STOCKHOLM — After his first night in Stockholm last week, Sheldon Keefe woke up in his hotel room and instinctively reached for his phone.
The Maple Leafs head coach wanted an update on how other NHL teams fared the night before.
“I woke up this morning to check the scores, and there were games still going on,” Keefe told reporters on November 15.
Keefe was merely experiencing the awkward conundrum European fans of the NHL face on a daily basis. They might have a passion for their favourite NHL franchise, but the start times for games make it almost impossible to follow along live.
Consider the following start times in Stockholm on the night Keefe was referring to in his press conference.
The Sabres hosted the Bruins at 1 a.m. local time.
Tampa visited St. Louis in a game that started at 2 a.m. local.
For good measure, the Panthers–Sharks game — the one that was likely still going on when Keefe checked his phone — featured a 4:30 a.m. puck drop.
Despite the hurdle of having games with unfriendly start times, the passion for the NHL was evident in the streets of Stockholm last week. And this went well beyond the throngs of Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Senators and Wild fans who travelled from North America to watch their team play.
At the NHL fan event at Kungsträdgården — a park in the heart of the city — Leon Draisaitl jerseys could be seen everywhere. Two teenage girls skated together on the outdoor rink wearing Penguins jerseys featuring Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr. Young children with Vegas Golden Knights hats patiently waited for the chance to have their picture taken with the Stanley Cup.
“You can follow the NHL, but you have to sacrifice some sleep,” said Joe Ringrose, a New York Rangers fan from Essex in the United Kingdom. Ringrose travelled to Stockholm with a handful of friends and family because they wanted to embrace the NHL experience they normally don’t get at home, when games start in the middle of the night.
Fellow Essex resident Paul Stone was soaking in the opportunity to watch his favourite team live in Stockholm last week.
“My dad went to Toronto and fell in love with the Maple Leafs,” said Stone. “So I just got it from above.”
Following the Leafs on a regular basis is a challenge for Stone. He often works an overnight shift, which helps him keep track of how his favourite team is doing in real time.
“You can’t easily watch the games on regular television,” Stone said. “Personally, I just keep refreshing the Leafs’ official Twitter account every 10 minutes or so.”
After growing up in Canada, Reuben Twilley has lived in Oslo, Norway for seven years and still finds it strange that one of his favourite traditions from back home is no longer available.
“The biggest difference is not getting your Saturday night hockey game,” Twilley said.
Twilley would love to see the NHL embrace one Saturday or Sunday in a season where they specifically catered to their overseas fans, so they could experience that Saturday night tradition. The NFL has a significant advantage in this space, considering a bulk of their games start at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Sundays — meaning kick-off happens at 7 p.m. in a city like Stockholm.
“It would be smart if they did one weekend a year where they did a bunch of afternoon games, so European NHL fans could follow along,” said Twilley.
Twilley keeps a close tab on his Ottawa Senators, but says he often finds out the score of the game before he even has a chance to watch the highlights.
“I’m in way too many fantasy leagues. I usually wake up and find out the scores because of that,” said Twilley.
But Stephane Siewecke has found a workaround solution for European NHL fans who don’t want any spoilers when they wake up in the morning. For years Siewecke — who grew up in Ottawa but now lives in Stockholm — would try and head to NHL.com or other websites for highlights without finding out the result.
“I would try and squint and not look at the score on the website and just try and click on the highlights,” Siewecke said. “But everything was spoiled. You would always see the score.”
And then a fellow hockey fan introduced him to a site called Don’t Tell Me The Score. The website provides the condensed, 10-minute game recap video of North American sporting events the next morning — with no scoreboard visible to ruin the outcome.
“That’s my morning routine now. I have a cup of tea, a toast and I watch DTMS,” said Siewecke. “It’s hard going back to watch the live games now on TV. I can get the whole experience in 10 minutes. And this has saved my connection with the Ottawa Senators.”
Niklas Brannstrom’s routine for watching the NHL in Sweden doesn’t start in the morning, but rather the night before.
In order to watch his son Erik play for the Ottawa Senators, Niklas makes sure he’s in bed and sleeping by 11 p.m.
