Joe DiPenta signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres on July 11. (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)
People say hockey players use too many cliches, but I’m afraid I have to throw another one out there: What a difference a year makes.
I finished the 2007 season playing a limited, but valued, role on the blueline of a Stanley Cup-winning team. After the 2008 campaign, one in which I was a healthy scratch more times than I care to count, my hockey future was a bit uncertain.
At the time I was a 29-year-old defensive defenseman with 174 NHL games on my resume and an Anaheim Ducks Cup ring in my back pocket. I was hoping that would be enough to get me another NHL ride, so when my agent told me there was interest in my services from a Swedish club in May of ’08, I initially dismissed the notion.
But as the weeks passed, I began doing some research and giving it a bit more thought. Because I still had more than a month to wait before becoming a UFA on July 1 of that year, it was difficult to gauge how much NHL interest I would garner. That factor, coupled with a solid contract offer and the promise of a ton of ice time, prompted me to take the leap and sign with the Frolunda Indians, a Swedish Elite League team based in Gothenburg.
My wife and I weren’t sure what to expect when we landed in Sweden’s second-largest city, but we were happy to discover our new old-world European home was lined with cobblestone streets and an assortment of cafes and restaurants. We lived in a hotel for about three weeks and the team was extremely helpful aiding us in our search for more permanent digs, which we eventually found in the form of a nice, large apartment.
Of course, a move of this nature requires a number of huge adjustments, both on and off the ice.
One thing I was pleasantly surprised to discover is that the international ice size really didn’t impact my game too much. I actually think talk of the differences between the big ice and NHL-size rinks is a bit overblown.
The league itself is packed with highly skilled players. In terms of pure talent, I would say the 12-team Swedish League is pretty much on par with the NHL. The main discrepancies, of course, are that NHLers are faster, stronger and much more physical.
Another defining difference is how much less structure there is in terms of teams playing rigid systems. It’s much more run-and-gun there; I can’t count the times I chuckled to myself on the bench thinking, ‘If you made that turnover in the NHL, you’d be sitting for a week.’
I guess it’s just a different approach to the game than we’re used to over here.
Off the ice, I found Swedish people to be extremely accommodating. They all speak English and, incredibly, become very apologetic for initially speaking Swedish to you before discovering it’s not your native tongue. It just goes to show Swedes are very humble people.
Despite people bending over backwards to make you feel more comfortable, there are always going to be moments of homesickness when you live abroad for six months.
Simple tasks and errands are always a bit more of an ordeal when you’re in a foreign land and, unless you’re speaking directly with people, you don’t really see or hear English. I didn’t have a North American teammate to talk with until former Maple Leaf John Pohl joined our club late in the season.
Basically, you just miss those comforting things you took for granted at home.
At the top of the list for me would have been a perfectly grilled steak from my own backyard barbeque.
It’s hard to believe almost another entire year has passed since I started playing last season in Sweden. I’ve signed on with the Buffalo Sabres now and am looking forward to making a contribution to that organization.
But no matter what the coming months bring, I’ll always be thankful for the unique life experience playing in Sweden afforded me.
Defenseman Joe DiPenta returns to the NHL for a fifth NHL season after spending 2008-09 with the Frolunda Indians of the Swedish Elite League. The 30-year-old, who won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, will blog throughout the season about his experiences on the Buffalo Sabres blueline.