance to make the Swedish National Team, and that was a childhood dream of mine as well. I had an offer from Kunlun Red Star and I had one week to decide. Once I signed, we had a great start. I think we were top of the league for the first 10 games, and it was a great experience living in Shanghai. Different culture, different country. We had a great group of guys. I think I played over 50 games that year plus over 30 games with the national team. It was a good experience, but it was tough because obviously we traveled so much.

GK: What differentiates the Swedish goaltending school of thought? 

MH: A good question, but tough. I think it goes in waves. In the late nineties, I think they started a lot in Sweden with positioning. That was really good as a base. When I was growing up, I had Dominik Hašek as my idol. He was all over the place, but he read the game so well—and I tried to do the same, but I had no base. One game I could have a shutout, but if I had a bad day, I could let in six goals. I had no foundation to lean back on. I think that Swedish goalies have a really good base now with the structure, positioning and all of that. But the higher up you play, you can't just rely on that. You also have to have your hands, your reflexes. I think if you compare to Finnish goalies, they’ve always been known to have good hands because they work a lot on catching the puck with their glove hand.

With some of the young Swedish goalies coming up, they almost play too much. They get too robotic. It's great to have that base, but you still have to have that instinct, killer mode, to know when should you block and cover the angle and when you should maybe just play and react. The goalie position—it’s all mental. You have to find a balance that works for you. And I’m 30 now, so I've had a lot of years to find what works for me.

GK: What is a goal that kept you up at night? 

MH: I have two on my mind. I had one when I played in Almtuna in the Allsvenskan, Sweden. We were in the mix to either go to the playoffs or not. It was a puck that came pretty slow toward me, I tried to poke check it, but I missed and it went through my legs. I still remember that because it was so embarrassing. In the end, it didn't really matter because of the series—but right in that moment, that was tough.

Last season against CSKA in the playoffs, the last game, I stopped the puck behind the net. I thought my D was behind me, but it was a CSKA player. He tricked me and I passed to him, which I would never—I shouldn't have done that. He took the puck around the net, passed up in the slot. They scored, and that was the last game of the season. I think they won 2-1. That was a really tough goal because it meant so much. It wasn't that mistake that they scored on, but it was the first mistake that led up to the goal.

GK: Who’s the toughest sniper you've been up against in the KHL? 

MH: I would say Kirill Kaprizov. Obviously a lethal weapon. Mikhail Grigorenko is good too. There are a couple of guys that can snipe. If you're two centimeters off in your positioning, they can go bar down. 

GK: How do you reset after a goal?

MH: I take a couple of deep breaths, knock my post a little bit, refocus. It doesn't matter who you are, how good you are—you’re always going to let in goals. The game is built on mistakes. Of course you want to be a goalie that has a shutout every game, but you know it's impossible. If I let in one, I can look at the jumbotron and see the replay. "Okay, what could I have done better?” You learn how to switch on and off. I think that is what has brought me to the level I am now. I’m also big into meditation. That has been working for me a lot. I use an app called Headspace. It’s not even just for hockey, but for everyday life. We all have a lot of thoughts, and I use it before games to reset my brain. 

GK: Why did you become a goalie in the first place?

MH: It first started in my neighborhood when I was growing up. I was born in 1991, and I had some neighbors that were born in ’88. They were three years older than me and played street hockey. When I was five, I wanted to play with those guys—but they would only let me play if I was a goalie. I had some street hockey pads, and they had a floorball with a plastic bag pushed into it. It was pretty solid and they were shooting so hard sometimes, but I wanted to play with them. Sometimes I was going home to my mom and crying because it hurt, or they didn't let me play as anything other than a goalie. My mom came out and talked to them, and I got ten minutes before she went in—but then I was back in net. So that's how it started. I grew up playing soccer and was a goalie there too. 

GK: Has your mom stopped by any locker rooms in recent memory and asked the snipers to go easy on you? That would be a good asset to have.

MH: Yeah, she still does that. If I get a bad shot to my neck or something, she says, "I'm going to tell them not to shoot on your neck." Your mom is always going to be your mom, right? 

GK: Some people say that goalies are weird. How would you respond to that?

MH: I think I'm weird, in my way. Everybody's weird. Some people say that goaltending is its own sport because you're by yourself, you're on an island. Since it's such a tough position to play mentally-wise, I wouldn't say you have to be really weird.—but, of course, you have to be a little weird to stand and eat pucks at 150, 60 kilometers an hour.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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