Toronto fans haven’t cheered a Swedish #21 on the international stage in nearly four decades.
But 2014 first-round draft pick William Nylander has been getting more than his share of the limelight during the preliminary round of the World Junior Hockey Championships.
And while the ovations granted to the youngster during the introductions didn’t reach the decibel level witnessed at Maple Leaf Gardens during the 1976 Canada Cup when Borje Salming was greeted with thunderous applause, Nylander is certainly the crowd favourite of the Group B pool.
By scoring in back-to-back games, both Swedish victories over the Czech Republic and Denmark respectively, the 18-year-old has ignited chants of “Go Leafs Go” from the fans at Air Canada Centre who are hopeful that his blinding speed demonstrated in the blue and gold of the Tre Kronor will translate into a successful career in blue and white.
“It’s always fun being here. The fans are great. It’s a great atmosphere for us,” said Nylander ,whose skating prowess was first on display in Toronto on Boxing Day in a 5-2 win over the Czechs. The ACC staff couldn’t resist pumping out the Leafs goal song “The Whip” by Locksley when Nylander potted his first goal of the tournament.
For an encore, Nylander whizzed by the Danish defence less than a minute into the next game, the following day. While he didn’t score on that particular play, the speedster – currently honing his craft with Modo Hockey in his native land – bulged the twine on a power play late in the first period.
Sweden faces its toughest test of the preliminary round on Monday when they tangle with the defending bronze medalists from Russia. With consecutive wins by a combined score of 10-3, Nylander feels his team starting to gel.
“After we’ve been playing and practicing together for a little while, we’re starting to get used to each other. It’s getting better and better,” Nylander said.
If the poster boy for Toronto’s share of the preliminary round games finds the back of the net against the Russians, the patrons will be bellowing everywhere from the platinums to the purples at ACC, echoing the three-word chant usually reserved for the building’s main tenants.
But Nylander prefers to remain oblivious to “Go Leafs Go”, seeing as he won’t be wearing a maple leaf crest on his sweater until next season’s training camp.
“You just want to your game and work hard every shift that you’re out there. You don’t really think about (the pro-Leafs cheering) but of course it’s really cool when you hear that sitting on the bench, ” he said.
The crowds at 40 Bay Street have been very respectable, which is not lost on Nylander.
“It surprised me, I didn’t really expect that big of a fan base here. It’s been amazing and really fun.”
Audio – William Nylander post-game:
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