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

STOCKHOLM — About 35 minutes outside Stockholm sits the place that always felt most like home for William Nylander.

It is the long-time offseason home of former NHLer Michael Nylander, and it’s where the Nylander family has been congregating every summer since William Nylander was a boy.

There’s the main house, the guest house and the barn where William practically lived from the time he was old enough to hold a hockey stick. It isn’t the kind of barn where you might house cows, horses and piles of hay. It’s nicer than that, William says. There are wooden floors and, as you might expect in a household of hockey players, two hockey nets.

William and his younger brother Alex would be holed up there for hours, day after day, every summer when they were kids.

Alex would play goalie and William would fire shots. Sticks would be thrown. Fights would ensue.

“But then after the fight, no matter what happened,” Alex said, “we would be best friends again.”

Then they might step and fire pucks on the shooting ramp Michael built in the yard by the soccer nets. After that, zip the 30 seconds it took to the nearby dock for a jump in the lake. Then, a visit to the sauna.

As boys, William and Alex would often make their way over to their father’s gym, where they would watch Dad go through his offseason workouts in preparation for another NHL season.

Then, the summer would come to an end and young William, and the rest of the family, would follow Dad back to North America. Somewhere in North America.

William Nylander’s life has been forever split between two worlds and two homes.

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William Nylander is right at home in Sweden. (Jesper Zerman / The Associated Press)

Almost every fall, it seemed, Dad’s NHL jersey changed.

Which meant a new city, new school, new friends, new home, new minor hockey team and new hockey heroes for William (outside of Dad, of course).

William Nylander was born in Calgary while his dad was playing for the Flames. Michael was traded there from Hartford. He spent parts of five seasons with the Flames before they dealt him to Tampa Bay. Michael played only 35 games for the Lightning before another deal sent him — and the family — to Chicago.

Trades weren’t talked about in the singular, but rather, the “we.” Michael Nylander wasn’t getting traded. The Nylanders were.

William was just starting the first grade when the Blackhawks traded his dad yet again, after only nine games in the fall of 2002, to Washington. The Capitals flipped Michael to Boston not long before the 2004 trade deadline.

Michael signed with the New York Rangers not long before the 2004-05 lockout. After two seasons there, the family trekked back to Washington, where Michael signed as a free agent.

Over 17 years, Michael Nylander played for seven teams – none lasting longer than a 239-game run with the Blackhawks. He also suited up in Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and Finland, as well as minor league outposts in Rochester and Grand Rapids.

“Moving around – it’s been like that since I was born,” William said. “It’s just the way it was. And actually, every time we moved somewhere, we thought it was fun.”

Moving came to feel normal. The first week at a new school was nerve-wracking, but also familiar. So was making new friends in Chicago, Washington, and New York, the three spots that occupied most of William’s childhood.

It helped that William and Alex always had each other, along with four sisters. Alex was born in Calgary two years after William. They did everything together.

“Willy and Alex, they’re like stuck,” said Rasmus Sandin, the former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman and a close friend of the Nylander family. “They’re together all the time.”

Alex says William is a little quieter than he is, a little less goofy, and more similar to their dad.

Thommy Nylander, Michael’s younger brother and William’s uncle, thinks William inherited his father’s mentality, among other things. Thommy trains William every summer (he’s also a chiropractor and often treats William) and said his thoroughness in preparation is very much like Michael’s.

“He’s so warm and a nice guy, but when you get to the gym, he’s very serious about working,” Thommy said. “He’s probably the best player, but he’s still doing the hours and he’s serious. He doesn’t want to waste time.”

Anders Sorensen, who coached William when he was a kid in Chicago, saw him do things that seemed beyond the comprehension for someone his age. Like the time William dropped the puck behind his own net and took off.

“What are you doing?” Sorensen asked.

“Well, we’re breaking out!” Nylander responded. “It’s a power play!”

He was unmistakably the son of an NHLer.

Michael would bring William and Alex around to the rink often. They thought it was the coolest thing imaginable, being there with Dad where actual NHL hockey was being played.

