In Sweden, William Nylander cements his status as a true NHL star

STOCKHOLM — At the corner of Hamngatan and Regeringsgatan streets, William Nylander’s younger sisters pulled out their phones to capture the scene unfolding.

Arms held high to shoot a video, they had to dart in and out of the crowd before turning the corner and laughing in surprise. Though the temperature had dipped below freezing and high-end shopping stores were dotting the streets around them, their brother was the main attraction. A crowd of hundreds had lined up around two streets for an autograph signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs winger.

Nylander has consistently attested that his favorite part of being in Stockholm was seeing family. But on Saturday afternoon, after a brief visit with some of his family following practice, fans might attest their favorite experience from the NHL’s Global Series was getting a glimpse of that affable, laid-back brother.

Autograph signings are commonplace for athletes like Nylander, but rarely are they this well-attended. And just as rare is the constant aplomb and toothful grin Nylander met every fan with.

“You’re from Toronto?” Nylander asked one group of fans. “And you came all the way to Sweden? That’s so nice.”

Nylander could have spent the afternoon hanging with his sisters, whom he rarely gets to see during the season. And he could be forgiven for tiring under the expectations and days spent as the center of attention in Stockholm.

Instead, his enthusiasm spoke volumes.

Welcome to the William Nylander show in Sweden.

“He’s one of those guys: Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking or it can feel like a big responsibility,” fellow Swede and former teammate Rasmus Sandin said. “But for Willy, he’s just going to have fun. He just goes with the flow. Going to Sweden, this is going to be one of the best experiences of his career.”



The making of William Nylander: Born in Canada, raised all over, forever at home in Sweden

Riding the high of a 16-game point streak to start the season and handling the spotlight with equal parts swagger and genuine gratitude, Nylander’s week in Sweden will be the point in his career when his status as a true NHL star has been cemented.

His face has been the biggest one among other NHL players in promotional materials throughout Stockholm. The applause and cheers he received when he was introduced, when he touched the puck, or when he turned the ice on its head with his play in the Leafs’ Friday night win over the Detroit Red Wings dwarfed his compatriots.

They were sounds reserved for the game’s biggest stars. And now, it’s probably time to start speaking about Nylander in the same breath as the NHL’s best.

Frankly, they’re sounds that Nylander hasn’t always heard consistently in a career that has sometimes seen him overshadowed by his teammates.

Auston Matthews is the Leafs’ best player and arguably the best in franchise history. Mitch Marner is the boyhood fan who can do things on the ice few playmakers can. John Tavares is the local boy who came home to be captain.

“A couple years ago, (Nylander) was an add-on, a side dish,” former Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said. “But that’s changing.”

Throughout the first 16 games of the season, Nylander has produced in a way that would leave highlight reel producers with plenty of his film on the cutting room floor. For a league that uses clips of stunning offensive play on social media as currency, Nylander has provided the NHL with an abundance of value this season.

“He’s put himself in the conversation with the best players in the game,” Tavares said.

Who Nylander is off the ice in Sweden also contributes to his star status. Throughout the week, the demands on Nylander’s time have been constant.

In a joint availability with Marner, Marner faced one lone question, made a joke about it, then jetted away from the cameras and back to his teammates. It was Nylander the media, and the fans, wanted to see.

That was true at the premiere of “BÖRJE,” a Swedish docuseries about Börje Salming, where Nylander was as in demand on the red carpet as many of the former NHL stars there including Hall of Famers Mats Sundin and Nicklas Lidstrom.

For half an hour after Leafs practice on Saturday, though he was facing more than an hour of autographs on the other side of town, Nylander made time for the dozens of young fans sitting in the stands at Hovet Arena. He posed for selfies and answered every request as he has all week.

The thing is, the William Nylander in Stockholm is the same William Nylander who shows up every day in Toronto.

“(Nylander) loves (the spotlight). He’s kind of quiet, but he embraces it in a really cool way, which is his own way,” Leafs defenseman John Klingberg said.

Klingberg is right: Nylander’s laid-back demeanor and ability to never waver under the pressure of being a Leaf is part of what made Tavares say Nylander is “built to play in Toronto.”

Nylander continued to show ease as a bona fide celebrity in a way that separates him from most NHL players. Like it or not, what an NHL player wears has become an indelible part of a star’s brand. Nylander has become one of the most marketable NHL players in that regard. It has become commonplace for NHL teams to use their social media accounts to showcase what players wear to games. It’s a small window into each player’s personality.

“That sells the game too. A lot of basketball players and football players, the way they have personalities and how they dress, it gives them the spotlight. I think that’s something hockey can take after as well,” Klingberg said.

And Nylander throws that door wide open with his attire that never deviates from his effortlessly cool attitude.

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William Nylander signs autographs for fans after practice. (Joshua Kloke / The Athletic)

In Stockholm, a city that could make slick-looking attire part of the city flag, it’s easy to see how Nylander was inspired to break from the mold.

“(Nylander) has street style,” Klingberg said. “He reps both sides: He can come one day and look like a high-end Stockholm guy but he can also look like a street guy.”

Anecdotally, it’s fair to view the NHL as a more conservative league compared to, say, the NBA thanks in part to the tight-lipped and buttoned-up nature of hockey players.

But with high-end production in tow, it now only feels like a matter of time until high-end but cutting-edge brands looking for NHL players to sponsor see Nylander as an ideal way to crack into a new market. And if you’re a young player excelling in the game but don’t want to subscribe to that aforementioned buttoned-up culture, Nylander’s personality provides a blueprint for success.

When it comes to undisputed success, perhaps the only thing missing for Nylander is an elusive, lengthy postseason run with the Maple Leafs.

“(Sweden) sees him as a super-talented player. Everybody knows about William,” former Leaf and Frölunda GM Fredrik Sjöström said. “I don’t think he’s maybe yet reached the status of Peter Forsberg or Mats Sundin. But that could also change if he were to win in Toronto.”

And perhaps then, the torch could be passed from Sundin to Nylander as the next great Swedish Leaf. He’s standing on the precipice as it is.

“We all know William is a great hockey player, and it’s great to see him get off to such a strong start this season,” Sundin told reporters at the premiere of “BÖRJE.” “And knowing that Toronto is such a great team, hopefully he’ll continue like that and hopefully Toronto will have a great chance this spring.”

Whether Nylander, in the final year of his contract, re-signs in Toronto remains to be seen. But the interest in him on and off the ice has reached a newfound high.

Because Nylander’s week in Sweden has made clear that he isn’t just a star many fans want to stay in Toronto. He’s become a player the NHL needs both in North America and abroad.

“When you’re a kid, the time difference makes it difficult to watch the NHL (in Sweden),” Klingberg said. “But every kid plays the video games, and (Nylander) is a poster boy. It’s going to be cool for people to see him up close.”

(Top photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

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