STOCKHOLM – Johan Eskhult drove nearly 70 kilometers from Uppsala in the countryside to the capital of Sweden on Thursday to watch the Buffalo Sabres practice. There was largely one reason why.
Sporting his navy blue No. 26 Sabres jersey, Eskhult was pondering more purchases at a souvenir stand inside the Ericsson Globe with his 11-year-old son, Albin.
"This is huge for me, very huge," said Eskhult, 41. "I watch the highlights the morning after or European Game of the Week. I'm so happy to see him play. I think he's going to be one of the greatest."
The love for Dahlin in Sweden is real. There was big applause when he took the ice Thursday and oohs and ahhs in the crowd as Dahlin scored a goal during a drill with a nifty backhand in the slot. It's the kind of play fans here hope they see more of the next two days as the Sabres face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL Global Series.
"Rasmus got the fans on their feet a couple times out there," Sabres teammate Jake McCabe said after the workout. "We're used to that. We see it every day. I'm just glad all his fans in Stockholm could see that in person."
"We just like the NHL. We like hockey," Eskhult said. "I got the tickets as soon as they went on sale (in March) and we've been very much looking forward to these games."
The games are about the NHL going around the world and showcasing young stars like Dahlin as well as established veterans like former Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, the 28-year-old who is the only Swede on the Tampa roster. Dahlin is the biggest international brand on the Sabres' roster and is the biggest reason the team is here, just like most observers thought would happen during his draft week.
The games are a lifetime moment for Dahlin, 19, and the five other Swedes on the Buffalo roster. Of that group, only veteran Marcus Johansson has ever played an NHL game on home soil.
"For me, when I was young, there was no opportunity for me as a kid watching NHL games," Dahlin said as yet another large group of reporters from his home country chronicled his words in both Swedish and English. "I think it's a very good idea to come to Sweden for them to see a real NHL game."
There were only about 3,000 fans in the 14,000-seat arena for practice, far less than the crowd rumored to be coming earlier in the week (the games have long been sold out). Swedish fans balked at paying 150 Kroner, or about $15, for practice tickets, so there were plenty of Americans in the stands.
The crowd may have been small, but it was certainly enthusiastic. Fans leaned over the railing hoping to get autographs or sticks and pucks. The noise grew louder when a player obliged. Dahlin handed a stick into the crowd as he left the ice following practice.
Several players said it reminded them of training camp practices in previous years, when the stands have been nearly full in LECOM Harborcenter.
"There were so many kids and it's obviously such a passionate hockey country," said Buffalo captain Jack Eichel. "It was really cool. I thought it was a great experience."
Kristian Larsen, 29, came from Oslo, the capital of Norway, to see Dahlin. He had a custom-made 50th anniversary jersey with his own name on the back and quickly made friends outside the building with Mick Ridgway, a 28-year-old from Omaha, Neb., who has grandparents in East Amherst and was going old school with a classic 70s white jersey.
"I became a fan when I was about 7 years old," Larsen said. "My dad bought NHL 97 for PlayStation and I thought Buffalo Sabres had the coolest logo. I was bad at defense but I had Dominik Hasek and I loved him.
"I like to watch Dahlin play. He has a bright future. I think he can be bigger than (former Detroit star) Nicklas Lidstrom. I really do. I think Swedish people like him very much. People everywhere do."
Ridgway became a Sabres fan because of his grandparents and said he plays pickup hockey regularly with some Buffalo natives in Omaha connected with Offutt Air Force Base. Being based in the Midwest has allowed him to travel to see Sabres games in both directions of the country. But never overseas.
"You think about what this means and I imagine this is going to be huge for Dahlin," Ridgway said. "When I was a kid, I wanted to get back into hockey so, because of my grandparents, I was like, 'Buffalo is the town' and he's our guy now."
The Sabres have allowed their Swedish contingent to relish the media attention they've been getting at home this week. Coach Ralph Krueger said he's not concerned about Dahlin succumbing to hype, especially given what the native of Lidkoping went through during his draft year.
"We had those conversations already and he's managing it really well," Krueger said. "He's excited to play and that's what he needs to be. He needs to have fun through these two games and just play his game. We're keeping it simple and he is too. It will be a wonderful opportunity for the people of Sweden to see him first-hand. We feel he's in a really good space here."
Eichel is a downtown neighbor of Dahlin and roommate Casey Mittelstadt, and said he makes sure to try to help Dahlin where needed on and off the ice.
"He's such a good player, such a good person and a great kid," Eichel said. "He's been everything and more we could ask for. He's an incredible hockey player but you don't get to see how good of a person, how nice he is. He's so humble, it's a pleasure to be around him every day."
Dahlin has just one goal so far, although he has compiled 11 points in 15 games. But his defensive issues have become a bit of a dirty little secret, as he's posted a minus-6 rating the last six games and had several notable struggles with the puck.
"I hope he turns his game back around some here," said Ryan Francis, 36, of Grand Island, who was wearing a Dahlin T-shirt while his father, Mark, sported an Eichel 50th anniversary sweater. "I think he's had a little bit of a sophomore slump. Offensively he's still putting up numbers but defensively he looks a mess. I'm hoping he wants to show off for the crowd and play at a level maybe we haven't seen before. That's where the hope is."
Rick Zinter, a Rochester native now living in Greenacres, Fla., had similar thoughts. He's here with his son Kyle, from Seattle, and friend Lukas Kotecki of Rochester, a season-ticket holder from Section 304 in KeyBank Center.
"He's been a little erratic but a lot of these guys on this team are young," said Zinter, combining his navy Dahlin jersey with a scarf from the Sabres' 2011 trip to Finland and Germany. "They've got a good core that's 19-23 years old. Over the next few years, I could see them doing really well."
— Lukas Kotecki 🏒 (@Sabres_Blitz) November 7, 2019
The Sabres enter these games six points ahead of the Lightning in the Atlantic Division standings. Dahlin and Hedman are rivals now, a far cry from when Dahlin was 12 and met Hedman, then 21, during a 2012 summer hockey camp.
"To play against him in the NHL, it was pretty weird at first. But I'm here in the NHL, too, so I can't think about it too much," Dahlin said. "But it's awesome. It's really cool to play against him."
"He's a great overall guy. The talent is out of this world, and he's producing on a high level to start the season," Hedman said. "He's just going to become better, and that's pretty scary."
Eskhult was talking about Dahlin some more when Thunderbug, Tampa Bay's mascot, walked by and high-fived his son. The reason? Albin Eskhult was wearing the jersey of Lightning star Nikita Kucherov.
"He doesn't know any better," said his smiling father. "He's also a Oilers fan for Connor McDavid."
Albin's wish? A Tampa Bay win and some good play from Dahlin. The Sabres' fans in town certainly don't want that combination.
"How many years has it been since they've been out of the playoffs?" asked Larsen, the Norwegian. Told the number was 8, Larsen said, "That's a long time. I want to see them win some more."