William would hop onto the ice with Alex and shoot pucks before practice. Then he would retreat, on Dad’s orders, to the ping-pong lounge. From there, they would amble over to the dressing room and inspect the sticks of their father’s teammates – stars like Tony Amonte and Doug Gilmour in Chicago or Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra in Washington.

When Michael played for the Rangers, the Nylanders lived for a time in Greenwich Village — about a half-hour’s walk from Madison Square Garden. William’s mother, Camilla, would walk the kids around midtown Manhattan before Michael’s games and then walk up the stairs into the arena.

The “green room” at MSG was particularly special.

“I guess it’s called a family room,” William said. “But me and my brother called it the green room. ‘We’re going to the green room!’ Go smash a Coke every period and watch the game.”

In the green room, they could sip as much Coca-Cola as they wanted.

“It’s like ‘Mom, can I have a Coke?’ ‘No. Today’s not Saturday.’ There you don’t even have to ask mom,” William said.

Their mini sticks were with them always. William and Alex didn’t need much to create a playing ground. A doorway for a goal was all it took.

That’s what made their house in Washington so thrilling: It had a big basement that was perfect for hockey. And because their dad just happened to play in the NHL, those games grew to include actual NHL players.

Fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom visited the Nylander home for dinner frequently. Backstrom says he felt like another one of Michael’s kids. For William and Alex, Backstrom was their dad’s work colleague and also an honourary sibling.

At one Thanksgiving dinner, the Nylanders — with chef Michael doing the cooking — hosted Backstrom and his even starrier Capitals teammate, Alex Ovechkin.

Life amongst the stars was just part of the deal for William growing up. There was that one time he looked up in the elevator at MSG and saw Mario Lemieux standing across from him.

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Michael, William and Alex Nylander in 2016. (Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)

Michael taught William the game. At first, he just let William and Alex play for fun. But as they grew older and more serious about the sport, he would instruct them on how to shoot, how to skate, how to do everything on the ice. They would watch, take notes and try to do it all the same.

“Growing up, we would follow him around and stuff, but it wasn’t like he was pushing us or anything,” William said. “But once we decided that we wanted to play, he helped us out a lot and pushed us in the right way.”

Dan Houck, who coached William when he lived in Washington, saw the same thing in him that he did with all the sons of the Capitals he coached. They all seemed to come fully stocked with a certain hockey intelligence.

William saw the ice just like his dad, Thommy Nylander says.

“William was front-row to some of the most dynamic offensive talents in the NHL,” Houck said. “I think that was formidable for him in his development as a player.”

Backstrom remembers watching William and Alex both play for a local youth team. “I knew they were special players, for sure,” he said. “They were dominant.”

“I always looked up to my dad and wanted to be like my dad,” William said.

But William never played much like his dad. Michael was a pure setup man. He didn’t have William’s power as a skater or shooter.

Sorensen wonders if William, raised on all those North American rinks, had more of a shooter’s mentality than his dad, who came up in Europe, where most players think pass first.

Sorensen coached William and his dad together for Södertälje in the Swedish Hockey League when William was 16 and Michael was almost 40. They would all chuckle at signs in the rink that said explicitly: “No parents allowed on the bench.”

Not only were they on the same bench, but often the same line, with William at right wing and Michael in the middle. During one game, William pleaded with his dad: “Pass me the puck instead of hanging onto it!”

Michael wasn’t an overbearing hockey dad. He even pushed his boys to explore other sports. He did like to ask lots of questions though.

“I call him ‘Wallander’ sometimes,” Sorensen said, referring to the fictional Swedish detective, “He’s always like, ‘Why is that? What do you think about that? Why did you do it this way? Why did you do it that way?’ He’s a smart man. He’s a very smart man. He cares for his family, he cares for people around him so I’ve always got along with him great.”

As Sorensen noted, it was usually Camilla who handled a large chunk of the duties when it came to getting William to the rink.

Even as a youngster, the skill always popped with William.

