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Date: Dec 7, 2019
Once you visit Nashville, it’s difficult to stay away.
So, when the invitation to return to the Elite Edge Hockey Showcase reached Sam Liebkind over 4,000 miles away in Norway, it was a no-brainer to start scouting for plane tickets.
Before long, the manager of the Nordic Hockey Academy was back with five more European players looking to not only improve their game, but do it in North America, a crucial step in their overall development on the ice.
Last June marked Liebkind’s first trip to Music City and Elite Edge, and it was everything he hoped it would be. Now, it’s becoming an annual journey – a bunch of Europeans travelling to Tennessee, of all places – to get better on and off the ice.
“Our guys get to play here, they get to see the American coaching, American standards, and being in Nashville, it’s a surprise for many that a southern state here can have hockey at this level, but hockey is big in Nashville,” Liebkind said. “Country music comes probably first to mind when you say Nashville, but this is a great experience for them in their hockey careers.”
Yes, performance on the ice matters most, but so much goes into that off the ice, too. Players have enjoyed a slew of seminar experiences this week, ranging from motivational speakers, nutrition and fitness, sport science and video sessions – it all plays a part in becoming a well-rounded athlete.
For the Europeans, combine those lessons with the opportunity to play on the North American ice sheet – a surface that is smaller and tighter than the international size they’re used to – and it’s an experience they simply can’t get anywhere back home.
The goal for all the Euros is to eventually come back to the continent to play collegiately or higher, and attending Elite Edge brings them closer to that dream.
“The culture is a lot different than Europe, the playing style especially, and I also think it’s really nice to be around the American teams and coaches,” Austrian forward Janick Wernicke said. “They make the experience fun, and it’s always good to show yourself off to the coaches and people that maybe want to have you in the future.”
“There’s a lot more intensity, and they shoot pucks from everywhere since it’s a smaller rink,” Swedish goaltender Christopher Fagerstrom said. “I also like the mindset here because everyone works hard all the time. It’s been fun.”
Established back in 2017, the Nordic Hockey Academy aims to give their players the best chance to advance into the North American game one day, putting an emphasis on coaching players using English, as well as off-ice teachings like preparations to take the SAT and qualify for college.
For Liebkind, providing that classroom experience is just as important as dealing with sticks and pucks, and giving his players a taste of the American way of life is key.
“They always learn something new; it comes from a different perspective and they really understand how challenging it is to get to this level and play junior in the U.S. or go to college,” Liebkind said. “Sometimes when you’re in a small country in Europe, you think if you’re the best in your division you’ll have a chance, but you’ve got to realize there’s a lot more work to be done. I think these camps and these tournaments really give them that, but at the same time, it gives them a self confidence boost.
“I thought our players hung in pretty well this year, and that’s good for us. It gives them the motivation to be even better when they return home.”
Liebkind says he noticed a difference in the players he brought over last summer once they got back to Norway. Their confidence was higher, and that in turn led those players to work even harder for the upcoming season. He’s confident the same will be true this time around, and every little detail at Elite Edge plays a part.
“The guys see different perspectives, different backgrounds, daily routines, and Americans think and live differently than we do,” Liebkind said. “To hear their daily habits and how they do things, that’s very valuable for us. It’s a completely different way of looking at things, so I think it’s very good that this camp not only has games, but it’s very important we see the kids in practice environments, seminars, fitness, we see how they behave, because that’s a big part of scouting players. We need to see how they are as people, not just as a player, so the concept is excellent.”
The participants would agree, and not only do they have the chance to skate in the same city as players they follow like Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg and Pekka Rinne of the Predators, they do so with the knowledge that they’re getting better by the day.
So, who knows? Perhaps one of these players will be back to the United States one day in a different capacity. There’s no better place to get that first taste than right here in Nashville.
“All of our goals are to go to North America when we’re done with school, maybe college or higher levels, so it’s great preparation to learn how to play in a smaller rink,” Wernicke said. “It’s just a great experience in general.”