ive months ago, someone posted a picture on Reddit of a 9-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom when he was on Good Morning America, with the subhead boldly declaring him as an “amazing hockey player.” The picture was captioned with “BY GOD IT’S OLIVER WAHLSTROM,” and encouraged people to think back to when the future Boston College men’s hockey forward and 11th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft was just a tiny, wildly skilled viral sensation with dual citizenship in Sweden, a loving sister, and a father with hockey in his blood. It’s not often in the United States that a hockey player bursts onto the national scene and only goes up from there, and for many, waiting a decade for Wahlstrom to grow up and flourish has been an exercise in patience. At each step of the way, the tall, physical winger with a bullet for a shot earned comparisons to future stars and rewrote record books at the bantam levels.
Now, after commitments to three different schools, a whirlwind night at the draft, and impressive year after impressive year, Wahlstrom—who lived in Quincy, Mass. for a spell before his life was flipped upside down by the travel of youth hockey—has made it home.
“I picked BC because I haven’t been home in five years,” Wahlstrom said. “It was a good place for me to come, develop, take a few classes. Seeing the student sections and thousands of people in the stands watching you. That’s a pretty cool moment for an 18-year-old freshman.”
ahlstrom, like many youth hockey players, was a wunderkind. Born into a hockey bloodline, with his father Joakim a former University of Maine forward and Swedish professional, Wahlstrom played countless sports in his childhood, but it was clear through it all which path he would take. He fell in love with hockey from a young age, honing a powerful right-handed shot and a dazzling array of stick handling moves in his backyard before and after school each day.
It was his sister, Alexandra, that bore the brunt of his endless training. A sophomore lacrosse player at Trinity College, she reflected fondly on her time playing her competitive brother, especially back when he was 6 years old and racking up hundreds of shots with a mini composite stick.
“I would like to challenge other hockey sisters to see if they could handle some of the same wrist shots and slap shots I took to the body growing up as Oliver’s sister,” she said later. “He had a heck of a shot for a 6-year-old. We are both very very competitive, and some of our knee hockey battles were very intense, and someone always had to come out on top.”
Joakim started his son late in school, following Swedish conventions. As a result, the forward—who would grow to be 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds—was always the biggest kid in his grade. The advantage his physique brought him was offset by the decision to play three levels up, seeking a level of competition that could withstand his prodigal talent level. The brilliance he displayed with the puck was particularly evident in a now-famous goal he scored at age 9 in a shootout before a Boston Bruins game at TD Garden.
he scoring play is quite incredible. Wahlstrom, then just 9 years old, takes the puck from center ice and skates effortlessly in on net, where a similarly aged goaltender nervously awaits him. He drops down to a knee, flattening his stick in the process, and scoops the puck onto his stick—in a similar fashion to the countless lacrosse ground balls he snagged during his time as a dual-sport athlete.
With the puck settled on his stick, he moves on to the finishing blow. He stands up, cradling the puck as if his hockey stick had grown webbing, and spins. He whirls around, whipping a backhand shot past the helpless goalie, shooting with the stick nearly parallel to the ground at shoulder height. The crowd, stunned, goes absolutely wild, and the play sparks a media tour that features the chubby-cheeked elementary school student appearing on the likes of ESPN and Good Morning America. “I couldn’t even tie my shoes at that age,” his future BC teammate Adam Samuelsson told The Boston Globe.
It’s not often, in the United States especially, that a youth hockey player reaches such a level of notoriety. Wahlstrom proved to have staying power. He was scoring at an unprecedented rate in pee-wee hockey—Joakim estimated at the time that he was scoring 150-plus goals per 40-game season—and this was with the three-year bump. Wahlstrom was destined for greater things, and that meant that just three years after a goal that surpassed 6 million views on YouTube and a stint at North Yarmouth Academy—where he cracked the varsity lineup as a seventh grader—he moved away from home.
"I couldn't even tie my shoes at that age." - future BC teammate Adam Samuelsson on Wahlstrom's goal at TD Garden
is first destination was a familiar one to those invested in youth hockey throughout the country. At 12, Wahlstrom headed to Shattuck St. Mary’s, a boarding school in Faribault, Minn. with Gothic architecture that has a reputation for being the “Hogwarts of Hockey” and has been regarded as “to hockey what Harvard is to law,” per MPRNews. It was 1,500 miles away from home, far from an easy trip for even those in high school. Still, Wahlstrom and his father knew that the level of competition in Maine and Massachusetts was holding him back, so off he went.
“My dad asked me if I wanted to leave home,” Wahlstrom remembered. “Most 12-year-olds would say no, they don’t want to leave home, but I thought it was a good decision to get out of my home, out of my comfort zone, and live on my own somewhere and play hockey.”
His two years in Minnesota proved to be wildly successful, only furthering his national reputation as an up-and-coming star. He scored 94 goals in 108 games, a rate that put him on pace with former alums and future greats like Jonathan Toews and Zach Parise. Wahlstrom had a more impressive first year in Faribault, but still left the program with plenty of momentum. Struggles adjusting to a new place without the comfort of his home very much existed, but he had plenty of support from his family.
“My dad and him were always on the move and they were always in the car or on the road traveling between rinks,” Alexandra said, fully understanding her brother’s passion. “I knew that Oliver was pursuing something that he loved with his whole heart, and there was something about that which made the traveling and the time spent apart from him worth it.”
