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Hammar Time?

Engineers Hope Swede Hammarstrom Is About to Fulfill Offensive Potential

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, November 22, 2002

TROY - Mikael Hammarstrom was a big scorer in junior hockey in his homeland of Sweden.

A league champion, matter of fact.

During his first two seasons at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, though, Hammarstrom totaled just three goals and eight assists in 57 games.

Finally this season, RPI fans are getting a glimpse of the big Swede's offensive skills.

He already has three goals and three assists in 12 games and has made some outstanding plays.

"It's all confidence," said the 6-foot-1 native of Gavle, Sweden. "You get out there and get a few points and that confidence comes back."

Like most Europeans, Hammarstrom had some big adjustments to make when he came to the U.S. to play.

"Everything happens faster here since the ice surface is smaller," he said. "There's less time to make decisions in certain situations. There's a different way of thinking when you're playing defensively. You need to keep up with everybody because everybody is moving more with the ice surface (being smaller). It's important to be smart position-wise and being on the right side of the puck at all times."

The left-handed Hammarstrom played off wing his first two years at RPI, but coach Dan Fridgen moved him to center this year.

"He came in playing the off-wing," Fridgen noted. "Then I tried him at his natural (left) wing. But a guy like Mikael ... he sees the ice so well. He's got very good vision, he has incredible hands. Just like your typical European player, he has high skill level. I think that he's getting used to the game over here. He's slowly adapting, which is giving him more confidence."

Fridgen would like to see with "the increased confidence, (him) shoot the puck more. He likes to make plays, but he's got a real good shot and a quick release and I think if he shoots the puck more, his offensive game will pick up as well."

"Normally," Fridgen added, "guys who are pretty high-skilled, you'll find them in the middle (center)."

And Hammarstrom is much more comfortable at center.

"Last couple years back home I played in the middle," he said. "But I've played all three (forward) positions, so that's no big deal. But I feel better and play better the more I have the puck in a game."

Then there's that smaller ice thing.

"There's not as much of a passing game as there was back home," Hammarstrom said. "When it comes to breaking out of the (defensive) zone, there's more putting it off the boards and getting into empty spaces instead of looking for a give-and-go ... bigger plays and longer passes breaking out of the zone."

Physical play hasn't been Hammarstrom's forte, and the added occasion for body checks in the college game required another major adjustment for him.

"Freshman year, coach called on me to add more grit to my game," he said. "I'm not a guy who's going to post big hits out there like, say (sophomore left winger) Vic Pereira. But I am a pretty big guy and I have been working hard to get in better shape. So, I need to use my body more and show more grit out there."

Hammarstrom led his Swedish Junior A Elite League in scoring and expected to at least be in the middle of RPI's scoring sheet right from the start.

It didn't happen - until now.

"Obviously, I put some pressure on myself," he said. "I've always been able to push the puck to the net and get a lot of assists. But obviously, you step up a level in play and you come in as a freshman, you have to gain experience and earn the confidence of the coach to get playing time, to get in position where you can score, like power play time."

Hammarstrom was a fixture on RPI's fourth line as a freshman, but sat out 12 games last year and charted just one goal and one assist. Keeping his confidence from plummeting was a chore.

"Of course, you want to play," he said. "I only missed one game my freshman year and that made it harder (to sit repeatedly). It affected my confidence ... but there's nothing you can do about that. It's the coach's decision. He's going to put the best team on the ice. You just do your best in practice every day and take the chance when you get it."

Hammarstrom, who turns 21 years old on Dec. 1, has done that.

"The more you play the more confident you are and getting a few goals, you start gaining so much more confidence," he said.

How many can he get in the remaining 24 games?

"I'm not going to start naming numbers," he said. "But I need to score more on a consistent basis than I've been doing. Six points in 12 games isn't good enough."

Saturday night is the two-year (104-week) anniversary of Hammarstrom's first collegiate goal against Mercyhurst. And the Lakers are back at Houston Field House Saturday night.

"I'd love to duplicate that and help get us back to winning," he said.