DALLAS — The evening his son was drafted, a beaming Martin Dahlin said, “This is his dream, always his dream.”
Stop there, and you’ll get the wrong impression. Getting drafted was Rasmus Dahlin’s dream? At first, the notion makes sense, especially for a first overall pick, which the Buffalo Sabres made the Swedish defenseman when the National Hockey League Draft opened here June 22.
But then consider reality: The broad majority of young players chosen over the weekend will never become NHL mainstays. The draft is a glitzy experience for a day or two, but it doesn’t make a career.
It’s simply the start of one.
“I would be surprised if anyone is growing up dreaming of their name being called,” said Sam Reinhart, the Sabres’ first round pick in 2016. “I think they’re more (often) dreaming of being on the ice, and of big games and big goals.”
Directly after talking about his son’s dreams, Martin Dahlin reinforced Reinhart's point. “(Rasmus) has always wanted to play NHL hockey,” he said, “and hopefully he’ll get the chance soon.”
“Hopefully” is a bit modest. Rasmus almost certainly will skate on NHL ice this season. But the inclusion of that one word gives you key insight into the Dahlin mindset: Push always. Assume nothing. Seek growth — on the ice, in your head and even in conversation.
Following a weekend spent watching Dahlin at the draft, and after interviewing athletes and sports experts who understand the pressures faced by top picks, here are four principles that will help Dahlin become a success in the NHL. None of these have to do with specific on-ice skills. Rather, they focus on how to think, speak and compete with confidence.
1. Accept advice, but save most of it for later
Dahlin is going to get loads of input from people on everything from hockey to health tips to investment advice and business opportunities. “You’re going to get a lot of information,” said Bobby Meacham, the Buffalo Bisons’ manager and a former first-rounder who spent six years as a big-league shortstop. “The biggest thing you can learn how to do it take it all in, (and) use only what you can use.”
Speaking separately from Meacham, Bill Polian – a Hall of Fame football executive who built legendary Bills and Colts teams – said he often encouraged players to ignore anyone on the outside of the team.
“Lots of times,” Polian said, “it’s just the reality of saying to the young man, ‘Look, don’t listen to anything that’s said. Don’t read anything. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The people in this building are the people who can help you get better.’ ”
And when you do get input you can’t use? “Store it,” Meacham said, “because at some point in your career, you’re going to probably need all the information you get. You can reach in that file cabinet, so to speak, and use it.”
Dahlin’s takeway: Listen nicely, filter liberally and remember what you heard.
2. Hope for mistakes
This will seem unnatural, but everyone with a stake – from owners to fans – should almost hope that the Sabres make mistakes. Hope for Dahlin to make mistakes.
“The great plays are going to be awesome, but he’ll learn more from making mistakes than actually going end-to-end and scoring a highlight-reel goal,” said Martin Biron, a former first-round goaltender for Buffalo. “Every time they make a mistake, every time they fail on the ice, every time they get caught, it’s almost better, because he’s learning through this.”
The key to capitalizing on mistakes is to surround Dahlin not only with good coaching, but also solid veteran players who can mentor him on ice, in the locker room and beyond. Jack Eichel, who was the second pick overall in 2015, lived with his veteran Sabres teammate Matt Moulson during his rookie season. Ten years earlier in Pittsburgh, top pick Sidney Crosby lived with player-owner (and now Hall of Famer) Mario Lemieux.
Dahlin likely won’t go that far; he is going to live with his mom, Asa, who is moving to Buffalo from Sweden. But the Sabres surrounding him with strong, older influences who can help him keep failure in perspective will be important. That is how Dahlin will transform adversity into growth.
“Early on, keeping expectations low for scoring and keeping your expectations high for character are pretty important,” said sport psychologist Larry Lauer, who worked with USA Hockey’s national development program. “You have to surround yourself with people you can trust and who are going to take you in a good direction.”
Dahlin’s takeaway: You simply will make mistakes. Rely on people who can help you put them into context and learn from them.
3. Watch television (seriously!)
For a guy who only took English in school, Dahlin has an impressive command of the language. In media interviews, for example, he listens intently, seems to understand every question, and rarely, if ever, struggles for words when delivering what typically is a short answer.
“His knowledge of English, and the way he can express himself in English, is good,” said Chris Bandura, the Sabres’ vice president of media relations.
When Dahlin was in Buffalo for the NHL Combine one month ago, he picked up a lot of casual English words by in conversation and by watching TV. Afterward, when it was time to return to Sweden for a few weeks before the draft, Dahlin was concerned he would lose some of that English.
Here in Dallas, he certainly kept up with the questions he was asked. But during the season, Dahlin, who is a genial guy, will answer hundreds, possibly thousands, more. They won’t all be easy, so the more English he learns, the more confidently he will be able to navigate the every-night ritual of dealing with the media. “It’s with those longer-winded questions that he needs a little longer answer for,” Bandura said. “He’s going to pick (that) up through time, just through interaction with people.”
And it’s a great excuse to watch TV.
Dahlin’s takeaway: How about a recommendation? “Friends” is pretty popular on Netflix.
4. Be wary of hype.
Toronto Raptors broadcaster Jack Armstrong is a basketball guy, but he has seen this “real dangerous thing” in multiple sports. He feels strongly enough that, in an interview talking about the pressures faced by first-rounders, he felt compelled to bring up this scenario: Team performs poorly. Team gets high draft pick. Team lands highly touted prospect.
Sound familiar so far?
Here’s the part Armstrong doesn’t want to see happen with the Sabres: Fans teem with excitement over the new pick, which causes team marketing folks to start salivating. They dream of advertising dollars. They see great potential for season ticket sales. So they build a campaign about their hot new player.
Except that player isn’t hot, yet. His potential is what’s hot. He isn’t hot until that potential becomes performance. Selling performance is fine. Selling potential is that “real dangerous thing.”
“Bad teams try to build season ticket sales and sell sponsorships on the backs of young guys that aren’t ready, and it becomes a disaster,” said Armstrong, a former Niagara University coach who lives in Lewiston. “A lot of teams just put the hype machine out, and now fans turn on the player and talk radio and the media turn on that kid, when in fact he wasn’t ready to be that guy yet.”
Dahlin’s takeaway: Ignore the noise — but better yet, hope the team tempers the temptation to make you the face of a franchise. One day, maybe. But not quite yet. Not when your father still feels the need to qualify your NHL future with the word “hopefully.”
Story topics: NHL Entry Draft