In my previous summer posts, I have mostly been highlighting Chicago Blackhawks forwards and organizational staff. I realized recently that I have been unfairly neglecting the blue line. As hockey fans, we tend to get caught up in who’s going to score the goals. But a good defense is often just as important as a good offense. So for this post I will explore one of my favorite Chicago Blackhawks players, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
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I know, I know, Hjalmarsson is no Duncan Keith. He’s not a face of the franchise such as Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane (more developments to come, I’m sure). He’s no Marian Hossa (future Hall of Famer in my book). He’s not even put into the same category as Brent Seabrook or Patrick Sharp. But he IS part of the Chicago Blackhawks core that has won three championships in the last six years. To his credit, he has gotten a lot more praise and respect over the last few seasons. This is why Hjalmarsson is one of my favorites. He is an unsung hero, an underdog. Let’s start at the beginning.
Hjalmarsson was born on June 6, 1987 (he’s still only 28-years-old!) in Eksjo, Sweden. This is a small town of about 15,000 people. But to really get to the root of things, you have to go back even further. Hjalmarsson’s family hails from the village of Russnas, with a population of about 90 people. At the entrance to the town, there is a huge sign of Hjalmarsson along with a replica of the Stanley Cup.
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Hjalmarsson started skating when he was 3-years-old. When he was 14, he moved to the town of Jonkoping to go to school and play hockey. Hjalmarsson was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2005 in the fourth round, 108th overall. But from 2004-07, he stayed in Sweden and played professionally in the Elitserien with HV71.
Hjalmarsson made his NHL debut during the 2007-08 season, but he spent most of the next two years playing with the Rockford IceHogs. His first full season with the Chicago Blackhawks was the 2009-10 season. That’s right, the year they won the Cup after a 49-year drought. That’s quite a way to get things started! He played 77 games in the regular season, and all 22 playoff games, averaging more than 19 minutes of playing time while switching back and forth between the second and third defensive pairings.
After the 2010 season, Hjalmarsson signed an offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks for $14 million over 4 years, making him the first NHL defenseman in 13 years to receive an offer sheet as a restricted free agent. But the Chicago Blackhawks matched the offer. This forced the Blackhawks to say goodbye to goaltender Antti Niemi due to salary cap constraints.
But I would say that the ’Hawks are pretty happy with their decision to keep Niklas Hjalmarsson. He has been a steady presence on the blue line ever since. He’s 6-foot-3, 197 lbs. He shoots left-handed and is usually associated with the Chicago Blackhawks’ second defensive pairing. He is known for being a physical, shutdown, defensive defenseman. But he is most recognized for his shot-blocking abilities. He is constantly throwing himself in front of pucks, and his body pays the price for it.
There was the time Hammer (his nickname, by the way) took a puck to the throat in the 2014 playoffs against the Minnesota Wild. He wasn’t allowed to talk for 2 weeks, but he still didn’t miss a shift.
And then there was that time that a puck went off his face during a tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs and he had stitches and a black eye to show for it.
These types of events are pretty commonplace for Hjalmarsson, and when they happen nobody seems to be surprised that he simply gets up and carries on. It’s actually kind of come to be expected. Coach Joel Quenneville calls Hjalmarsson a “warrior”.
Now, Hammer’s role with the team is not so much to produce on the offensive end, but when he has the opportunity he’s more than willing to step into the play. One of my favorite, and incidentally pretty infamous, Hjalmarsson plays was his disallowed goal in Game 7 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals against the Detroit Red Wings.
This past season (capped off by his third Stanley Cup) was probably his best. He played all 82 regular-season games, and all 23 playoff games. ESPN’s Scott Powers put it best in his season review: “He ranked 18th among defensemen with 498 defensive zone faceoff starts and 12th with a plus-17 goal differential. Only Hjalmarsson, Roman Josi, Shea Weber, Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban ranked in the top 20 in both categories. Hjalmarsson also came through in the playoffs and averaged 26:02 of ice time and led the Blackhawks with 66 blocked shots.”
Eddie Olczyk also recently referred to Hjalmarsson as the most underrated Chicago Blackhawks player.
On a more personal note, Hjalmarsson married beautiful hairstylist and model Elina Casell Hjalmarsson in July 2013 (sorry, ladies). She is originally from Jonkoping, Sweden. The couple had a baby boy, Theo, in April 2014.
Apart from now being a family man, Hjalmarsson appears to have a good heart as well. His good friend from his hometown, Mattias Ingeson, works for a child-rights organization called Erikshjalpen. With Mattias escorting them, Hjalmarsson paid for five youths with disabilities to see their first hockey game at the world championships.
He also sponsors needy children in Africa. “I’m not perfect but I’m trying to be as good as I can, especially when I have a good job and make good money,” Hjalmarsson has said. “You feel a responsibility to give back to the world. I’m going to keep working to figure out good stuff to do in the future.” You can see the article in which he talks about this here.
Thank you, Niklas Hjalmarsson, for all that you do. Keep up the good work. We can’t wait to watch you again this year!
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