Swede star William Nylander already Leafs Nation's favourite son
Sweden forward and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick William Nylander has been getting the star treatment from fans in the city during the World Junior Hockey Championship. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)
With his innocent looking baby face and flowing golden locks, William Nylander has that Hollywood look.
Or, in this case, Hollywood North, since his NHL rights belong to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And now that he has been in Hogtown for just over a week as part of the World Junior Hockey Championship, he has been given the star treatment by the fans here despite having never played a regular-season game for the beloved Blue and White.
When he walks out on the street, fans clamour for his autograph. If he walks through the hotel, chances are he’ll eventually end up graciously posing for photos with dozens of his supporters.
Make no mistake. Nylander, 18, is not overwhelmed by the attention. Talk to the Leafs’ 2014 first-round pick and you’ll quickly discover that he’s not really overwhelmed by ANYTHING, instead oozing with the type of confidence usually shown by veterans 10 years his senior.
What the experience has done, however, is made him even hungrier to make Toronto his permanent hockey home sooner rather than later. Whereas many players shun the limelight in the hockey fishbowl that is this city, Nylander covets it.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “There’s been attention almost all the time.
“In the lobby, people usually come by and take pictures. I get asked to sign things a lot. I kind of expected it because I experienced a bit of it in training camp (in Ottawa).”
Of course, the taste of notoriety he received in the nation’s capital was nowhere near at the level that has welcomed him since he and his Swedish teammates first took to the ice at the Air Canada Centre to open the tournament on Boxing Day.
“It’s been really fun playing in front of what hopefully will be my home fans for a long time.”
And why wouldn’t it be? With Team Canada not having played a tournament game at the ACC until Friday’s quarterfinal clash against Denmark, the Toronto fans easily seem to have adopted Nylander as their prodigal son.
Swedish defenceman Gustav Forsling has quickly learned that lesson.
After Forsling tied Sweden’s quarterfinal game against Finland 1-1 at 4:03 of the second period Friday afternoon, the announcement of his goal received a healthy round of applause. Of course, when Nylander’s name came over the PA for his assist, the joint erupted.
“It’s good fun,” Forsling said after the game, a 6-3 victory that landed the Swedes a spot in the semifinals against Russia.
“If someone scores and he gets the assist, the crowd lets everyone know he got the assist. It’s cool.
“He’s kind of a hero around here. He’s real big. That’s fine. It’s fun for him.
“When we played the Russians (in the preliminary round), I think the fans were screaming for Sweden. I think that, thanks to William, we got the crowd on our side.”
The building could once again be pro-Sweden when Nylander and co. face Russia for the second time in the tournament. Sweden defeated the Russians 3-2 in the preliminary round Dec. 29.
“We can’t think about that game,” Nylander said. “Did we get confidence by beating them? Sure. But that game means nothing now if we want to move on.”
Nylander was probably asked that question six more times in the 25 minutes he spent speaking with the media. Long after his teammates had finished up their duties with the press, Nylander patiently answered every query before finally disappearing toward the dressing room.
Could all this attention end up being a distraction for Nylander?
Thus far, at least, Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg says no, adding that being the son of former NHLer Michael Nylander likely familiarized the kid for this.
“Obviously he grew up with his dad, so he grew up in this type of environment,” Gronborg said. “It makes him aware of that and used to it to a certain degree. He’s been preparing for it. He’s been doing a tremendous job of staying focussed on his craft.
“We always ask how much he can handle before his performance starts going down. So far, so good.”
Nylander was named Sweden’s player of the game Friday after registering a pair of assists. If he keeps up performances like that, he’ll be a fan favourite in these parts for years to come.
He already is now.