Everything about Leon Bristedt exudes European flair. The way he dances with the puck on the ice, looks for ways to make creative passes and celebrates his goals has quickly made him a fan favorite.
The Gophers’ Swedish freshman showed off some of this flash with a blind backhand assist through his legs in last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Michigan. The 5-foot-8, 184-pounder finished his second shift of the game by forcing a turnover behind the net and then beating two defenders to the puck with a burst of speed. Along the way, he noticed Seth Ambroz coming onto the ice and with his back to the target and defenders on each side of him, Bristedt put the puck on Ambroz’s stick to set up the goal.
This is just one of several highlights the 19-year-old has manufactured throughout the Gophers’ six-game unbeaten streak. He has five points (two goals, three assists) in that stretch and is solidifying his role as a first-line forward who can support standouts Kyle Rau and Hudson Fasching.
“I’m still learning,” Bristedt said about the transition of adapting to American hockey and his new home. “I’m still not where I want to be, but I’ve climbed a couple steps here. … It’s definitely been difficult. I was prepared that it would be different and difficult when I got here, but I think this transition took me longer than I thought it would.
“We’ve had some success here lately … I bring the Swedish style and they have the American style. So I think you have to accept it will take time [to adapt], and I think it’s starting to come now.”
The Gophers have 29 goals in the win streak, and have given up only four in their past four games entering this weekend’s series at Penn State.
Reaching this level of efficiency for the Gophers, however, took time.
While Bristedt had enough flashy tools to become just the third European skater to play for Don Lucia in his 16 years as coach, there was a lot of work to be done. Bristedt had never lived or played in a league outside Sweden. He played a regular role in international competition, but had never left his culture behind until August.
“It’s not easy,” Lucia said. “If I flew over to Sweden and try to go to school and play in a different culture, it’s not going to happen overnight. He didn’t have the opportunity to be here in June and all summer, so he starts in September and plays a little bit of catch-up.”
Lucia’s other foreign stars, Thomas Vanek and Erik Haula, both came to the United States to play junior or high school hockey and acclimated to their new homes before playing the college game.
Forward Robin Hoglund, a 21-year-old Swedish freshman who joined Bristedt on the roster this fall, also played in the U.S. before playing collegiately. Hoglund has played in five games.
Bristedt had the same high expectations that Vanek and Haula did, and notched an assist in his first collegiate game. Then the transition of leaving behind all he’s ever known and trying to catch up with his new life set in. He scored just three goals in the next 11 games leading up to winter break and dropped to the fourth line.
“It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him,” said Ryan Collins, a Gophers freshman defenseman and Bristedt’s roommate. “It’s hard for him to build those habits that contribute to us playing winning hockey here. But throughout the [last couple months] he’s done an extremely good job of it.”
The new friends spend most nights teaching one another about their cultures and avoiding the topic of hockey as much as possible. Collins said this helps both of them work through problems and makes it easier for Bristedt to focus on hockey when on the ice.
One thing Collins has learned about Bristedt is the special bond he has with family and friends. The separation has been overwhelming for Bristedt at times, but a chance to skate with the Sweden junior national team at the World Junior Championships over winter break changed everything.
“Getting back to a Swedish environment and looking back at [college hockey] with a different perspective was good for me,” Bristedt said. “I came back here with a new point of view, and I knew what was going to happen. It was kind of a fresh start.”
The Gophers like the Swedish-American hybrid Bristedt is evolving into, and last Saturday’s highlight is another confirmation that their foreign investment is paying off.