David Rundblad had already gotten out of his gear and his skates, toweled off and had given a few interviews by the time Tim Erixon trudged into the room, sweaty and still trying to catch his breath after the second half of Tuesday’s morning skate, reserved for that night’s scratches.
Erixon plopped down on the bench at his locker stall, just a few feet away from Rundblad’s, and the two started conversing in Swedish, smiling and laughing almost immediately. Rundblad was in, Erixon was out for that night’s game against Winnipeg; the No. 6 defenseman spot is basically down to the two of them most nights. But there was no animosity, no bitterness.
They’re new teammates, but they’re old friends.
“I don’t feel like it’s awkward or anything,” Rundblad said. “He’s a good friend of mine, and I’m just happy to have him here. Hockey wise, we’re competing for the same spot, pretty much. But that’s just natural for a hockey player. That’s just part of the job.”
Rundblad and Erixon, acquired earlier this month in the trade that sent Jeremy Morin to Columbus, go way back. Rundblad moved to Erixon’s hometown of Skelleftea when he was 15. They played on the same Swedish junior team for three years, then the same Swedish Elite League team for three more. They were both picked in the first round of the 2009 NHL draft, just six picks apart — Rundblad 17th to the St. Louis Blues, Erixon 23rd to the Calgary Flames. They both have bounced around the league, struggling to become everyday players in the NHL.
And now they’re both on their third team in Chicago, two friends battling for one spot while Trevor van Riemsdyk recovers from a fractured kneecap.
For Erixon, now the sixth Swede on the Hawks roster, it’s been nice to have a familiar face — and a familiar language. He even carpools with Rundblad to work.
“There are quite a few Swedes here; it’s different,” said Erixon, who was born in New York while his father, Jan, played for the Rangers, but moved back to Sweden when he was 2 and calls himself “100 percent Swede.” “I’ve never really had any other Swedes around, so that’s kind of nice.”
But it’s still a business, and both Rundblad and Erixon are hoping to win the job permanently. Rundblad has been waiting for an opportunity since he was acquired from the Coyotes in March. It looked like he was finally going to get it when he appeared in four straight games in early November, but after van Riemsdyk was injured on Nov. 16, Joel Quenneville gave rookies Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck a look, while Rundblad again yo-yoed in and out of the lineup.
But Rundblad had maybe his best game with the Hawks on Sunday against Toronto — scoring the second goal of his career, and first since the 2011-12 season with Ottawa — and stayed in the lineup for Tuesday’s loss to Winnipeg. The Hawks want to see that kind of aggressive offensive play from Rundblad more often. On the flip side, they want to see Erixon prove he can fit into the Hawks’ defensive systems.
At the moment, Rundblad appears to have the upper hand, and is hoping he can get a run of games after the Christmas break to start building up trust with Quenneville, who has said that defensemen need to play regularly to be at their best.
“Of course, I hope so,” Rundblad said. “But you never know. I just try to take one game at a time and see what happens. That’s pretty much the only thing I can do.”
At least now he has an old friend with a common tongue with whom he can commiserate — even if they’re both essentially gunning for each other’s job.
“We talk, but it’s the way the business works,” Erixon said. “Outside of the rink, it doesn’t really affect anything. We’re all teammates and we all want to win. That’s the bottom line.”