It was anything but an ordinary summer for Omaha senior forward Martin Sundberg. Due to enhanced travel restrictions with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Linkoping, Sweden native was forced to leave his homeland and spend 14 days in another country before being able to return to the United States.
“When the virus broke out, we had the opportunity to go home,” Sundberg said. “School converted completely online, so I ended up going home to Sweden. I got one of the last flights out of Omaha and then went home for over three months. Coming back was tough though since Sweden was on the (Schengen) list of countries you weren’t able to enter the country from, even though I had a visa.
“I actually had to go to Croatia and lived there for 15 days with one of the guys who plays soccer and one that plays women’s basketball, both here at UNO. We all went together for 15 days and ended up flying to New York, and then drove from there to Omaha, so it was quite a trip.”
Five months later, Sundberg finds himself living alone in a hotel room in the city he’s grown so accustomed to the past three seasons. Besides studying for school, the focus is all on hockey. 10 games in 21 days, as Baxter Arena plays host to the NCHC Pod. It’s an unusual situation, but it’s a sacrifice he and his teammates have been willing to make in order to play.
“It’s different, but I think it’s how you view it,” Sundberg said. “We view it as an opportunity to play and we get to be here because we don’t have to be here. I think it’s just a mindset and we’re just so happy to be back playing. Yeah, there are no fans, but our friends and family and fans can watch on TV. Also staying in a hotel walking distance from your apartment and school is a little unique for sure, but that’s something we’ve all been able to adjust to.”
Aside from the different lifestyle, testing three times a week, and playing with no fans, there’s been another change in the Pod for Sundberg. Through four games, the 6’4 194-pound winger looks like a different player from one year ago.
“I think I really built off of last year,” Sundberg said. “I try to be strong in front of the net and work in those hard areas, and help my teammates and linemates out as much as I can. I’m confident right now for sure, but I have to give credit to my coaches and teammates for getting after it the past three months. We were hoping for a season and came to the rink every day and tried to get better. So we’re definitely in shape right now and I like the way we’ve started.”
In 33 games last season, Sundberg scored five goals and had 12 points as a junior. After just four games in 2020-21, he’s already over halfway to that goal total. He currently sits at three goals and five points.
It’s a change of scenery though, as goal scoring has never exactly been the strength of his game. Throughout juniors and his first three years in college, the most Sundberg put up in a season was 12 (2015-16 with Janesville, NAHL) and that was spread across 43 games. Even after the hot start to this season, it’s still something he doesn’t try to focus on.
“I’m usually not thinking about scoring out there,” Sundberg said. “My game is being hard to play against and winning battles. I’m usually worried about being big in front of the net, being good on the penalty kill and just communicating on the ice- all of those small things. That’s what I envision myself doing well and what I want to contribute every night. Even this offseason, I focused on my speed and becoming better at both ends.
“Obviously scoring is nice, but that’s not what I’m out there to do. Everyone has a skillset at this level, but I think the small things are the key, and I take a lot of pride in that.”
Those “small things” have been evident, and that’s what has helped him elevate his game. Early on, Sundberg looks like more of an all-around player. He’s found what works and his head coach knows exactly what he’s going to get out of him on a nightly basis.
“He’s done a great job of establishing an identity for himself,” said Mavericks Head Coach Mike Gabinet. “I think anytime a hockey player establishes an identity, especially at our level, it’s a great thing. He’s a big power forward that’s a great F1.
“He takes pucks to the net and has net presence all the time. He took that big step last year for us and he’s continuing that this season.”
That hard work and identity have found him a home on the Mavericks top line with Nolan Sullivan and Jack Randl through the first few games. Sundberg said the two are great guys outside of the rink, which has carried over onto the ice. The chemistry is showing, as the trio have combined for seven goals and 10 points.
“We’re clicking really well, and we have been for the past few weeks,” Sundberg said. “We’re three hard-working players, so we feed off each other, and we just work well together. We have good chemistry and I think that has shown the past four games.”
The man in the middle of their line has seen it too. He can tell Sundberg put in the work over the summer.
“His strength has really been showing early on,” Sullivan said. “You can tell he had a great offseason. He gained a lot of strength and continued to develop his play in the corners. His compete level has been off the charts too.
“As a line though I just think we are doing a good job of keeping it simple. We focus on taking care of defense first, and then the offense comes naturally.”
Now in his fourth year in Omaha, Sundberg can’t believe how fast the time has flown by. He graduated this past August with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is currently working towards his master’s in business administration. On the ice, he’s skated in 66 games in an Omaha sweater.
It’s crazy for him to think, but just over five years ago the 19-year-old found himself crossing the Atlantic for the first time. A tough decision to leave his friends and family especially behind at home, but it was a chance to further his education and continue his hockey career.
“One of my best friends, Nils Rygaard, went over to Janesville the year before me, and then he came back in the summer and talked to me about it,” Sundberg said. “I wasn’t aware of college hockey and didn’t know if I’d even be able to play, but he told me I could combine getting a college degree while playing the sport you love. That kind of hooked me, so I decided to go.”
That first year in Janesville, the Jets roster featured three Swedes- Sundberg, Rygaard and Adam Winborg. Even playing with his fellow countrymen, it was still quite the adjustment.
“The language barrier was pretty difficult at first,” Sundberg said. “I didn’t speak English very well, so it was kind of hard to communicate. I understood most of the things people told me, but in the beginning, it was kind of a tough adjustment.
“I had two other guys from Sweden on the team though. Also with everyone around me speaking English, it definitely helped speed up the process.”
Fast forward to December 2020, and Sundberg is one of the most beloved faces in the Omaha locker room. His English doesn’t present any issues as he steps in front of the camera for a Zoom press conference following his overtime game-winner against Miami.
Albeit a small sample size, through four games the Swedish forward looks to be on the verge of a breakout senior season. No matter what happens on the ice though, he wants to make the most of what could potentially be his final season in Omaha.
“I remember one of my teammates and really good friends, Luke Nogard, always told me before you know it you’re going to be a senior, so really soak it in and enjoy it,” Sundberg said. “College is a special time in your life where you’re always around your teammates, coaching staff and you go to school, so it’s a big family.
“Every year it’s been a new group of people here that you get to know and see every day, and it does feel like a family. They’re people you can always count on both at and outside of the rink, and these people will be a part of my life forever. I think we’ve got another great group this season and can do something special.”