Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson wants to be the one who saves the struggling team.
“I’ve always been a guy who wants to help other people, and who turns things around, too,” Ekman-Larsson says via telephone from Ottawa where the Coyotes were playing. “I want to make the difference between being out of the playoffs and getting into the playoffs. That’s why I’m still here.”
Baby steps. In an October game against the Boston Bruins, OEL, as he’s known, set a franchise record for powerplay goals scored by a defenseman. Still, it’s been a lopsided season for the Coyotes.
“I’m not going to lie,” he says. “It’s hard. I’m 26 years old. I’ve been through this for four or five years now. You want to get better. You want to win games. You want to be in the playoffs.”
Staying positive is one of OEL’s admirable traits. Instead of dogging the Coyotes, he took the high road and said he’s excited about the team’s rebuild that included shedding Shane Doan and Mike Smith.
“Everybody has been great,” he says about the fans. “They know what kind of situation we’re in right now. We have a lot of young guys and we’re trying to build for the future.
“We know it’s going to take time. We have a new coaching staff, new trainers and we acquired a few new players this off season. We’re playing a different system than we’re used to. Still, it’s the same arena and the same fans, but at the same time there are a lot of new things we need to focus on and learn.”
Personally, life has been challenging as well. It’s the first holiday season without his mother, Annika, who died after a long battle with cancer. The family’s bond has strengthened through it all. Ekman-Larsson is thankful for his younger brother, Kevin, who is signed to the Tucson Roadrunners.
“I think this is good for both of us,” Ekman-Larsson says. “We’re pretty busy, but it’s nice to have him closer and to get to see him a little bit more than when he was back in Sweden.
“Before, we always talked on the phone, texted and stuff like that. Now I can watch the games and go down to Tucson if I have a day off and they play that night. It’s good for both of us—especially having a tough year, personally. We can stick together, be close together and get to see each other.”
When his mother died, Ekman-Larsson stayed with the team as long as he could, only taking a leave of absence for the last three games.
“She was so strong and so positive, and she always told me, ‘Listen, whatever you do, I love you. Don’t worry about me. I want you to stay over here,’” he recalls. “I wanted to do something for her and I’m really proud of myself that I did that for her.”
Now his focus is on the team and helping any way he can. That includes giving advice to the new Coyotes.
“I tell them to believe in the system, and work hard even when things aren’t going the right way,” Ekman-Larsson says. “It’s easy when you’re a young guy and just got into the league to do your own thing instead of playing to the system. We should stick together as a team. That’s how you turn things around.”