Houck remembers the first time he faced William, when he was 10 and playing for the Greenwich Jr. Blues. Houck’s squad was a year older, but they still trailed by a goal late and pulled their goalie. The puck popped up and hit the stick of the “wrong” player — William Nylander. He calmly shot it down the ice into the empty net.

“Not many kids at age 10 would have the wherewithal [to do that],” Houck says. “If you miss that and it’s an icing, then the puck’s pinned in your end again.”

Sorensen remembers a select tournament in Toronto when William faced off against future NHLers like Connor McDavid, Josh Ho-Sang and Robby Fabbri. Someone came up to Sorensen and said: “This Nylander kid, he’s right up there with all those other guys.”

Michael was a little surprised when he heard about it: “They really think he’s that good?”

Houck’s primary objective when he coached Nylander was to ensure he didn’t stifle that skill. He wanted to let those gifts shine as brightly as possible, especially in key spots with the game on the line.

What sticks out most in Houck’s memory of William is how he loved the game. This wasn’t a kid who played because of his dad. It was the opposite with William, who would even sneak onto the ice with Alex’s team whenever he could.

“We always just loved hockey from the first time we ever played it,” Alex said.

William still retreats to Sweden every offseason.

“Mostly what you miss about Sweden is the family,” he said.

The Nylanders are an especially tight bunch. Michael is one of seven siblings himself. It’s not uncommon for the Nylanders to make their way to Toronto. Thommy and his older brother, Peter, came to watch in April.

In his early years with the Leafs, William was announced at home games as hailing from Calgary. That changed a couple of seasons ago. Now, when he’s introduced, it’s “from Stockholm, Sweden.”

Stockholm became home on a more permanent basis at 14 when Michael’s NHL days came to an end and when William, with Canadian and Swedish citizenship, had to decide where he would play his hockey internationally. He and Alex both opted for Sweden. That’s when he and Alex could begin to enjoy the outdoor rinks in and around Stockholm and “play and play and play and never go home” as Alex remembered it.

For a long time, William stayed with his parents when he returned to Sweden in the summer. He’s since bought an apartment in Stockholm and invited Alex to live with him in the offseason. They take William’s two dogs for walks down by the water. They hit Ciccios for dinner or Brasserie Astoria next door, or Restaurant AG for a quality steak.

William will golf five days a week with Sandin during the offseason, forever finding space for a daily nap. William and Alex might have friends over and still William will dip out for his daily nap. “We both nap a lot,” Alex said, “but you’ll never see somebody who naps more than my brother. He’ll nap 365 days of the year.”

William is still trained at home by his dad through his Playmaker92 agency.

William and Alex will usually hit the gym around 8 a.m. By 10, it’s over to the ice with a much larger group that includes Sandin and his brother, Linus, for on-ice sessions lasting an hour and a half led by Michael.

Few, if any, NHL players are trained by their former NHL-playing fathers. Michael is known to be a master of the details, creating the kind of skill drills that only a former player of his calibre could.

Another bonus of returning home to Sweden for William is the chance to eat his dad’s cooking.

Michael has been something of a foodie dating back to his playing days. He prepares “gourmet” meals with a starter, main, and dessert. (Unprompted, Backstrom mentioned Michael’s excellent food.)

Sandin remembers a particularly delicious potato pancake and says the experience of eating a Michael Nylander meal is “like you’re going to a Michelin-star restaurant.”

That’s the thing about Sweden for William. It’s home. It’s family. It’s the place he could, and can still, always come back to. It’s the place where he’s able to find some distance from his hockey-playing life.

The days of hopscotching around North America have long been over. William has played the entirety of his career with the Leafs. Toronto has become his adopted second home. He rides the TTC to most home games these days.

He feels settled in Toronto, though, he adds with a big laugh, “With every year having a trade rumor.”

Two worlds. Two homes. Forever the life of William Nylander.

It’s how he was made.

(Top photos: Claus Anderson / Getty Images; Courtesy of Dan Houck and Anders Sorensen)

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