“And then I put my alarm for one o’clock in the morning,” said Niklas. “That’s how I do it.”
The majority of Senators games start at 1 a.m. local time for Niklas, which makes it a challenge since he has a full-time job on weekdays. So he’ll watch the Senators play from roughly 1 a.m. until 4 a.m. and then try and sneak in a little more sleep before getting up again around 6:30 a.m.
“The game is pretty long, so I don’t get much sleep before work,” explained Niklas. “I go back to sleep and try and get two more hours.”
If Niklas has an early meeting at the office — say, at 9 a.m. — he’ll forgo his usual routine and just sleep straight through and watch a recorded version of the game later. Fortunately for him, he had an important early morning meeting on October 27, so he wasn’t watching live when Erik was stretchered off the ice after receiving a thunderous hit from Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck.
Instead, Niklas woke up the next morning to a series of messages from concerned friends and family. His heart sank as he realized the gravity of the situation.
“That was a really tough way to wake up and see that,” said Niklas. “But I phoned Erik right away and he talked to me from the hospital and told me everything was OK.”
Niklas was an accomplished hockey player in his own right. He represented Sweden at the 1990 world junior hockey championships and then went on to a professional career that lasted more than a decade in Sweden and Germany.
Now 52 years old, he appreciates when the Senators play weekend matinee games, such as their home opener against the Philadelphia Flyers last month. In those instances, Niklas makes sure it’s not just him watching his son playing alone.
“On the weekends, some of the Ottawa games on the weekend start early. That’s the best for us,” said Niklas. “We will have a big dinner party with family and we all watch the game. So it’s great.”
Niklas’ face was beaming as he had a chance to watch Erik practice and play two games in his backyard last week. And on Saturday evening — at approximately 7:10 p.m. local time — Niklas had a chance to watch Erik rip a slapshot past Minnesota goaltender Filip Gustavsson for a game-tying goal at Avicii Arena.
“It’s so great to have him here,” said Niklas. “And for a change, I can actually watch him at night.
Earlier this month, Lars Mahrendorf woke up at 4 a.m. at his home in Hamburg, Germany, to make sure he was able to tune in live for a battle between Western Conference powerhouses Colorado and Vegas.
“You try and find certain games where it makes sense to wake up and watch,” said Mahrendorf.
Unfortunately, the highly anticipated matchup fizzled, with the Golden Knights administering a 7-0 beatdown to the visiting Avalanche.
“That turned out to be a bummer,” said Mahrendorf with a laugh.
According to Mahrendorf, it’s often easier for European fans to follow along with Western Conference teams like the Golden Knights, Avalanche, Kings or Canucks. When fans wake up in the morning, it’s not unusual for those teams to be playing the third period of games at home. So Mahrendorf can eat breakfast and watch the conclusion of those games live just as his day is starting.
But Mahrendorf — who was in Stockholm to watch all four NHL games last week — isn’t just a typical NHL fan from Europe. He also does play-by-play for NHL games that air on television in Switzerland.
And if you think it’s a challenge to wake up at odd hours to watch an NHL game, just imagine the energy and creativity it requires to call a game from a studio in that same window.
“It can be strange and isolating,” said Mahrendorf, who calls the games from a broadcast studio in Hamburg. He receives a clean international feed of the game — often from ESPN or Sportsnet — and then broadcasts the game in his native German language to an audience in Switzerland.
“It is a grind. I had to have a certain schedule. I try and sleep for a couple hours, wake up and then I go to the studio,” said Mahrendorf. “And then after I’m done calling the games, try and get another one or two hours of sleep.”
But as physically taxing as it can be to call games in the middle of the night, Mahrendorf says his adrenaline usually kicks in to compensate for any lack of sleep. Last season, he was able to broadcast Nick Cousins’ overtime-winning goal in Game 5 that sent the Florida Panthers to the Eastern Conference final — while eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I never dreamed of calling an NHL game in overtime in sudden death,” said Mahrendorf. “But this is worth it. This is the NHL and you dream about this.”
(Top photos of Avicii Arena and Senators fan Stephane Siewecke: Ben Jackson / NHLI via Getty Images, Ian Mendes / For The Athletic)