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Taco night at the Ullmarks: How Sabres' Swedes support each other off ice

Linus Ullmark remembers feeling isolated. He and his wife, Moa, left their home country, Sweden, for the United States in 2015, so he could pursue his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

Ullmark, now a 26-year-old goalie for the Buffalo Sabres, did not have a fellow Swede on the Rochester Americans' roster that season. When he and the Amerks were playing games on the road, Moa was alone at their home on the outskirts of the city, nearly 3,800 miles away from family and friends.

"That whole year was a messed up kind of year," Linus Ullmark said. "It was good, those experiences, but I would rather that year just disappear."

Upon arriving in North America, Swedes must adapt to smaller ice rinks and the subtle differences in hockey culture, particularly a more physical style of game. The transition off the ice is far more difficult. That's one of the reasons why Linus and Moa started taco night at the Ullmarks.

"All the Swedes here are great guys," Rasmus Dahlin, a 19-year-old native of Lidkoping, said. "It’s something that’s comfortable. They’re always there to talk to. It’s really good to have them here because if there’s something I really need, I can talk to them. We’re doing this together. When you just want to say something or whatever you can go to the Swedes. It's good to be able to do that. You can say what you want to say."

On the eve of the past two training camps, the Ullmarks invited the team's Swedes – seven this season – over for a night of conversation and tacos, a popular food in their home country. In addition to meeting new teammate Marcus Johansson, Ullmark hoped a break from hockey would provide young players Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund the type of support he didn't have during that difficult season in Rochester. Ullmark has continued to invite Olofsson and other Swedes over for dinner since the season began.

Ullmark's first year in North America was difficult for a number of reasons. Since he and his wife were unfamiliar with Rochester, they chose to live 15 to 20 minutes from Blue Cross Arena, far away from his teammates. Additionally, an injury to Robin Lehner forced Ullmark into the Sabres' net for 20 games that season. He welcomed the opportunity but the unexpected NHL debut made it difficult for the couple to become comfortable.

With Lehner, a native of Gothenburg, on long-term injured reserve, Ullmark spent more time with another fellow Swede, Johan Larsson, who arrived in Buffalo the previous season. It wasn't until two years later that Ullmark felt completely comfortable in his surroundings, though Rochester's roster included only two other Swedes: Alexander Nylander, who was born in Calgary, and Daniel Muzito-Bagenda.

The Swedish Sabres said there are few noticeable cultural differences, but there is a certain level of comfort speaking to a countryman in their native language, Ullmark explained. Though he speaks English fluently and has a strong grasp of the language, Ullmark finds it easier to converse with his Swedish teammates who often share similar interests.

"It’s an awful lot easier," Ullmark, a native of Lugnvik, a municipality near the country's east coast with only 349 inhabitants according to the latest census, said. "It’s easier to start a conversation because you always have something in common and that’s Sweden. Everything that you might have liked or whatever, what you like to do, you can talk about. The Swedish culture and American culture is different when it comes to those sort of things."

"All of us speak pretty good English, but it’s another thing with small talk," Rochester goalie Jonas Johansson, 24, said following a recent practice at Blue Cross Arena. "It’s hard. You almost have to think before you speak when you’re with North American guys. It’s easy to feel like you’re sort of on the outside. You can understand what they say, but you don’t say anything because you have to think first. When you’re with your countrymen, you can enjoy the small talk a little better, that’s what I feel at least."

The presence of Swedes on the Sabres' roster is one of the reasons the team was chosen to participate in the 2019 NHL Global Series, a weeklong event in Stockholm that will be capped by Buffalo facing the Tampa Bay Lightning for back-to-back games on Nov. 8-9.

Entering Friday, the Sabres, Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks led the NHL with five Swedes. In addition to Dahlin, who has quickly become one of the NHL's top young talents, the Sabres have Ullmark, Larsson (Lau), Olofsson (Ornskoldsvik) and Marcus Johansson (Landskrona). Additionally, the team had Jonas Johansson (Gavle), Asplund (Filipstad) and Lawrence Pilut (Tingsryd) on its training camp roster, all of whom were invited to the Ullmarks for tacos.

