NHL

Posted: Thursday, October 05, 2000

For weeks, Brian Swanson expected the axe to fall. He prepared himself for it. Sooner or later, someone in the Edmonton Oilers organization would tell him they had his plane ticket to Hamilton, Ontario, and it would be back to the minor leagues for him, just like last year.

Funny thing happened, though. Again and again, players were cut from training camp. But still Swanson remained, and he played in six of eight exhibition games.

On Monday, the decision finally came down. Only, it was wonderful. Oilers coach Craig MacTavish pulled aside the 24-year-old from Eagle River after practice and delivered the words Swanson has waited all his life to hear: He was going to play in the National Hockey League.

"He said he was happy with the way I've been playing and they're going to keep me around for a bit," Swanson said from his Edmonton hotel room. "Honestly, when I first came in, I thought I'd be around for a few exhibition games and then be sent down.

"But things just kept going good, and I kept sticking around. And here I am."

That is what passes for elation from Swanson, the former Chugiak High and Colorado College star and second-year pro. He is nothing if not preternaturally calm. His poise amid the chaos that is a hockey game is what has always made him stand out well, that and his superb skating and skills. Soft-spoken as ever, he is thrilled in his own way, which is to say MacTavish's news probably elevated Swanson's pulse rate a good one or two beats per minute.

"You know me," he said, matter-of-factly. "It's exciting, though. I can't believe it. It hasn't sunk in. I guess it will Friday night."

That's when the Oilers open their season against the visiting Detroit Red Wings. Swanson will wear No. 37 and become the fifth Alaskan all since 1998 to skate in the NHL. One of the other Alaskans to recently make the NHL was former East Anchorage High School star Scott Gomez, who was last year's Calder Award as the NHL rookie of the year after leading his New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup.

If Swanson is taking this in relative stride, those dearest to him are bouncing off the walls.

"Oh, my gosh," said his mother, Lynn. "Hey, it's beyond words. It's been a lot of struggle and sacrifice for all the family, and that's why the whole family is going (to Friday's game).

"No matter what happens, he can always say, I graduated from college in four years and I played in the NHL.' I'm just so thrilled."

Lynn is flying to Edmonton with her husband, Ron, and their other son, Aaron, to witness Brian's NHL debut.

Swanson's coach at Colorado College, Don Lucia, has been checking Swanson's progress daily on the Internet. He is, of course, ecstatic that his former All-America center, two-time Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist and team captain has reached the promised land.

"I'm really excited," Lucia said from Minneapolis, where he now coaches the University of Minnesota. "I think Brian's my all-time favorite player I've had up to now.

"It's a combination of him being a great player and a greater person. It's amazing to be around someone who is so good, and so selfless."

Once, Colorado College's equipment manager had a personal emergency and could not wash the team's dirty laundry. So Swanson did it. No one asked him to he just did. At Colorado College, where he racked up 232 career points in 167 games, Swanson constantly credited his team for his success. To hear him tell it, his prolific scoring could be attributed to two things he had terrific linemates and he was the recipient of pretty much every lucky bounce in the history of ricocheting pucks.

The news of Swanson's arrival in the NHL was cherished in the Minnesota hockey offices. One of Lucia's assistant coaches, Anchorage native John Hill, coached Swanson in youth hockey. Lucia's other assistant, Mike Guentzel, was Swanson's coach in junior A hockey.

Swanson's wife, Lynn Lynnie or Little Lynn to the family, since she has the same name as Brian's mom is understandably proud of the high school sweetheart who became her husband.

"He's worked so hard," she said from Edmonton, where she joined Brian on Tuesday. "It's so exciting to see him where he is."

In his first year as a pro, Swanson spent last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League. He scored 19 goals, 40 assists and 59 points in 69 games to tie for third on the team in scoring. He centered Daniel Cleary and Michel Riesen, the team's top two scorers.

"Things just kind of clicked with us," Swanson said. "I don't know what it was last year, but when (Hamilton coach) Walt Kyle put us together, it just instantly clicked."

The trio were reunited in Oilers camp and have been the team's second line. Swanson also has killed penalties and played on the power play. He scored two goals and two assists in six exhibition games. He scored a game-winning overtime goal against Ottawa on a rebound of Cleary's shot with Swanson's shot hitting the post and trickling over the goal line "the slowest goal ever," he called it.

Even exhibition games were a thrill.

"You do a lot of name-staring," Swanson said of reading the names on the jerseys of opponents. "You're watching guys on SportsCenter one day and the next thing you're playing against them. It's kind of eerie.

"But the bottom line is you're in the same league, so you have to play with confidence."

All in all, life's turning up wonderful for Swanson. He and Lynnie bought their first home, in Eagle River, over the summer. He has reached his NHL dream.

Oh, and Lynnie is pregnant with their first child.

"We're really lucky," she said. "We say that all the time."



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