By: Kevin Kinghorn
Forgive Alexander Edler if he embraces anonymity a little too tightly, he's just not accustomed to attention.
Growing up in the Swedish Ozarks will do that.
Granted, there aren't any shotgun-toting banjo pickers up in Ostersund, but Edler's hometown is closer to Santa's workshop than it is Stockholm.
"I'm not sure how far it is," says Edler, "but it's way up there."
Put it this way: Ostersund is roughly on the same latitude as Dawson City (about a 35-hour drive from Vancouver).
What it lacks in cosmopolitan edge, Ostersund makes up for in ice and marathon winters. And that's exactly how Edler developed his formidable gifts - the diesel-powered stride, the laser-guided passing, and the Big Bertha point shot.
Those gifts are threatening to blow Edler's comfortable cover.
The 19-year-old defenceman with the Lidstrom-esque flair, has managed to quietly slip past a raging Canuck hype machine that's already got Luc Bourdon penciled in for 2010.
That's no small task for a kid who's 6'3"and 210 pounds, and can play the game the way Edler does - though the spotlight's closing in fast.
The shy rear guard has 10 goals and 43 points, and is a lofty plus-16 through 52 games with the Kelowna Rockets this year - his first in North America.
"He really racked up points at the start of the year," says Stan Smyl, the Canucks' director of player development. "Now that I've seen him so much, it doesn't surprise me. It's just the way he dishes that puck out and makes heads up plays."
"There's no question he has the skill package."
The Canucks stumbled upon the unheralded Edler prior to the 2004 draft when scout Thomas Gradin received a tip from a contact in Northern Sweden.
"Gradin was the guy who went up and watched him," explains Smyl. "He was playing in sort of like senior men's league."
"He'd never really played competitive hockey like you would in Canada where you play in the under-16, under-17, and under-18 tournaments and are exposed to that sort of pressure."
Playing in relative obscurity meant the Canucks were free to indulge Gradin's "gut feeling" and snatch Edler in the third round, but the lack of competition raised questions about his game.
How would he handle rigorous North American hockey?
"We decided the best way, was to have him play over here [in Canada]," says Smyl. "We wanted to see if he could compete. He has the skill package - that's one thing both Tommy [Gradin] and I agreed upon - but it was his competitiveness."
Edler landed in Kelowna this summer and opened training camp with the Rockets.
"I didn't know anything about it at first," says Edler. "I didn't know if I was going to make the team even."
After 16 games Edler led the league in assists. He currently sits fifth on the team in points, and is sixth in WHL rookie scoring.
"When he first came to us you could obviously see his talent and his skill," says Kelowna head coach Jeff Truitt. "But we knew he'd have to learn the North American game and the pace of the WHL."
The epic bus trips, playing three nights in a row, and the grueling 72-game season were new concepts for a Swedish teenager accustomed to a 34-game season.
"To his credit, it didn't take him long," says Truitt. "I would say it took him a little over a month to really catch on to the way we practice and the way we play."
"At the start we were on him quite a bit about having to bang bodies and sacrifice his body a little bit," says Truitt. "He's done that."
According to Smyl, Edler possesses Mattias Ohlund potential. Of course, that hinges on Edler conjuring more of a mean streak.
"You really have to play physical here and I wasn't very physical back in Sweden," admits Edler. "I still have to get better, but I've improved."
With 36 penalty minutes through 52 games, he's no threat to join the Ultimate Fighting circuit, but he's learning solid defensive hockey and how to deliver a steady physical game.
"It's not easy to come over to another country and expect to play their style right away," says Truitt. "Especially coming over from a real finesse league in Sweden to North America where you have to put your body on the line. His adjustment has been very good, but it's still a consistency thing."
Edler, a self-confessed Seinfeld addict, says he's had few problems fitting in in Kelowna where re-runs are bountiful and the winter balmy, though he hasn't seen his family since moving to Canada.
"I know they've seen some games over the internet, but we're working on getting them over here at the beginning of March to see some games."
By then Elder and the Rockets will be ramping up for another drive at the Memorial Cup.
"I feel like it was a good decision coming here," says Edler. "I've learned so much this season already, though I know I have still lots of things to work on."
The questions about his competitive drive have disappeared, and his all-around game improving on a nightly basis.
"I think he's got tremendous upside for an NHL career," says Truitt. "He does things right now in terms of puck movement and awareness that could land him time in the NHL. As he gets up to the higher level the pace will pick up, but his natural talent isn't that far away right now."
And neither is the spotlight.