“At home, you either have to go pro in Denmark or go to the junior league in Sweden, but there’s no option to go to school, too,” Schmidt-Svejstrup said. “It’s important to get an education because there are a lot of guys that don’t make it to the N.H.L., but it’s also elite level hockey and allows you to develop your skills at the same time and give you an opportunity there as well. If you play college hockey, there’s no way to lose.”
Filip Larsson, a Stockholm native, learned of the U.S.H.L. when his junior team from Djurgarden played against the Chicago Steel in the Junior Club World Cup in 2015.
“After the game I thought that it was really fun and that playing that kind of game every time would be good for me to develop,” said Larsson, 19, a goalie for the Tri-City Storm, which plays in Kearney, Neb. “There was more traffic, more speed and better shots, so when the season was over, I thought about my future and decided coming over to the U.S.H.L. and being able to play a lot and having the chance to go to college after that would be best for me.”
Larsson, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the sixth round in 2016, currently leads the league’s goalies in every major statistical category, with a 14-4-0-0 record, a 1.45 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and five shutouts. He recently committed to the University of Denver for next season and will represent Sweden at the world junior championship.
Tri-City Coach Anthony Noreen has two other Swedes on his roster. He said the U.S.H.L. was a great opportunity for European players to transition to more than just the North American game, with its smaller ice surfaces and generally more physical style of play. They can also adjust to a new language and culture “when their career doesn’t depend on it,” he said.
“We know they’re going to make mistakes, and that’s O.K.,” Noreen said. “We’re a development league, and we’ll help them learn through those mistakes. It also lengthens the runway for a player, so to speak.
“If you go the major junior route in Canada, it forces an N.H.L. team to make a decision on you at 20 years old, but with the college path, you get a bit more time to develop before they have to offer you a contract or not.”
Jachym Kondelik, a 6-6, 215-pound center from the Czech Republic, was drafted in the spring of 2016 by the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League, a top junior league in Canada. But he changed course because he wanted to go to college. He now plays for the U.S.H.L.’s Muskegon Lumberjacks in Michigan.
Players in Canadian junior leagues are not eligible for the N.C.A.A., because some have already signed professional contracts and appeared in pro games. N.C.A.A. rules prohibit athletes from playing with or against professionals.
“I chose the U.S.H.L. over the O.H.L. because I like the way they play better,” Kondelik said. “It’s more two-way hockey, and there’s a focus on defense. And that’s the kind of player I am — and the player I want to be — and thought it would be the best way for me to get better. There’s more time for practice to work on my skating and my skills and being in the weight room to get stronger. Plus, going to college is really big for me, probably most important.”
Kondelik recently committed to the University of Connecticut.
“Everyone who goes to college in Europe says it’s the worst four years of their life, and in America everyone says it’s the best four years of your life,” he said. “Once you step on a campus and realize how much money they put into the schools here, you understand why that is. It’s amazing. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to go.”