'The Eagle' has embarked on a flight of fancy -- to Sweden

LEKSAND, Sweden -- Ed Belfour started his trip in North Dakota, had a stopover in Chicago, and finally arrived in Sweden. And that's not just his flight itinerary for last week. That's his career, in a nutshell.

Last season, Ed Belfour posted a respectable .902 save percentage in 58 games with the Florida Panthers. He also, at one point, played 27 consecutive games, the longest since his rookie season in Chicago 17 years prior.

However, as solid as his season was, it didn't get him the NHL contract he wanted, so "The Eagle" decided to trade the Florida sun and the smaller rinks for something different.

This season, Belfour will play in Leksand, Sweden, where, in December, the sun rises at 9 a.m. and sets at 3 p.m., leaving the 6,000 inhabitants with big packs of Ikea candles to burn. Where the nearest big center, Falun (pop. 35,000), is a 45-minute drive away. Where the rink is wider, where the players are mostly young Swedes who like to move the puck and would rather make one more pass than just shoot it in.

Belfour will be backstopping a team that's trying to get promoted back to the Swedish Elite League. To go back up to the Elite League, that is.

Last season, Belfour was trying to stop Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Henrik Zetterberg. This season, he'll be facing Marcus Paulsson, Johan Jakobsson and Niklas Zetterstrom -- but also other former NHLers Ville Nieminen, Patrik Juhlin and Kenny Jonsson, among others.

The question the dozens of reporters waiting for Belfour at the airport last week asked over and over again was: "Why?"

"I like a challenge, I think it's going to be a great adventure," he says. "I still love the game and think I can learn new things."

After his first week with the club, Belfour says he's already learning.

"The style of the game is a lot more different than I thought," he says. "I figured there would be more puck control here, but there's just a lot more of it. It's a nice game to watch, the players are skilled, and they pass the puck and skate nicely in an up-and-down game."

Ten years ago, Juha Lind was a rookie with the Dallas Stars, and he was Belfour's roommate at the training camp. Now they're teammates again, but it's his turn to help Belfour to get adjusted to the new surroundings, whether it's the language, explaining the drills or how to install Skype.

"I thought it was a joke at first, that Belfour would come to Leksand, but now I think that this story can have a really happy end," Lind says.

"I was his teammate for a year and a half in Dallas, and he doesn't seem to have changed from that. He's never been a loud guy in the locker room, he's kind of quiet, and works really hard, probably because he's had his problems with his back," Lind adds.

Belfour follows a strict strength regimen for his back. Nothing can stop him from completing it.

"I remember how he would come back to the room a littler later than me, a Finnish rookie," says Lind. "I'd hear grunting and the sounds of him working out in the dark room, no matter what the time was."

"I work out pretty much every day," says Belfour. "I do stretching, strength training. Any time you have an injury, you have to make sure you stay on top of it. My back feels pretty good now."

Although he has been practicing in the preseason with his former Florida teammates and his old college team, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, getting behind a new team in a new country is going to take some time to adjust to.

"He said he felt a little rusty in the first practices, but he's getting better all the time," says Lind.

"His style may not be the most beautiful one; he wasn't a great acrobat or a smooth butterfly goalie in Dallas, either. Instead, he relies on his instincts and reflexes."

The arrival of Ed Belfour has already put Leksand back on the hockey map in Sweden. The club's souvenir shop has sold half a dozen Belfour replica jerseys, which, at $500 each, are six times as expensive as the regular ones. His first game will be broadcast over the Internet.

It's different here, but I'd like to try and figure it out. This is going to be a challenge and bit of a learning curve, but I'm looking forward to it and to learning the European style.

-- Ed Belfour

"We'll give him some time to get to know the team and our style of play," says Leksand coach Tommy Kempe. "He needs to know how we work here, how the defense works, how we play shorthanded, and all that comes through practicing with the team. But he seems to be a very goal-oriented and a passionate player, and I am sure he wants to be treated just like any other player."

Leksand can afford to give Belfour time to adjust, with its own 19-year-old Eddie Läck second in goals against (1.62), and save percentage (.933) in the league.

"We wanted to have a goalie that would be the best in the league, and in Belfour, we may just have that," Kempe says.

In the Swedish Allsvenskan league, the teams mostly play two games a week, which gives Belfour plenty of time to practice.

"With two games a week, the practices become more important, but once he is ready to play, he'll play most of the games, I think. I don't think the schedule is going to be a problem," says Kempe.

While there are only 6,000 people living in Leksand, the club's home attendance averages 4,800. The lowest-ranking team in the league, Huddinge, just outside of Stockholm, has a home average of 540.

The fans impressed Belfour in the game he witnessed last week.

"The home crowd was great. They cheered the whole game, and it was nice to see that
they are so enthusiastic. The team has a great following; reminds me of the Maple Leafs," says Belfour, who wears a blue-and-white Maple Leafs mask and pads that match Leksand's colors.

Leksand is also the biggest draw in road games. In 2005-06, it topped the league in road attendance, and everybody wants the club to return to the Elite League.

With the signing of Belfour, it's expected to do just that.

"I don't feel any pressure from the fans. I put pressure on myself all the time," Belfour says. "I want to be as good as I can be, I don't want to fail. I always want to be at my best, and I take great pride in that. The fans might expect a shutout in every game, and that's OK, I'll just work hard and do my best. Hopefully, I'll live up to my own expectations."

Even at 42, and with a Vezina Trophy, Calder Trophy and the Stanley Cup ring to show for a spectacular career, Belfour is still hungry.

"I always want to be as good as I can be and try to be one of the best," he says. "It's different here, but I'd like to try and figure it out. This is going to be a challenge and bit of a learning curve, but I'm looking forward to it and to learning the European style. It'll make me a better goalie.

"The goal of the team is to make it back to the Elite League, and I'd like to help the team do that. I don't worry about now the next year now. It'll come. Time will tell."

Looks like The Eagle hasn't landed yet. Not yet.

Risto Pakarinen is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden.