Hidden behind the wraparound mask, the familiar white, ice blue and black of the Milwaukee Admirals uniform obscured by huge pads, Magnus Hellberg isn’t himself. A net is behind him, somewhere. The red piping that frames the goal teases opponents, flashing in and out of view behind the 6-foot, 5-inch Admirals goaltender.
In skates, he’s even more imposing.
Hellberg is not himself to many in the stands, who remember seeing current Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne patrol the crease in Milwaukee for 145 games from 2005 to '08. Rinne is also 6-5, and the comparisons are natural.
Hellberg is not himself to the true diehards at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, some of whom may recall Rinne’s former backup in Nashville, the 6-6 Anders Lindback who appeared in only four games for the Admirals in the 2010-11 season and two more in 2011-12.
"I don’t think that’s fair because it puts way too much undue pressure on a young guy and we believe that everybody should be themselves," Nashville goalie coach Mitch Korn said. "Nobody should try to be like anybody else."
Though it’s easy to compare Hellberg to the former giants that tended goal in Milwaukee before him, the 21-year-old is heeding the advice of his coaches and coming into his own. The Predators’ top draft pick in 2011 was named the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for February after going 6-1-0 with a 1.36 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.
"I think every goalie has their own style," Hellberg said. "You can’t say ‘Hey Magnus, play like Pekka’ because maybe some stuff that works for him doesn’t work for me. So Mitch is very good at that and (Admirals goalie coach) Ben (Vanderklok) as well, the goalie coach here in Milwaukee. To take the goalie and see what I can improve to make me a better goalie.
"Then, of course, I watch a lot of video of other goalies and I see how they do in certain situations and then I try maybe something that (Henrik) Lundqvist do, or Rinne do, and then I compare and see what fits me the best, but you have to be an individual and not just be like somebody else."
"That’s why goalies are special."
Hellberg has the tools that could make him an elite goaltender, the first of which is his tremendous size and wingspan. Yet his first season of hockey in the United States hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He struggled early, finding physical style of play in front of the net distracting. The rink is smaller, and he learned quickly that he could no longer just find a position in the crease and just sit there, waiting to block a shot.
"People go hard into the net area," Hellberg said. "It’s more battling in front of the net. There are more people who want to score in front of the net here, so you have to react more. Since I’ve been a blocking goalie before I’ve been playing much of my position, but here it doesn’t really work. You have to react to the puck a lot more and try to predict where the puck’s going to be."
Korn and Vanderklok have been working with Hellberg on some of the technical aspects of American hockey, such as stick handling, rebound control and catching. Yet he is clearly showing improvement from a rough start that saw opponents take advantage of his positioning and slower reaction time.
He has also begun to reshape his body, losing fat and increasing his stamina for better late-game effectiveness.
All of this is what makes Hellberg unique.
"We want him to continue to show improvement in the areas that he needs to improve to climb the hockey ladder," Korn said. "And all those things are important in becoming an elite athlete."
That said, Hellberg isn’t quite himself on the ice, even in his own eyes. It’s not that he compares himself to the other big goaltenders those off the ice liken him to, it’s that he is able to become someone other than the soft-spoken, funny and humble man that likes to visit Milwaukee’s restaurants and malls.
"When I’m on the ice I think I’m going to stop every puck," he said. "If you don’t think that then you’re screwed. It’s so much mental during the game. But I feel comfortable turning it on and off when I’m on the ice and when I’m back home."
Off the ice – literally just feet removed from it on the Admirals bench at the BMO Harris Bradley Center – Hellberg is back to that player who is just searching for ways to get better. He says he has some personal goals left to accomplish this season, but that those are best left to the privacy of his own head.
He admits the long-term goal is the National Hockey League, but right now it’s about getting the Admirals back into the American Hockey League playoff picture.
It’s about being his own man, and his own goalie.
"I’ve been humbled," Hellberg said. "I want to be better. The last couple of games I think my confidence has grown a lot and all the guys do a good job out there helping me out. It’s been good.
"I’ve always been a laid back guy and I know some people are not very humble, and I think if you’re not humble it strikes back to you, if you’re cocky. I didn’t come here to just dominate – of course I want to play at the top of my game and show the best side of me, and of course I want to play in the NHL one day – but you can’t take anything for granted. That’s my goal one day and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.