The pit stops around the Midwest only continued—Wahlstrom’s next step was a big one, leaping onto the national radar further with the move to Michigan to play with the U.S. National Developmental Program.
t’s worth taking a minute to talk about Wahlstrom’s shot, a furiously angry wrister that gobbles up opposing goalies. Countless draft scouts and writers have tried to sum it up, but it always seems to be described in a different way. His coach in Michigan, the U-18’s Seth Appert, argued it’s a “one-timer that—already—is up there with some of the better ones in the National Hockey League.” Prospect writer Scott Wheeler uses the term “heavy shot,” which is a shot that’s hard for a goalie to control, because it’s “a directional shot that comes off the blade with a lot of spin.”
There’s one play that both Appert and Wheeler were floored by. It came in the Five Nations Tournament, where Wahlstrom’s U.S.A U-18 team competed alongside Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. They were playing Sweden, in a game of particular significance, and the goal came in the midst of a three-point night for the forward. Wahlstrom had the puck at the point on a power play, and there were four Swedish players, two of his teammates, and the goalie in front of him.
It was a logjam, clear as day, but it didn’t faze the forward with undeniable strength. He calmly loaded up a shot and deftly bent it around the crowd and into the upper righthand corner of the net, just under the crossbar. It caught the Swedish goalie completely off guard, because, simply, who on earth could hit that shot without so much as a run-up? Wheeler described it as a “dead-ball goal in soccer, over the wall, without a head start.”
For Wahlstrom, shooting has been a gradual process, but one that he refined himself.
“I don’t believe in somebody teaching you how to be a robot and shoot,” he said. “My whole life I’ve just been taking a bucket of pucks in the backyard and just [shooting] and [working] on things and learning on my own.”
“You either have it or you don’t,” Wahlstrom concluded. He clearly had it, as evidenced by a 48-goal campaign in just 62 games with the U-18 team.
“My whole life I've just been taking a bucket of pucks in the backyard and just [shooting] and [working] on things and learning on my own.” - Wahlstrom
t hasn’t all been easy for Wahlstrom, though. A few months before the draft, on April 29, the Americans—the U-18 team—were playing at Traktor Ice Arena, in Chelyabinsk, Russia. They were facing Finland in the Worlds Gold Medal game, a rematch of the title game in 2017, in which the United States had claimed a 4-2 win. It hadn’t been the best tournament, though, as they’d already lost matchups with Canada and Sweden in group play, but had been able to advance on the strength of wins over Switzerland and Belarus.
Wahlstrom had been clicking on all cylinders, though, as he’d already scored twice against Canada, had a power play goal versus Sweden, and finished off the group stage with four goals. After claiming back-to-back wins to close the group, the Americans picked up the pace, and Wahlstrom scored in a 5-1 quarterfinal win of Russia then had a goal and an assist in the semifinals to beat the Czech Republic.
The finals got off to an inglorious start, as Finland struck twice in the first to take an early lead. Fellow BC commit Patrick Giles answered with a goal, then Trevor Janicke slipped an equalizer in. Wahlstrom, meanwhile, was frustrated time and time again. He took seven shots in the first two periods, but couldn’t find the back of the net. He then was called for a tripping penalty at the start of the third, and eight minutes later, was on the ice when Finland’s Niklas Nordgren scored, giving his team a 3-2 lead.
In the final 10 minutes, Wahlstrom didn’t have a single chance. Then, right before the clock expired, he was left alone to the goalie’s right. Teammate Jack Hughes saw him and fed him for a one-timer, but somehow—despite finishing the tournament as one of arguably the best performers—he skied it up and over the net. The puck bounced to the far wall, time expired, and Wahlstrom was left staring up at the heavens in the corner of the rink as Finland’s bench emptied and sticks and gloves went flying into the air.
Wearing a Team USA sweater, with the weight of the country behind you, and missing a wide-open net that would’ve forced overtime in a gold medal game is enough to bring your confidence crumbling down. But for Wahlstrom it was just another learning moment. So, five months later, after being picked 11th overall by the New York Islanders, the outspoken forward had plenty of faith in his game, enough so to have words for the other New York franchise that had passed on him at ninth overall—the Rangers.
“I think the New York Rangers made a mistake there,” the 18-year-old said, undoubtedly fanning the flames regarding the Rangers’ selection of Russia winger Vitalia Kravtsov.
It was a confident move from Wahlstrom, just an hour or so after wrapping up his first-ever practice with the Islanders. For those who’ve watched Wahlstrom grow since his move away from home, though, it wasn’t anything unexpected.
“All the endless hours, all the equipment, all the wins and losses, all the hard work and sweat, all the gas mileage, all the memories, all the ups and all the downs felt like it culminated to that very moment in the stands hearing his name and watching him put that jersey on,” Alexandra said after the draft, before summing up the drive she’s so used to seeing her brother express. “I wasn’t surprised or shocked because I knew that Oliver could and will do absolutely anything he sets his mind to.”
ine years after scoring his viral goal, six years after leaving home, six months after a disappointing silver medal, and four months after hearing his name called in the NHL Draft, Oliver Wahlstrom is finally back in Massachusetts. The path has been one marked by plenty of goals and countless honors, but also criticism, unexpected setbacks, and adjustments to make after moving from team to team and place to place.
Now, a member of BC men’s hockey, a program that routinely exerts dominance over his father’s former alma mater—Maine—Wahlstrom will have a chance, even if he’s simply a one-and-done generational talent, to leave his mark in yet another place. And you better believe he’s not mincing his words when he lays out his hope for the 2018-19 season.
“We’re going to win championships this year—that’s the goal,” he said without a flicker of hesitation in his voice. “That’s my main focus. If you don’t win championships, what’s the point of the year? It doesn’t matter about points or stats.
“I came to college because I want to win the Beanpot, the Hockey East, and the national championship.”
Featured Image Courtesy of BC Athletics
Images Courtesy of BC Athletics, U.S. NTDP