There some pretty neat benefits to having a parent work at your local hockey rink. For Oliver Wahlstrom, it meant hours and hours of free ice time to hone his skills before and after school.
Growing up in Cumberland, Maine, that time on the ice helped develop the 17-year-old Wahlstrom into a highly-rated prospect as the 2018 NHL draft approaches. It also led to the hockey world first knowing his name when we was only nine years old.
While playing for the Portland Junior Pirates in 2009, Wahlstrom was invited to participate in the TD Bank Mini 1-On-1 competition before a Boston Bruins game. It was there that all those hours in the rink by himself paid off with a viral sensation of a goal.
“I would just mess around, try some things,” Wahlstrom recently told Pro Hockey Talk. “I got up to that move and I just kept doing it and doing it and I just fell in love with it, so I was like, Hey, why not, I’m just going to try it.”
The video blew up on the Internet, even as Twitter was still in its early days of popularity. The trick shot led to a media tour that included appearances on CBS’s “The Early Show” and SportsCenter with Barry Melrose, among others. Eight years later, as Wahlstrom enters his draft year and the attention surrounding him has only increased, he looks back at that experience as good training.
“That was really cool. It was really special. At the time, it was very nerve-wracking,” he said. “But I think that was very good for me to go through at a young age. I learned all about that stuff early.”
(Two and a half years later, he scored another wild trick shot goal in the same competition.)
Eight months from now, Wahlstrom, a center, will hear his name called in Dallas during the 2018 draft, likely within the top 10-15 picks if the various rankings are any indication. Those rankings, however, aren’t on his mind. As he helps the U.S. National Team Development Program side in the United States Hockey League this season, he has his NHL future in the “way back” of his mind, and is focusing on another title at the U-18 World Championships next spring.
“All I want to think about right now is winning gold and making sure I develop as a person,” he said. “Obviously, my mindset is to be No. 1, to be the best, so I work to be that every day. I have a mindset of I want to be first overall. I want to have that mindset. It’s cool to have the draft coming up, but right now I’m just focused on the season and getting that gold medal at the end of April.”
The 6-foot-1, 205 lbs. Wahlstrom, who models his game after the power and shots of Patrik Laine and Evgeni Malkin, is currently viewed as a sure first-rounder, and as we’ve seen with other top prospects, a good draft year could vault him up the rankings. Before the season, TSN’s Craig Button had him at No. 16, while Bob McKenzie pegged him at lucky No. 13 and ISS Hockey has him at No. 11. There’s no doubt scouts like him as a player, but there’s still plenty to improve upon.
“Wahlstrom has long been among the top forwards in his age group. A lot of it has to do with his offensive creativity. He simply makes plays. We obviously all know about his viral moment as a kid, but as a teenager he continues to grab attention with his play on the ice,” said Chris Peters, ESPN’s NHL Draft and prospects analyst. “I think we’ll all be looking for consistent production from him this year and making the players around him better. The skills are there to be a producer at the next level, with his ceiling being a top-six forward, most likely on the wing. He sees the ice so well and has the creativity that seems to translate into goals and assists.”
From the media experience at an early age to playing against older competition since he was 13 to working out with NHL players at Edge Performance Systems in Massachusetts in the off-season, Wahlstrom has prepared himself well for the next step in his hockey career.
That next step will be one of two things: the NHL or Harvard University, where he committed as a 15-year-old, 18 months after committing and de-committing to Maine as a seventh-grader. Being friendly with the Donato family, including Crimson head coach and former NHLer Ted Donato, played a big role in his college selection.
“He’s a great coach and how they’ve been doing the past couple of years, they’re really coming along,” Wahlstrom said. “Hopefully I can come in and contribute a lot and be a good player for them coming up in the future.”
In helping him get to the point where he had NCAA D-I programs to choose from, Wahlstrom credits the NTDP program for preparing him for what lies ahead and also bringing a once shy kid out of his shell.
“It’s probably the best decision I ever made coming here. Last year was probably one of the toughest years of my hockey career, to be honest. I face a lot of adversity,” he said. “We went through a lot last year, getting beat up by older guys. The NTDP here taught me how to fight through adversity, how to overcome that.
“This year, U-18 year, all of us can focus on playing in the USHL, beating those guys and getting that anger and stuff out from last year and bring it this year and accomplish greater things.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.