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“Toronto is a special place to play” Mikael Tellqvist reflects on time with the Maple Leafs

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Photo credit:HockeyRealGM
Alex Hobson
3 months ago
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in Sweden for a pair of games this weekend, and to me, there’s no better time to start rolling out some Swedish content to get us through the week. On Tuesday, we had a piece go out highlighting Mats Sundin’s top-5 moments of his career, and today, I want to unearth an interview that I did about two months ago. 
Back in September, I had the chance to chat with former Leafs goaltender Mikael Tellqvist on my podcast, Sticks in the 6ix, which I do with my co-hosts, Peter Baracchini and Andrew Forbes. Now 44 years old, the Swede appeared in 114 NHL games, split between the Maple Leafs, the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Buffalo Sabres. He also played in three of Europe’s top pro leagues, with stints in Sweden, Finland, and Russia, last playing for Djurgardens IF of the Swedish league back in 2016-17. Mikael was super easy to talk to, enough that I decided to take what we talked about and transcribe it into an interview. After we welcomed him to the show, he cracked a joke about how he hadn’t done any podcasts or media interviews in English in a while. You knocked it out of the park, Mikael. Don’t even worry about it. 
We decided to jump right into everyone’s favourite topic when it comes to goaltenders – superstitions. When we asked him if he carried any superstitions of his own, he said that he cared less and less about them the older he got. 
“Well, actually, the older I got the less superstitions I had, I was worse when I was younger for sure. Used to wait to prepare before games, used to eat different things, I took my pregame naps at certain times, put my pads and straps on one side then switched to the other. I had almost too much there for a while, but I settled in a lot in my older age.”
This question came later in the interview, but it seems appropriate to stick right at the front of the piece here. We wanted to find out what made him fall in love with the sport, and why he wanted to be a goalie.
“I used to always go to games with my Dad here in Stockholm, and always loved the goalie equipment. I don’t know why, I think most goalies would say that. The position fascinated me, you’re either the bad guy or the hero. Nothing in between. I just liked standing there at the end of the game with the crowd roaring and all the players. That’s something I miss, the rest I can live without. Well, obviously my teammates too, but the rest I can live without.”
So, what was the moment when he realized that his NHL dream could become a reality?
“Probably when I retired” he said with a laugh.
Selected by the Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2000 NHL Draft, Tellqvist played one year in Sweden before making the jump to North America, where he suited up for the AHL’s then-St. John’s Maple Leafs in 2001-02. His NHL debut wouldn’t come until the following year, but with myself and my co-hosts all being draft nuts, we asked him what he remembered from the day he heard the Leafs call his name. 
“It was a little different back then than it is now. Obviously I wasn’t attending the draft in person, I was actually home in Sweden and we had this sort of midsummer celebration, and I got a call from my agent telling me I was picked 69th or 68th overall.”
(He was drafted 70th overall, but I’m going to pretend he tried to force a 69 joke in there).
“He pretty much said “congrats, you were drafted by the Maple Leafs, they’re very excited to have you and will be sending you a jersey in a month or so. And that’s pretty much it. The scout here in Sweden called me the next day as well, but it took a little bit of time before I actually talked to somebody from the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Not only did Tellqvist get drafted in 2000, he did it fresh off a championship with his hometown team. Talk about a big week for a 20-year-old kid.
“They wanted me to come over right away. I had a special first year over here in Sweden, my first year as a pro player I won the Swedish championship for my hometown team (Djurgardens IF Stockholm) which was a big thing for me. I also played in the World Championships, so it was kind of a great start for me professionally. They wanted me to come over [to North America] right away, but I talked to my goalie coach and some other people back here in Sweden and they basically said ‘relax, play one more year here in Sweden to get ready and you’ll be good to go’.”
I started watching the Maple Leafs, and hockey in general in 2006-07, which was coincidentally Tellqvist’s last season with the team. He was the third-string goaltender behind Andrew Raycroft and Jean-Sebastien Aubin, and was traded to the Coyotes only two months into the season. Be that as it may, and considering it was his fourth year in the organization (at the time), I had to ask him what it was like to wear the blue and white in general.
“Toronto is a special place to play, let’s put it that way – everybody knows that. It’s really unique and it doesn’t matter what background you have, some people I met, I could barely say hello in English, but they knew who I was. And that was me, imagine Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, all those guys. There were some really good players I had the chance to be around, which was really really cool. So I was very proud for the chance to play for the Leafs, an original six team. Unfortunately I didn’t make it there as a starter, but I got the chance to play for the blue and white.”
One thing is for certain – goalies in 2023 are far different than goalies in 2000. Tellqvist is currently working in player development for a sports agency, so, as somebody who had a lengthy career both as one of those young goalies looking to make his mark as well as somebody who witnesses development in real time, I wanted to get his take on what’s changed in terms of the way goalies train and hone their craft.
“I feel like goaltenders are more prepared in 2023 than they were when I came up. They’re more ready for what’s coming. I feel like from a younger age you do a lot more skill stuff as a goalie, when I came up it was more “learning by doing”. Now, everybody watches youtube or clips, try to adapt and look at other goalies in a different way. They get feedback differently than us older goalies did, they watch their own tape and go over it with their coaches.”
In addition to sharing a locker room with guys like Sundin, Tucker, and Domi, Tellqvist also had a brief experience playing under legendary NHL head coach Pat Quinn. When asked about his experience playing under Quinn, he first and foremost talked about Pat Quinn the person, not the coach.
“Very likeable coach. He always stood by his players. From what I remember, he never gave the players shit in the press conference. He’d do it in the room, but never in front of the media. He was such a presence in the room; maybe not the best technical guy, but when he gave a speech in the room before a game, it felt like you were playing Game 7 of the Cup Finals, and you had to look at your phone and be like “Okay, it’s actually November 30th and we’re playing the Atlanta Thrashers.” 
Great answer, but we wanted something a little more juicy, so we asked if there was a specific Quinn speech or quote that he remembered.
“It’s hard to remember, but he had a way of pronouncing/saying certain things. Daniel Alfredsson wasn’t a popular guy in Toronto. I remember [Quinn] screaming onto the ice ‘somebody hit that guy, he’s 5’6 with his hands over his head, somebody just take him!’. Another time, one of our defencemen, Karel Pilar, was sliding all over the ice and he barks ‘Karel, you look like a zamboni out there. Stay on your feet!’. He was a funny guy and always took the players’ side, which was nice.”
Far too much went on in this interview for me to transcribe all of it, so lucky for you, I’m going to include a link where you can watch/listen to the entire interview. But, for those who are only here for the article, I’ll end it on an amazing answer he gave us when discussing the impact that Leafs and Swedish legend Borje Salming has left on the league.
“He was the biggest influencer for Swedish hockey players in the NHL beforehand, but he was probably the first one who made it and became such a popular player. He always talked about how tough he was in his first few years, easily could have come home and made it as a really good player in Sweden, but he was a stubborn guy and said ‘I’m really gonna do this’. 
But, it’s not just on the ice where Salming left an impact for Swedish hockey players. 
“The way he was as a person is also a way Swedes have learned from him; how to be around teammates. People like to be around Swedish players in the NHL – we have a good reputation. And I think Borje was one of the first players to bring that over and be like ‘this is how we act, this is what we do, this is how we play.’
Tellqvist was incredibly generous with his time, and it was a cool moment for me personally to interview a player I remember watching as a kid. 
“He did a lot of good things for Swedish hockey players, that’s for sure.”

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