San Antonio Rampage
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By the time he was 19, Anton Lindholm’s dream had come true. His hometown of Skellefteå in northern Sweden might be one of the world’s most rabid hockey towns, and Lindholm wanted to play for the home team.

He rose through the ranks, playing junior hockey for Skellefteå’s Under-16 team, then Under-18 and Under-20. With Skellefteå needing playoff reinforcements in the 2013-14 season, the team called up Lindholm to the top club. At 19, Lindholm helped his hometown win the Swedish league championship. His first professional goal was the game-winning goal in the championship-clinching game.

About 72,000 people live in Skellefteå, and some estimates said the attendance for the victory parade was about the same number.

What happens when someone accomplishes his dreams and is still a teenager? They dream bigger.

Like many other Swedes, the 5-foot-11, 191-pound defenseman had a Colorado Avalanche poster on his wall growing up. It was of Avs great Peter Forsberg, who won two Stanley Cups with Colorado and the 2003 Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Forsberg is such a legend in Sweden that his most iconic goal, a shootout deke that won Sweden the 1994 Olympic Gold Medal, is on a Swedish postage stamp.

Lindholm said he spent many days looking at his Forsberg poster like most kids, and every morning, Swedish newscasts would show NHL highlights from Forsberg and other Swedes.

On Wednesday, Lindholm will wear his own Colorado Avalanche jersey when he makes his NHL debut.

“It’s going to be an unreal feeling,” he said. “It’s something that you only dream about.”

Unlike Forsberg, who was a first-round pick, Lindholm was relatively unknown when the Avalanche selected him in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, 144th overall.

Lindholm said he met with the Avalanche’s Swedish scout, but had no expectation that he would be drafted. When his name was called, he said he was surprised, but ready to prove himself.

After spending two more seasons in Skellefteå, he arrived stateside for 2016-17 with the Rampage. He’s scored two goals and 10 assists in 59 games, making fast progress and becoming one of the team’s most consistent blue line players.

“I feel as a European player, you have to prove that you can play the same game on a smaller rink with less time and ice surface,” Lindholm said. “So I definitely I felt like I had to prove something, mostly for my self that I could do it.”

Rampage coach Eric Veilleux said Lindholm made a quick adjustment to the smaller ice, and a bigger adjustment by gaining self-confidence as the season went on.

“I don’t think he knew how good he was,” Veilleux said. “I remember the day I told him he was going to play power play, he said ‘Coach, I’ve never played there.’ I said, ‘that’s fine, you are here, you are going to be here.’ It took him two games to pick it up. He ended up being one of our best if not the best defenseman we have.”

Lindholm rose to the occasion, and now he’ll be making his NHL debut, playing for the same team whose logo was on a poster in his childhood bedroom 5,000 miles away.

Aside from IKEA furniture, hockey players might be Sweden’s top export. Sweden has the most NHL players by country after Canada and the United States. Lindholm will be the 85th Swede to play in an NHL game in the 2016-17 season, with Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog among them.

Few have been as surprising as Lindholm. He’ll be the first player from the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft to make it to the league, and he had no idea he would be drafted in the first place.

For Lindholm, it’s another dream come true at the age of 22.

And maybe some kid in Skellefteå could be ordering an Anton Lindholm poster soon.

- Lorne Chan,