Goalie Jakob Hellsten bringing a unique perspective and style to UND
The freshman from Sweden is beginning to earn ice time and landed on the Dean's List in his first semester at college.
GRAND FORKS — Jakob Hellsten walks out to the bench area roughly 70 minutes before puck drop.
Wearing a black UND hockey sweatshirt with the hood on, he sits on the bench, leans forward, puts his folded arms on top of the dasher boards and rests his head on top.
Hellsten stares at the ice for a few minutes, preparing his eyes for the night. He scans the ice from side to side, just as he will do when he looks for threats during in-game play.
After that routine is over, the UND goaltender from Sweden turns around and sits down on the floor. He tucks his legs underneath the bench, disappearing below the boards and out of sight for anyone on the opposite side of the rink.
Then, Hellsten begins the most unique part of his game day preparation.
The freshman lights a candle, sets it on top of the bench and zones in on it. Nothing breaks his focus on the flame, not even teammates walking past him or early-arriving fans who start to file in the arena.
Sometimes he'll put his hands near his eyes like blinders to further tune out the outside world. At some point, he'll grab the candle holder with each hand and bring it closer to his face. Then, he'll set it back down.
After about 10 minutes, Hellsten blows out the candle, walks back to the locker room, puts on his gear and gets ready to play for the two-time defending Penrose Cup champions.
"I just started it this season," Hellsten said of his pregame ritual. "I've worked a lot with my sports psychologist about being present. That's the same thing with meditation. It's about being present and controlling your attention to something very specific. It helps you be present and not get lost in thoughts or emotions. It helps me a lot having that mindset and headspace before stepping foot on the ice and playing a game."
It's a unique routine for a unique goaltender — one who UND offered without ever seeing play in person. But Hellsten is already earning playing time alongside fifth-year senior Zach Driscoll and looks like a goalie of the future for the Fighting Hawks.
Hellsten didn't earn a start until the final game of the pre-Christmas schedule, but he's been between the pipes in five of UND's last seven.
"This might sound weird, but I was still really enjoying being here even when I wasn't playing," Hellsten said. "I felt like I was getting better. I was at a place where I felt like I belonged. I really enjoy this place. Even when I wasn't playing, I liked being here. I'm very happy.
"Before the season, I think I said I wasn't expecting to play, and any games I get are a bonus. I still have that mindset. But playing has been a lot of fun. I'm happy with my performances and we won a couple of games I've played. That's what it's all about."
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound goaltender, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Wednesday, is adapting well on and off the ice.
An accounting major taking classes in his second language, Hellsten earned a 4.0 grade-point average in his first semester. He landed on the Dean's List.
"I think everyone in this building has the same mindset," Hellsten said. "Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves. Everyone works hard. Everyone strives toward the same goal. That's what makes me feel like home. It's helped me adapt to a new culture, having people around you who are like-minded and strive toward the same goal. I think that's been a huge part of this whole experience."
Growing up in Sweden
Hellsten grew up in the northern part of Sweden. His father, Joa, is a goalie coach, despite never having played the position.
Joa learned from some of the top goalie coaches in the country, including Stefan Persson (now coaching in the KHL) and Thomas Magnusson (who is with the national team).
"We are a community of goaltending coaches in Sweden," Joa said. "We learn from each other. We contribute to each other's development. We gather at conventions. We participate in each other's practices and camps. That's how we do it in Sweden. It's not a competition. It's more like a community."
Hellsten's development was not limited to stopping the puck. It also included both skating and moving the puck.
Hellsten might be the most active puck-playing goaltender to come through UND, something he credits both to his training and his background as a forward/defenseman.
"He always has been encouraged to play the puck," Joa said. "He has given up some goals unnecessarily during the process, but he's quite confident in it. One big part is his skating. He's good on his feet. He's at the puck instantly, therefore he has more time to play the puck than some others. He's confident in his ability and he's one of the best in his age group at playing the puck."
Hellsten was first recruited by a Division-I team two years ago, but he turned down the offer to stay in Sweden, because he was nearing a pro contract.
The COVID-19 pandemic came and wiped out that opportunity. Hellsten got an offer from third-division team for the 2020-21 season and took it. Fortunately for him, it kept him college eligible.
A trend in the NCHC
After last season, UND needed to add a goalie and was on to Hellsten through video and contacts in Europe. They offered him a scholarship having never seen him play in person.
Hellsten committed, choosing UND over a pro contract.
"Through COVID, we couldn't get out a whole lot," UND coach Brad Berry said. "We were really limited on traveling through the last 18-24 months due to COVID. We had to rely a lot on video. We relied on some people, some contacts over in Sweden as well. . . some very close relationships that we have and trust. Through video and through those relationships, we felt comfortable bringing Jakob over."
Hellsten is part of a wave of European-born goalies in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Three other teams have European starters, including two Swedes.
Denver's starter is Magnus Chrona, who is Swedish. Miami's starter is Ludvig Persson, who also is Swedish. St. Cloud State's goalie is Slovakian David Hrenak, who led the Huskies to an NCAA Frozen Four last season. St. Cloud State is set to replace Hrenak with a Swedish goalie next year, too, in Isak Posch.
Berry said he's been happy with Hellsten's play so far.
"He's sharp," Berry said. "He tracks pucks. He's on the initial shot. Rebound control is very good. He handles pucks as far as snapping pucks to the D-men and being efficient of trying to break out pucks. You want to eliminate as much time on your end of the rink and having a goalie who has the awareness to put it on a defenseman's tape and make the next play, that's a huge, huge deal. We value that. Through his career, he's going to keep growing exponentially here, because he's a great young man."
Hellsten is 2-2 with a 2.76 goals-against average and a .889 save percentage on the season. He started both games last weekend against St. Cloud State. Hellsten earned a 7-1 victory on Friday, but was lifted for Driscoll during Saturday's 3-3 tie.
"He knows he's maybe not the No. 1 guy right now, but he's fighting for it," UND defenseman Jake Sanderson said. "There's competition between a couple guys. Jakob is very good at playing the puck. That goes along with the confidence, being ready to jump out of the net and help our 'D' out and get pucks to us."
While Hellsten is competing with Driscoll for playing time, the Swede credited the fifth-year senior with helping his transition to North America and college hockey.
"He's such a good guy," Hellsten said of Driscoll. "He's really helped me when it comes to settling in here. He understands it's a big adjustment for me coming over — a new culture, a new style of play. Just his general presence and calmness has really helped me on and off the ice. Him being a good friend to me has helped me a lot. It's been huge."
Omaha at UND
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday, 6:07 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Ralph Engelstad Arena.
TV: Midco Sports (GF Ch. 27/622 HD).
Radio: The Fox (96.1 FM).