Maine native Oliver Wahlstrom, 18, who has been played on U.S. national U-17 and U-18 hockey squads, is expected to be taken in the first round of the NHL Draft on Friday. (Rena Laverty/USA Hockey National Team Development Program)
Nine years after he scored a jaw-dropping goal that would make him an internet sensation, Yarmouth native Oliver Wahlstrom is about to enter the hockey spotlight again.
Wahlstrom, 18, is expected to become the first Maine-born hockey player selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft on Friday night. Considered a natural scoring threat, he is ranked seventh among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting and could go in the top 10 of the draft.
Wahlstrom has not lived in Maine for the past four years, as his hockey skills have taken him to Minnesota and beyond.
He has played in the U.S. National Team Development Program the last two years, helping the U.S. win last year’s U-18 world championships. Craig Button, an analyst for TSN (Canada’s version of ESPN), calls the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Wahlstrom “the best goal-scorer in the draft.”
Maine has had a couple of second-round draft picks in the past — Biddeford’s Brian Dumoulin (51st overall) in 2007 and Cumberland’s Brian Hart (53rd overall) in 2012 — but never anyone in the first round. Eric Weinrich, who was born in Virginia but grew up in Maine, was selected in the second round at No. 32 in 1985.
Wahlstrom’s father Joakim, a Swedish native who played at the University of Maine for two years, always has been a Detroit Red Wings fan. They pick fifth on Friday night. But he doesn’t care where his son ends up.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Joakim Wahlstrom, who lives in Savannah, Georgia. “It’s just a number, really. The work really starts after the draft. This is a milestone for him to get to this point.”
Those who followed Wahlstrom over the years aren’t surprised he’ll go high in the draft.
While growing up in Maine, he played for the Portland Junior Pirates and one year at North Yarmouth Academy — as a seventh-grader on the varsity team. NYA plays a prep schedule, not in the Maine Principals’ Association, so he could play on varsity as a seventh-grader. He had 11 goals and 18 assists in 22 games.
“It’s been a cool thing for me to watch,” said Eric Graham, Wahlstrom’s coach at NYA and now an assistant at Bowdoin College. “I knew how special he was. And not only did he maintain that (skill level), but he probably got himself to a higher level on the world stage. It’s been cool to follow his career and see his development as a player.
“He was really one of the better players in the world when I had him at 13, Now, a few years later, he’s in that top 1 percent, maybe less, maybe even better.”
Wahlstrom left NYA in 2014 to attend Shattuck-St. Mary’s, one of the nation’s top prep hockey programs, in Faribault, Minnesota. From there he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program and played on U.S. national U-17 and U-18 teams.
“He’s always been a mature kid,” Graham said. “He held himself to a higher standard. He wouldn’t have had a chance of playing prep hockey as a seventh-grader if he wasn’t the type of kid he was. He approached the game seriously and he loved playing the game.”
Joakim Wahlstrom said his son took to hockey even before he learned to walk.
“It started early with him, a stick and a ball,” he said in a phone interview from Dallas, where the draft will be held. “I watched hockey, so he watched hockey. He fell in love with it. Ever since, he’s had a passion for it. He’s very stubborn to learn everything he can about it, and that’s still going to this day.”
Oliver Wahlstrom, a right wing, was good in other sports too, especially lacrosse, which he played at NYA in middle school.
“He was probably better in lacrosse than hockey,” his father said. “He just chose hockey.”
Kent Hulst, a former Portland Pirate, saw those same attributes when Wahlstrom was playing with the Junior Pirates. Even there, he played at a level higher than his age group.
“He was that good,” Hulst said. “You could tell he was something special. And obviously the work he’s done since has put him in a good spot.
“He could skate and shoot, the way he saw the game. That enabled him to be able to play with older kids. And he’s worked hard to get to where he is.”
Wahlstrom, who could not be reached on Thursday, gained fame at an early age. He was 9 when he scored a goal in the Boston Bruins mini 1-on-1 contest that captivated the internet. He skated down the center, laid his stick on the ice and twirled the puck onto its blade. Then he spun 360 degrees and flipped the puck just inside the left post. That shot earned him appearances on ESPN’s “Sportscenter” and CBS’ “Early Show.”
When he was at NYA, at 13, he verbally committed to play at Maine, planning to following his father there. It was, said Graham, “a fairly controversial decision at the time.”
But, Graham added, Wahlstrom’s maturity allowed him to handle it.
“He handled the media attention as it came,” he said. “It was like he was a pro at 13 years old. It blew me away how he handled it, how he handled all the questions. He took it in stride.”
Wahlstrom would later rescind his commitment, verbally committing to Harvard. Now, he is going to attend Boston College, where he told the Boston Globe, “I have friends there, all my workout buddies.”
He plans to play at Boston College, and whoever drafts him will have his rights when he turns pro.
The team that picks him, is going to get a heck of a scorer. Last year he scored 48 goals and 46 assists in 62 games for the U-18 national team.
Graham is in Dallas for the draft and hopes to see Wahlstrom. “It’s going to be fun,” he said. “I’m excited to see where he goes.”