The Sabres had 11 Swedes participate in their development camp in June and have drafted seven over the past three years. They also have a coach who has experience working with players from countries around the globe. Ralph Krueger coached Switzerland's National Team for three Winter Olympics and 12 IIHF World Championships, as well as Team Europe at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He also played professionally in Germany for 10 seasons.

"There's no question after 18 world championships or Olympics, you get used to other nationalities," Krueger explained. "First of all, you're working against them and playing against them and all their different systems that they have. ... But more than anything, the psychology of the different countries. Every country in Europe has their own personality.

"You can really see it often in the way they play and the way the players function within the team structure. That helps me here with all the nationalities we have. Understanding, first of all, the individual and the way to bring them into the team."

Reaching North America is often a Swede's first major milestone in his hockey journey and, in some ways, Swedes are better prepared to handle life as a professional than players who played in North American junior leagues or the NCAA.

All of the aforementioned Swedish Sabres played professionally in their home country prior to being drafted or signed by Buffalo. Many left home as teenagers, an experience that forced them to learn how to cook, clean, do their own laundry, and they learned English. Most don't have billet families to complete those tasks for them.

Those responsibilities prepared Dahlin for his move to Buffalo in July 2018. Though his mother, Asa, joined him in Western New York for the first two months, he had few questions about how to take care of himself. His roommate, Casey Mittelstadt, also helped with the transition.

Life away from home wasn't easy the first time around, though. Dahlin, who was drafted first overall in 2018, recalled being home sick upon leaving Lidkoping at 15 years old to begin his junior hockey career with Frolunda. Though Dahlin lived with a few teammates, he remembers lying awake at night missing his home. He joked that he called home "five times a day" to ask his parents how to prepare meals or perform other household chores.

"It's way different in Sweden," Dahlin explained. "Here, most people don't move away from their parents until they go to college. I lived on my own when I was 15. There were a couple of us that lived together and cooked and did all that stuff. ... It was so much more difficult when I first move away. I remember my first night in my own bed, in my own apartment. I was sad. ... Now I don't call home that often."

Like Ullmark, Asplund was unsure where to live upon moving to Rochester last fall. There were also a myriad of responsibilities he had to take care of, such as opening a bank account and purchasing a cellphone plan.

Asplund, though, shared the experience with Olofsson. The two lived in the same apartment building and often cooked meals together, mostly pasta. Each credits the other for making the transition seamless on and off the ice. Comfort away from the rink allowed both to excel during their first year in North America, Asplund said.

"It’s pretty tough," Asplund, 21, said. "Everything is in a different language. You have to set up a new place to live at, bank accounts, phones. It takes some time. You have to get adjusted to that. It takes energy from you. You have to be patient and know it’s going to be tough at the start. Once you get adjusted, it’s pretty good. It was huge to have Oly here. He became like a brother to me last year."

During taco night, Jonas Johansson and Olofsson asked veterans questions about life in the NHL, on and off the ice. The night of bonding gave them an opportunity to gain some perspective about what's next and calmed their nerves entering training camp under a new head coach.

Marcus Johansson has been an important resource for Olofsson, in particular. Their locker stalls are close to each other inside KeyBank Center and they skated together on a line for the first half of training camp. Johansson, 29, has played 593 regular-season and 94 playoff games over eight years in the NHL. However, he too was overwhelmed upon coming to the United States and joining the Washington Capitals in 2010.

Johansson quickly found himself a mentor in fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom. Although Backstrom was only three years older, he helped Johansson assimilate in a new dressing room and routinely checked on Johansson following practices or games. There were invites away from the rink, much like Ullmark has done for his teammates.

Johansson, who was named one of the Sabres' two alternate captains this season, hopes to make a similar impact on his teammates.

"If I could do that for half the younger guys now that he did for me, I’ll be proud of that," Johansson said of Backstrom. "It’s a different country. Everything is new. It’s a different language. You go to a grocery store and the stuff is not the same. There’s a lot that happens when you come over at first. It’s important to have someone there to help you out and support you. Be there with any type of questions and anything you’re wondering."

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