Ingham County’s largest lake, Lake Lansing, is just a 13-minute drive from Munn Ice Arena. If you’re there over the summer or when the spring semester ends, there’s an off-chance you’ll run into a towering 6-foot-6 20-year-old. And no, it’s not a member of Michigan State’s basketball team, nor an offensive lineman on the football team.
It’s Viktor Hurtig, the freshman defenseman on Michigan State’s hockey team.
The Swede was a late July addition to MSU’s freshman class, and besides the appeal of playing hockey for a Big Ten school in America, Michigan’s abundance of lakes helped reel in the 2021 New Jersey Devils draft selection.
When the team gathered over the summer to embark on the first season under newly hired Head Coach Adam Nightingale, a couple team-bonding fishing outings occurred too. Hurtig caught his first-ever bass, in addition to a catfish, but it was only a minor feat for a guy who’s used to catching pike and perch in the River Dalälven in his hometown of Avesta.
“Viktor’s (a) sneaky, really good fisherman,” MSU Associate Head Coach Jared DeMichiel said. “I don’t know how many people would think that for a 6-6 Swede. He loves to fish.”
Moments like those are what’s helped Hurtig adjust to life in the United States. When he was 16-years old, he moved away from home to play high school hockey for Västerås IK, the same high school where Detroit Red Wings legend and family friend Nicklas Lidström played. Lidstrom and Hurtig’s father, Mikael, grew up together, explaining Hurtig’s childhood fandom of the Red Wings.
DeMichiel, who was hired away from the Massachusetts staff in May, received a phone call from a friend, who told him to take a look at Hurtig. Michigan State was in need of at least one more defenseman after Dennis Cesana graduated and Aiden Gallacher transferred. DeMichiel and the MSU staff watched the tape and talked with members of the Devils organization, soon realizing they may have found a late steal.
“I think the first obvious thing is his size, but also how well he moves for his size,” DeMichiel said of his first impressions of Hurtig. “(It) felt like he handled pucks pretty well and had a little bit of offense to him. Sometimes a player that size can be a little clunky and Viktor's not that. He's got really good feet for someone that's 6' 6”, or however big he is.”
DeMichiel gave Hurtig a call and let him know that there was a spot on the roster for him. Hurtig, at the time, was debating whether to attend other colleges, or stay home and continue to play in Sweden. But once Hurtig received the offer from Michigan State, he didn’t have to think too hard about it, making the addition official on July 28.
“And when I had a Big Ten school there with their good history and everything, I was like, ‘why not?’” Hurtig said.
Earlier that month, Hurtig made his first trip ever to the United States for the Devils Development Camp. To him, it was a shock that he was even a draft pick, let alone training in New Jersey with a Devils sweater on.
He spoke with four NHL teams in the pre-draft process, but the Devils were not one of them.
“I knew I probably could be drafted like sixth, seventh-round maybe if I'm lucky and I just saw my name pop up on the screen and I was like, 'Oh!'” Hurtig said. “My family was next to me, we were watching just in case, and it was a sick moment.”
Hurtig made the journey to New Jersey one year later and was surprised to find out that training wasn’t the only item on the agenda. The prospects also took a trip to New York City one day and received a tour of the One World Trade Center. They also played some other friendly games, such as go karting and Spikeball.
“So much fun,” Hurtig said. “And I got to see Dougie Hamliton, shake his hand, so that was a big one for me.”
Off the ice, Hurtig said the transition into life in the United States has gone quite smoothly. His roommates, fellow freshmen forwards Gavin Best and Tiernan Shoudy and defenseman Matt Basgall, helped him the first couple weeks with adjusting to American culture. The most difficult part for him was getting used to primarily speaking English. He has senior forward Nicolas Müller though, who played in Sweden for four years. The two occasionally speak Swedish to each other.
“(I) was a little rusty the first time I got here,” Hurtig said of his English. “I feel like it's great that I have the team with me. I feel like if you move here without playing a sport, it will be way harder because, again, the team chemistry (is) for free actually when I get here.”
It took four games for Hurtig to crack the lineup this season. Not because he wasn’t worthy nor was he buoyed by the freshman tag, but he was actually suspended. When Hurtig came to Michigan State, he was levied with a four-game suspension for playing in as many games in a Swedish pro league. Hurtig knew it, the team knew it, yet it didn’t prevent the Spartans from thrusting him into the lineup once immediately eligible. Since then, he’s played in every single game – mostly as an extra skater – but also filling in on one of the three defensive pairings while graduate student Christian Krygier missed time and now with junior defenseman Nash Nienhuis remaining out.
“He's coming along,” Nightingale said before the Penn State series in which Hurtig tallied his fourth assist of the season. “I think it's a big jump from the league he was in over in Sweden and you're coming to another country and he's doing really well in the weight room.”
Hurtig’s parents visited East Lansing in November for 10 days and got to watch him play in-person for the first time as a Spartan. They perhaps brought some good luck too, witnessing MSU’s best stretch of hockey this season: back-to-back home sweeps of Wisconsin and Ohio State.
“It was great,” Hurtig said. “They loved the atmosphere and the rink and everything. From playing juniors in Sweden, with like 50 people in the stands to compare to this, this is just so cool with the band playing and everything. They really liked it.”
Despite being tied for fourth on the team in plus/minus (+6), Hurtig says he is still hungry to score his first goal of his collegiate career. He played forward growing up and scored a combined six goals in 53 games with split time between the Växjö Lakers and Mora IK, but none of his 22 shots on goal this season have tickled the twine.
DeMichiel said he is seeing steady improvements from the time he watched Hurtig on film at the beginning of the summer, and believes that first goal will come naturally, as long as he keeps improving in other areas.
“I think he's gotten better at breaking out pucks,” DeMichiel said. “I think his gaps have improved. We've really been trying to work out with him on ending plays and making quick plays and under handling pucks. That's a work in progress, but I give him a ton of credit. He comes on for extra 'D' sessions. He's always in our offices watching individual clips focused on improving his game.”
Regardless of his own personal aspirations, Hurtig believes Michigan State has what it takes to make noise in March, something that hasn’t been done by this program in a very long time. In his eyes, the Spartans’ exquisite work ethic is what’s driven this fuzzy season. It was particularly evident last weekend versus Penn State, when MSU erased two-goal deficits both nights to take four points after dropping the previous five games.
Next, the Spartans travel to No. 2 Minnesota to take on one of, if not the, best teams in the country. MSU was swept by Minnesota in early December in East Lansing, the only sweep Michigan State has suffered at home. A near-miracle would have to happen for Michigan State to obtain the top seed and first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, though the Spartans do control their own destiny to host a first-round matchup.
“We just gotta keep playing our way I think,” Hurtig said.
Perhaps Michigan State (13-11-2) will win its first Big Ten Tournament game in program history, or even qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
It sure would be a nice step of momentum before Hurtig casts his line here in Michigan, or back home in Sweden.