Johnny Oduya was brought to the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
With Kevin Kennedy
I was seven years old when I started playing hockey back in Sweden. I remember most of our games were at outdoor rinks. Some of them had a cover on top, but they weren’t fully enclosed. My brother also played hockey so I was always hanging around the rink and I actually don’t remember using any new equipment probably until I made it to junior. My gear was mostly hand-me-downs from my brother for sure. My mother was a single mom and having two boys playing hockey wasn’t the cheapest way to get some exercise. We’d buy some used stuff, I’d use some of my brother’s gear and we’d make it work.
I remember my mom would always stand in the corner of the rink to watch the game, never with the crowd of parents. Like any mom watching her son, she would get stressed out during games, but she never put much pressure on me.
I was never a star player growing up and never played with older guys or was moved up a level. I really took my time. When I was 12 years old, we actually came over to Canada for a tournament in Barrie, Ont., and that was definitely my most memorable moment from playing hockey when I was a kid. It was amazing to come over from Sweden and play against a bunch of Canadian teams.
I didn’t really play any other sports as a kid. Usually kids in Sweden play soccer, but I didn’t do any of that in an organized way. I think everybody I grew up with played soccer, but for me it was only hockey.
When I was going to school I worked in a cemetery during the summers. Not digging graves, but doing some landscaping type of stuff, for about three years. When I was 18, I came over to Canada to play junior and since then it’s only been hockey.
Being a seventh round pick, my path to the NHL was different from a lot of guys. In my draft year, I was playing junior in Quebec and at the end of the season I went back home to Sweden for the summer and got the word there that I had been drafted. At that point I was just happy somebody knew I existed. Unfortunately, it never really never worked out with Washington and it took another five years before I played my first NHL game.
When I got back, I was much more ready to play at the NHL level and I have no regrets. I’m not going to say the younger players get rushed in to the NHL these days, but there’s definitely more pressure to perform at a much younger age and I never really felt that pressure when I was just starting my hockey career. There’s a different path for everybody.
Throughout that time I never thought about a career outside of hockey. I mean, I obviously wanted to make it to the NHL, but there are other places you can make a career playing hockey so I don’t remember ever being really worried about it.
After training camp in 2006, I went down to the minors in Lowell and was there for only one day before getting the call to go back to New Jersey. I remember somebody from the office drove the four hours to get me to the rink and honestly I had no idea whether I was going to play.
When I stepped on the ice I remember thinking I was really doing it. This is real. The first game I remember not playing too much, which was kind of nice to get into it slowly. I remember my first shift I was partnered with Brian Rafalski, but the rest of the game was a blur.