While his birth certificate reads “Stockholm, Sweden,” Oduya played the game as if he grew up in Winnipeg’s North End.
As a 16-year-old, he amassed 70 penalty minutes in just 26 games, and that was only the appetizer.
By the time he was playing pro in the Swedish Elite League —— after one season of junior hockey in Canada — Oduya had become downright scary. For a European.
“There were a lot of upset people,” Oduya was saying, Tuesday. “Back then you have one fight a year, it’s a big thing. I probably had a couple of suspensions. The longest one was five games or something like that.
“I think I was the first guy over 200 minutes.”
You think he’s kidding.
Then you look up his career stats and see he actually spent exactly 200 minutes in the sin bin in Sweden’s top league in 2002-03.
The next season, another 173 minutes.
What’s this, a Swedish goon?
“No, I wasn’t a tough guy,” Oduya objected. “I played a little bit of a different style.”
Enstrom, three years younger than Oduya, remembers Oduya in the Elite League.
“Growing up, I was watching him a little bit,” Enstrom said. “And he had a couple of fights. I’ve been asking when am I going to see him fight over here.”
That’s just it, Oduya must have undergone some sort of transformation.
Because since joining the NHL five years ago, he’s barely dropped a glove in anger, with no more than 30 penalty minutes a season in each of the last three.
“He’s on me all the time,” a chuckling Oduya said of Enstrom. “Like ‘I’ve played with you now for a year and a half and haven’t seen anything.’ I’m like, ‘We’ll see.’ I had one my first year, and that was about it. Craig Adams, I think. Nobody got hurt, so it was all right.”
So what happened that made Johnny-O drop the mitt-dropping?
It sounds like he simply realized he could do so much more.
“My last year in Sweden I tried to play more and use my skating and a little bit more offensive ability,” Oduya said. “I’ve gone back to being maybe a little bit more defensive. Maybe this year I can make another move forward and combine it.”
The way Oduya sees it, he’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
Three-plus seasons in New Jersey proved he could put up 25-30 points and a similar plus-minus every year.
With a weaker team in Atlanta his production dipped to 17 points last season, his rating to minus-15.
In a couple of weeks Oduya will turn 30, making this a pivotal season, of sorts.
“It’s a new experience,” he said. “I played juniors in Canada about 10 years ago so I kind of know a little bit how big the sport is. It’s almost like a religion. That year is probably one of the most fun years of my career. I’m looking forward to having a good year. I’m excited like every one else in this town.”
Who knows, he might even drop the gloves, just for old time’s sake.
“For me it was always a part of the game. That’s one part of why I wanted to come over and play juniors, too. I like that style of hockey. Even now, it’s not like I’m afraid. It’s just being smart about it.
“Back in the day a lot of European players were maybe a little bit nervous coming over and playing here. I hope it’s changed a little bit.”
Lars-Erik, Anders and Ulfie would, no doubt, be proud.