Most 21-year-olds are enjoying college life or partying in Las Vegas, not winning a team MVP award. But that's exactly what Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson did in 2013.
Affectionately called OEL or Harry (for his striking resemblance to Harry Potter, stemming from dressing as the wizard for Halloween), Ekman-Larsson is a star in the making. Maybe even the next face of the franchise.
After gaining international attention for his strong two-way game during the 2013 season, he was rewarded with a six-year contract in March.
"(It was a) big day for my family and myself. I'm real happy to be in the organization, and I think we have something great here," Ekman-Larsson said. "I just love playing hockey and I try to get better every practice and game."
Ekman-Larsson no longer flies under the radar.
The still-young Swede has grown up before Coyotes' fans eyes in a way few have. His once cult-like following has expanded to make him a mainstream star. Even national fans and media have taken notice to the now 22-year-old.
His teammates glow when they talk about the skill of the young defenseman. Captain Shane Doan said OEL is "special" and "he could be one of the best players in the league." Fellow defenseman Michael Stone said, "(Ekman-Larsson) just makes everything look so easy and effortless."
Even his coach is impressed. "He's a young player still, so there is still a learning curve there but, he's come a long way in a couple years. He's a very, very good player," Dave Tippett said.
The future did not always look so bright. OEL was not drafted in the top-five and joined a team with an uncertain future.
With their ownership situation in shambles, the Coyotes entered the 2009 NHL Entry Draft with the sixth overall pick. The top five picks were all forwards with second overall pick Victor Hedman the only exception. It was the last draft of the Wayne Gretzky era. He resigned as head coach two months later.
The Coyotes were on the clock with an 18-year-old defenseman from Karlskrona, Sweden at the top of their draft board. A defenseman, who three months prior, scored eight points in six games for team Sweden in the 2009 IIHF World U18 Championships. A defenseman who scored 17 points in 39 games in ‘08-‘09 for Leksands Idrottsförening (Leksands IF) of Sweden's No. 2 league, HockeyAllsvenskan.
Phoenix drafted Ekman-Larsson and eventually sent him back to his home country for the ‘09-‘10 season. He made his NHL debut in Boston on Oct. 9, 2010.
In his first three NHL seasons, he has amassed 17 goals and 67 points in 178 games. He's as effective defensively as he is offensively, making him one of the most well rounded defenseman in the game.
"I love coming to the rink (in Glendale) every day," Ekman-Larsson said.
For a city in desperate need of a sports superstar on a winning team, Ekman-Larsson presents the perfect mix of talent, professionalism and youth that could make him a superstar. When Doan finally passes the torch, it may very well be to Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
For a city in desperate need of a sports superstar on a winning team, OEL presents the perfect mix of talent, professionalism and youth that makes a superstar. When Doan finally passes the torch and the "C" on his jersey, it may very well be to Oliver Ekman-Larsson.