This article appears in the Nov. 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
LIKE MANY PROMISING ROOKIES, Avalanche left winger Gabriel Landeskog is often called "mature beyond his years." But dig deeper into Landeskog's story and you'll find that for him, the description is more than just another cliche.
Take, for example, his methodical approach to reaching the NHL. Three years ago, at age 16, the Stockholm native declined an offer to follow the path of most native phenoms by staying in the Swedish Elite League. Instead, Landeskog left his parents to play in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kitchener Rangers.
"At that point, my role was pretty much just as a physical player, more of a grinder," says the 6'1", 204-pound Landeskog. "I wanted to prove my game with the puck and improve my skills and at the same time use my physical game to my advantage."
That was the on-ice plan.
Upon moving in with his host family, the Mitchells, Landeskog launched his off-ice plan. He expected to be in juniors for three years, so he set goals for each one.
During the first year, in 2009-10, he wanted to get acclimated to North American culture and become fluent in English, so he spent countless hours studying the sitcom Friends. "My brother downloaded all 10 seasons for me," he says.
In year two, he wanted to focus on learning how to cook, inspired by his mother, a chef instructor in Sweden. He also needed to get stronger, so when he accompanied the Mitchells on a vacation to Ontario's Kawagama Lake, it wasn't just a summer break. "He worked out every day," says host mom Ramona Mitchell. "He'd hang off the back of the stairs
and do pull-ups and exercises on the dock. It was crazy." The hard work paid off on the ice: After scoring 24 goals his first year in Kitchener, he enjoyed a breakthrough second season in which he tallied 36 goals and became the team's first European captain.
For his third year, which was to begin this fall, Landeskog was hoping to master household chores so that when he left junior hockey he'd be fully prepared for life on his own. But his education was cut short when he was selected by Colorado with the second pick in the NHL draft in June, then made the team in October. This season, the gritty two-way threat has already become a fixture on one of the league's youngest teams, drawing comparisons to a legendary
Avs power forward with Swedish blood: Peter Forsberg. At the end of his first month, Landeskog was among rookie leaders in both goals and hits. "His play has been phenomenal," says teammate Daniel Winnik.
Landeskog could be in line to replicate the achievement of ex-Kitchener teammate and current Hurricanes All-Star Jeff Skinner, last season's Calder Trophy winner as the NHL's top rookie. "The sky is the limit," Skinner says of Landeskog. "He definitely has the mentality to do whatever he wants."
When he wants.