Portland continues tradition of import stars
By Tim Pigulski
Portland Winterhawks import draft picks have given Seattle – and the rest of the WHL – fits for the past three seasons.
In 2009, Nino Niederreiter arrived from Switzerland after Portland traded up in the CHL’s annual draft of foreign-born players. In his inaugural season in the Western Hockey League, “El Niño” notched 60 points in 65 games and cemented himself as one of the league’s premier power forwards. Following the season, he was selected by the New York Islanders with the fifth overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft.
The Winterhawks hit it big for the second consecutive year when they selected Niederreiter’s Swiss countryman, Sven Bärtschi, with the seventh overall pick in the Import Draft. In two seasons with Portland, the Bern, Switzerland native scored an impressive 179 points in just 113 games. The Calgary Flames selected Bärtschi with the 13th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft and he exploded, scoring three goals in a short five game stint with the team last season.
Portland left wing Oliver Bjorkstrand has adjusted to the style and speed of the WHL quickly. (WHL.ca photo)
In an effort to fill the big skates left by the departures of the Swiss duo, Portland general manager Mike Johnston once again ventured outside of the “normal” confines of import drafting.
With countries like Russia, the Czech Republic, and Sweden well-represented in the CHL, Johnston, who also acts as Portland’s head coach, defied conventional wisdom and drafted 17-year-old Oliver Bjorkstrand from Denmark with the 26th overall pick.
Located close to a number of other hockey hotbeds in Europe, Denmark has yet to establish itself as a dominant player on the international landscape.
“Hockey definitely isn’t one of the biggest sports [back home],” says Bjorkstrand, “but in the last couple of years we’ve had a couple of draft picks and more players in the NHL. Hopefully hockey in Denmark will continue to develop.”
As Seattle fans probably remember all too well, Bjorkstrand took the WHL by storm. In his first home game in Portland, a 5-2 loss to the Thunderbirds, the Hernin, Denmark native scored a goal, then followed that up at the ShoWare Center the following night with two goals and an assist in a 6-2 Portland victory.
“I don’t know if it was really important (to get off to a strong start),” says the WHL’s leading scorer among rookies, “but of course, it’s always nice to score a couple goals and have a good start to the season.”
The rivalry between the two teams, whose home rinks stand just over 150 miles apart, isn’t something that 5-foot-11, 164-pound left wing was prepared for.
“Before I came over, I didn’t know it was that big of a rivalry,” Bjorkstrand says. “Some of the players had to explain it to me (beforehand) but I could feel it when we played the games.
The fans get into it too and really want their team to win. It was a great way to start the season.”
Being asked to replace the top-level stats produced by the likes of Niederreiter and Bärtschi is something that Bjorkstrand knows will be difficult, but isn’t shying away from.
“Those guys are really great players, so it adds a bit more pressure on me,” says Bjorkstrand, who has 10 points in 11 games through Thursday.
“And then I picked Sven Bärtschi’s number , so that probably didn’t help, but I try not to think about it very much.”
The transition to a North American style of play has taken some getting used to, says the likely 2013 NHL Draft pick, despite his early success.
“The ice surface is, of course, smaller,” he says. “There are a lot more fights to the game, maybe a bit more speed, and people drive the net more. It’s a little different, but I think I’m getting used to it.”
Having that early pressure combined with adjusting to the different style of game might crack some rookies, but not Bjorkstrand.
“Of course it’s kind of hard at the start getting used to the style, but as you practice and play more games you get used to it quickly.”
Oliver’s decision to play in the United States didn’t come particularly easy. His father, Todd, played collegiate hockey at the University of Maine before going on to have a very successful professional career in Denmark.
“[When they drafted me] I didn’t know if I wanted to come over [to the United States] yet. They brought me over in the middle of the summer and I got to see Portland, the rink, and meet the coaches. After that, I changed my mind and got very excited to come over and play junior hockey in North America.”
Despite his father’s path, the young forward never seriously considered the NCAA route.
“We talked about it a little bit, but last year [at 16] the league I played in in Denmark was considered professional so that blocked the college track. When I signed the contract, I knew it meant I wasn’t going to be able to play in college,” he says.
Having already spent a significant amount of time playing against professionals in Denmark, it’s safe to assume that the shifty young forward will continue to make an impact for the Winterhawks.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.