GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Travis Zajac is 33. He has played 843 regular-season and 57 Stanley Cup Playoff games over 13 NHL seasons, all with the New Jersey Devils. He has played in the Stanley Cup Final.
But he had never done anything like this.
Here he was at Scandinavium on Saturday, standing at center ice and raising his stick to the sellout crowd of 12,044, the No. 1 star after scoring two goals in a 5-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers in the 2018 NHL Global Series.
“That’s kind of neat,” said Zajac, a Winnipeg native. “I wouldn’t have expected it, to be honest. It was a great experience, I think, for our team, probably for both teams. It’s not every day you get to come to Europe and play an NHL game in front of these fans who really appreciate the hockey. I think our team’s pretty grateful for getting the chance to come play here.”
The NHL has played 29 regular-season games outside North America since 1997, and it will play two more when the Florida Panthers and the Winnipeg Jets play at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, Finland, on Nov. 1-2.
The intention is to showcase players in their home countries, of course. This was the first regular-season game in Gothenburg. The Devils have three Sweden-born players: forwards Jesper Bratt and Marcus Johansson and goaltender Eddie Lack. The Oilers have two: defensemen Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson.
“It was such a cool feeling,” said Johansson, who was born in Landskrona, Sweden, and once played for Farjestads, the rival of the local club Frolunda. “The crowd was awesome. They were right into it from the first minute, and it’s just such a good thing to come over here and play. It’s hard to put words to it, I think, and have all your family and friends in the stands. Not getting booed in this rink, either, for the first time. It was a lot of fun.”
But the intention is to showcase the NHL in general too. Interest in the NHL has exploded in Europe in recent years, especially in Sweden. No country outside North America sends more players to the NHL. Seventy-four Sweden-born players were on opening rosters this season. Ninety-four played at least one game by the time last season ended.
Fans here want to see the best players in the world, period. The names on the marquee for this game were Oilers center Connor McDavid and Devils forward Taylor Hall. This was the second time in NHL history the previous two winners of the Hart Trophy as the League’s most valuable player met in a season opener. The last was in 1950, when New York Rangers goaltender Chuck Rayner faced Detroit Red Wings center Sid Abel.
This game showcased strong team play, at least by the Devils. McDavid had two assists and wowed the crowd on one occasion, streaking up the left wing, curling behind the net and setting up forward Milan Lucic for a power-play goal. But for the most part, the Devils shut down the Oilers, pressuring them, keeping them in their end. They outshot them 27-19, including 10-4 in the second period.
Forward Kyle Palmieri also had two goals, and forward Stefan Noesen scored into an empty net. Forward Miles Wood had two assists. Nine Devils had a point.
“It would have been tough coming here and not winning,” Zajac said. “We’ve put in a lot of work and got rewarded for it. That’s a positive, and now we get to go back and really start the year back in Jersey in front of our fans. I think we’re all excited for this year.”
The NHL chose the Devils to come so far because of how far they’ve come.
“This Devils team wouldn’t have been out here a couple years ago,” Zajac said. “I think now you see the young players we have and the skill we have. We’ve got an MVP on our team. So we’ve got a lot of good pieces, young pieces, that are pushing us in the right direction, and people want to see that.”
Coach John Hynes wants to see more of it.
“We want to be a tough team to play against,” Hynes said. “We talk about having a strong brotherhood and a strong team concept. We understand what we are, and we have a bunch of guys that are really good hockey players, but they understand how to play within the team and that attention to detail matters in our game. We talk a lot about being proud of the way that we work, and the guys have bought into that. That’s the type of effort we need on a nightly basis for us to be a good team.”