Swedish MSU hockey player Villiam Haag finds home at State
For talented hockey players in Sweden, there is a pretty standard route to making it big. First, they play for junior or youth teams operated by professional clubs. And next, if they are good enough, they advance to the professional level of club play.
That wasn’t the case for MSU junior forward Villiam Haag, though, because he packed his bags and moved 4,007 miles and six time zones away from his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.
Getting his start
It was a stroke of luck that Haag ended up in East Lansing. He was a 19-year-old standout developing under Gothenburg’s hometown team Vastra Frolunda HC. Haag amassed 46 points in 41 games played, including a J20 SuperElit League leading 29 goals, and this caught the eye of the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks, a United States Hockey League, or UHSL, team, reached out to their scouts in Sweden and in came 6-foot-1, 198-pound Haag.
Haag delivered for the Lumberjacks, churning out seven points in 11 games. And to Haag’s surprise, he wasn’t just impressing coaches, but the father of Red Wings forward and former-Spartan Justin Abdelkader took notice, too.
“I was up in Muskegon for a month to play and (Joseph) Abdelkader said, ‘Well my son went to Michigan State and it’s pretty close, do you want to go down and just see how it is at an American university?’” Haag said. “We just went down and I just wanted to see how it is. I met the coaches and just said 'hi' and it was nothing more than that.”
Little did Haag know, it was more than that. Intrigued by Haag, MSU’s coaching staff, especially assistant coach Tom Newton, decided to pursue him.
“I had an opportunity to go watch him play and he played well,” Newton said. “Once we had a picture of where he was academically and that he really wanted to do this (come to MSU), I went back over (to Sweden) and met with him and his family and the rest is history.”
Haag didn't need much convincing, because after Newton extended the offer to join the squad he accepted without hesitation.
“I just felt to be able to study, play good hockey at the same time because we can’t really do that in Sweden — it was a good deal,” Haag said. “I just felt well this is perfect. Took the plane over and I’m standing here.”
Adjusting to a new life
As with any new situation, there was a learning curve. Haag was no exception. It was different.
Though he grew up in the second largest city in Sweden with more than 500,000 people surrounding him daily, coming to a confined space with 50,000 in another country was a whole other experience.
Nevertheless, Haag wasn’t alone in his journey. His roommate, junior forward JT Stenglein, was dealing with the hardships of a transitioning life as well.
"The language barrier kind of was a big thing at first and then just trying to teach him like just how to say stuff. He asked like what the shaker ball inside the shaker thing does and he's like, 'What is ball does?'" Stenglein said, cracking up. "Stuff like that makes you laugh, so it was definitely funny. He's a laid back guy so we had a blast doing it and just kind of worked our way through freshman year together.
"Most of the other guys in the freshman class all knew each other, kind of, and then me and Vill kind of came in and didn't really know — or at least knew some Michigan guys — we didn't really know anybody so I think we came pretty close just until we got to know some more guys and stuff."
Along with Stenglein, Haag has developed strong friendships with his American teammates. But the person who influenced him the most was current MSU captain and senior forward Michael Ferrantino.
“He’s just a happy-go-lucky kid, always smiling and cracking jokes,” Ferrantino said. “He goes with the flow, he’s the same way at home.”
Great friends, the pair now live together off campus. Ferrantino has seen Haag in a light not many others have seen.
“He’s interested in everything,” Ferrantino said. “Something comes up and he’s like, ‘Oh I’d love to do it’ and kind of get the experience. I think he’s making the most of his time over here for sure.”
Haag and his teammates have traded cultural experiences and to Haag it’s benefitted him well.
“We always ask him different things, whether it is, you know, different words in Swedish or what kind of food they eat,” Ferrantino said. “We always ask him to make us something Swedish. We’re always kinda picking at him a little bit.”
Hockey at MSU
As for the hockey part of the deal, his numbers haven’t matched the production he had in Sweden.
In large part the numbers are down because of the difference in the styles of hockey. With a larger ice surface in Sweden and a game based on skill, the physicality and puck movement in America has contrasted with the style Haag grew up playing.
Haag has produced 28 points in 86 career games for the Spartans, but he usually helps by parking his frame in front of the net on power plays. Solid defensively, and an arduous shot blocker, Haag has continued to produce on the ice — even if it’s not in the points department.
"Of course it's been tough, maybe this season hasn't been going exactly as I want but it's sport and it's something you have to deal with and learn," Haag said about the struggle. "As a whole you just have to realize it's (hockey) something we do to have fun and that's always why I've been playing."
Haag also likes to add a little Swede to his game, often chirping other players in his native tongue.
“Once in awhile, to get them going, maybe, because they don't know what I try to do...” Haag said before cutting himself off mid-sentence to laugh. “It’s fun for me to say whatever I can and they don’t understand anything.”
Both Haag’s parents still reside in Gothenburg and he dreams of one day returning to play for the Frolunda Indians on the pro circuit, perhaps even making a stint on the Swedish national team.
He returns every summer to train alongside current NHL stars from Gothenburg who also played for Frolunda. The likes of which include Erik Karlsson, Henrik Lundqvist and Joakim Andersson.
Nearly turning pro, he still wonders sometimes what his life would be like if he had signed with Frolunda instead of MSU. He played for Frolunda since he was 10 years old and saw many of his idols make the transition from junior hockey to pro.
“Of course I was wishing that I could do the same and just play in front of my family and friends in my town,” Haag said. “But I know (there) are different ways to go (and) I feel this (is) something that ended up really well and I’m not angry or whatever you say for ending up here.
“This is one of the greatest places I've ever been at, so I just feel it’s another way to maybe end up there after four years here or something like that. I’m just very happy.”