Making amends – improved Hugg sets his eyes on the World Juniors
It was a summer he would like to forget. In April of 2017, Rickard Hugg had captained Sweden to a silver medal at the U18 World Junior Championships. Much to his chagrin, that didn’t help him get drafted in Chicago a few months later. A big disappointment to the center, who early on was touted as one of the best players to come out of the Swedish class of 1999.
The disappointment didn’t end there. During the same summer, Hugg experienced problems with his health and had to take penicillin. When the summer was about to end, he packed his things and moved from Leksand, Sweden, to Kitchener, Ontario, to play for the Rangers in the OHL. After the miserable summer, he had a hard time living up to expectations and ended up having an abysmal season, scoring only six goals and picking up 32 points in 66 games. Suffice to say, no NHL team took a flyer on the Swede in this past summer’s draft in Dallas.
But if things were miserable for Hugg in 2017/18, the start of the 2018/19 season could be referenced to as his redemption. The 19-year-old entered the season full of optimism, looking for a way to make amends for the previous failure. It started in late July with the World Junior Summer Showcase in Kamloops where he scored three goals for the Swedish U20 team and continued to have success in the yellow and blue jersey during the four nations’ tournament in Örnsköldsvik in August.
“I got a great start to the season”, Rickard Hugg said. “All the way from Kamloops to Örnsköldsvik, everything went really well. I had a great summer this year with really good workouts in Leksand.”
FROM A FAMILY OF CROSS-COUNTRY SKIERS
Rickard Hugg has always been in good shape. Not very surprising since he hails from a family of cross-country skiers. His parents both competed internationally for Sweden at the junior level while his aunt Sara Hugg won a few Swedish championships during her career.
“Conditioning has never been an issue, so this summer I just tried to maintain that and put more emphasis on explosiveness”, Hugg said. “There was a lot of strength and sprint exercises. I can really feel the difference on the ice now, it’s like I have an extra gear out there.”
The benefit for the Kitchener Rangers is that they got a better player in Hugg this season. At the moment, he’s the team’s leading scorer with 13 goals and 31 points in 27 games.
“He has been able to get on the board early this season and I think that got the monkey off his back in that sense”, head coach and former NHL defenseman Jay McKee told therecord.com earlier this season. “He really hasn’t looked back since.”
Eddie Läck. Photo: Bildbyrån/Carl Sandin
VOLUNTEERED FOR LÄCK
Rickard Hugg scored a hat trick early on in the season and has improved his goal-scoring ability. One of the reasons for that, he claims, is the work he put in with Swedish goalie Eddie Läck this summer.
“I was working out in Leksand when he came over and wanted someone to help him during his on-ice practices. I volunteered”, Hugg explained. “It was obviously goalie drills designed with him in mind, but it turned out to be really good shooting drills for me as well. I think we did like ten practices together and that was really helpful to me. I’ve put a lot of emphasis on my shot, trying to be a bit more selfish and not only look to pass the puck all the time.”
Hugg said he feels gratitude towards Läck, who’s currently tending the net for the Binghamton Devils in the AHL.
“He’s a really laid back person. I didn’t know him before we teamed up to practice together, but he’s super nice and easy to be around.”
Although last season didn’t turn out as he had hoped, Hugg never had any plans to leave Kitchener. During his second year in the OHL, he feels much more at home in Canada than he did last year. Not only on the ice.
“You might think that it’s just a matter of moving to Canada to play hockey, but there are a lot of things to take into consideration when you get there”, he said. “It’s a new country, a new culture, and a new language. I feel much stronger this year, both physically and mentally. My confidence is stronger and I feel like I don’t have to make excuses for myself anymore.”
Photo: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images
It’s a confidence that will probably take him all the way to the World Juniors in Vancouver and Victoria. Head coach Tomas Montén will unveil the preliminary roster on Wednesday and it would be a huge surprise if Rickard Hugg’s name is not on his list. The center was close to making the squad in Buffalo last year.
“He played with us in Plymouth (at the World Junior Summer Showcase) during the summer and I went over to Canada to see him”, Montén said. “At that moment, I didn’t think he was good enough to make the team, so we had him on our list of reserves.”
WENT TO SEE THE WJC AS A KID
One year later, the “not good enough” quote is no longer in question.
“It’s a big difference this year”, Montén said. “He’s obviously one year older, but he’s also a lot stronger and his skating, which used to be his one flaw, is much better. He was really good for us during those summer tournaments and right now, I would say he’s one of the better players on the Kitchener Rangers. Rickard has carried a huge load for that team. It really feels like he’s headed in the right direction.”
Hugg doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the World Juniors. It’s been his one big goal this season.
“For sure. It would be an incredible honor to make the team. It’s a childhood dream of mine to play in the World Juniors”, he said and revealed that he actually went to see games during the 2006/07 tournament in Sweden. “My dad and I went to Leksand and Mora to see some of the games there. I was so young, seven years old or something like that, and don’t remember a whole lot. But there’s a lot of other vivid memories from other tournaments. (Mika) Zibanejad’s overtime goal (against Russia in the 2012 gold medal game in Calgary) and also when the Russians won that crazy game against Canada (the 2011 gold medal game in Buffalo).”
If he continues to perform on a high level with the Kitchener Rangers and make the Swedish WJC squad, there’s still an outside chance of finally being drafted to the NHL. But after two disappointing drafts without being selected, Rickard Hugg is not losing any sleep over that possibility.
“Obviously, it would be great if that happened, but it’s nothing that’s on my mind right now”, he said. “When I didn’t get selected the first time, I was extremely disappointed, but there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep working hard. I want to play in the NHL as much as I ever did, but whatever happens, happens.”