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Leafs prospect Hildeby making a name for himself in AHL


Dennis Hildeby sighs when his 'Hildebeast' nickname is brought up. 

"I feel like as soon as you're over 6-foot-5 you're called 'beast' in this country," the 6-foot-7, 222 pound Toronto Marlies goalie said. "Like, everyone is calling you 'Beast.' It's not just me."

But the 'Hildebeast' nickname does seem to roll off the tongue.   

"It goes together pretty nice," the 22-year-old from Jarfalla, Sweden acknowledges. "It sounds alright, 'Hilde' and 'beast,' and that's the reason it comes up, but I prefer to be called by my name, to be honest."

Hildeby hopes Toronto Maple Leafs fans will be hearing his name a lot more in the coming years. The team's fourth-round pick in the 2022 NHL draft is off to a strong start in the American Hockey League this season. After posting consecutive shutouts, his save percentage is up to .950 through four games. 

Hildeby, who played in the Swedish Hockey League last season, spoke to TSN about how he's made a smooth adjustment to North America and also shared what it was like to serve as an emergency backup goalie with the Leafs during last year's playoffs. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

TSN: Any shutout is special, what's it like to have two in a row? 

Hildeby: First time it's happened. I don't like that usually the goalies always get credit for a shutout, but it's really a team effort. Like, it's quite impossible to hold a shutout if you don't get the help from your team. I think we, as a group, should take that as a big achievement that we've had two shutouts in not so many games. That's a good achievement for us as a team and something to build on. 

TSN: I saw a picture of you wearing a football helmet after the latest win. What's that all about? 

Hildeby: I have no idea, to be honest. (Laugh) I haven't asked. It's the helmet we give out to the player of the game, and I haven't really asked why we give out a helmet, a football helmet, but I might have to do that. 

TSN: What do you like the most about your game so far this season? 

Hildeby: I've played calm. I've felt confident during the games. A lot of it comes back to the team I have in front of me. Usually it works hand in hand – if I play confident then they play confident and vice versa, so we've found a good chemistry there and have trusted each other. The hockey season [has] a lot of ups and downs, generally, so I'm probably going to have a tough period during the season some time, but it's trying to stay consistent and not getting too high when you're playing good and not too low when tough times are coming. Just be boring, to be honest, just stay in the middle.

TSN: You allowed eight goals in two games after joining the Marlies late last season. In what ways are you more comfortable with the North American game now?

Hildeby: At the end of last season I had maybe three practices on this rink before playing my first game compared to this season where I've been here  since the 14th of August practising pretty much every day. I'm way better prepared for this season than coming over at the end of last season, so I think that's a big difference. I had more time to prepare. 

TSN: What's the biggest difference here? 

Hildeby: I mean, I don't think too much about that. Obviously, the size of the rink, which makes players throw pucks at the net more often because they have less space. That's how you create chances over here is by throwing the puck to the net and creating chaos. It goes north-south a lot, like, a high-speed game. There's a few changes obviously, but at the end of the day it's still hockey. It's the same sport. My job never changes. It's a little different with angles maybe and a couple other things to think about, but my job is stopping the puck and that's the same in Sweden, believe it or not (smile).

TSN: After Ilya Samsonov got hurt, you were called up to be the emergency backup for the last couple playoff games with the Leafs. What was that like? 

Hildeby: That was fun. I mean, get to travel to Florida and then spend a lot of time with good players who you've never seen in real life, just seen on TV, so it's kind of surreal. It was a good experience to see a couple games live. It was actually my first couple NHL games I saw live over here. It was a good experience to, like, see what you're actually working towards, the lifestyle, so it was good.

TSN: What's the No. 1 thing you'll remember? 

Hildeby: Probably the balcony I had in my own hotel room. It was pretty sick. Biggest one I've seen.

TSN: They travel well in the NHL. 

Hildeby: Yeah, they do. They do. 

TSN: What's it like living in Toronto? 

Hildeby: It's kind of the same. A few differences. It's a way bigger town than what I'm used to, but it gives you more things to do if you want to do things. I'm pretty laidback when it comes to that. I don't like doing much. I like spending time with myself. I usually just go between the rink and the apartment. I don't do that much and then, like, every once in a while, you can go out for dinner and do something. 

TSN: What's the key to using your size to your advantage? 

Hildeby: I've been 6'6, 6'7 for a couple years now. I remember at the start when I really started growing it was kind of difficult to figure everything out. It was a lot of long limbs and stuff to take care of, so it can be hard to keep everything in check. But over the years I've gotten better and better. I use it, but play calm and, at the same time, keep my athleticism and aggressive style of play and somewhat combine them. I think I'm at a stage now where I want to be. Obviously, there's things to do better all the time, but I'm quite happy where I am on my journey so far.  

TSN: How do you handle the mental side of the game? 

Hildeby: That's something I've been working a lot on. To start, I did it on my own and then started getting help with it. For almost a year I've been working with a guy named Andy Sward. He's got a couple clients back in Sweden. He does other sports too, some horse riding and stuff like that, and works with Jesper Bratt who's on the New Jersey Devils. He's got a good resume. He managed to do some things with Jesper, who is quite successful. So, I've been working with him a lot this past year. He was getting me more confident back in Sweden and now, over the summer, preparing me for this challenge over here. So, I think I'm in a good mental state so far. If there's a crisis any time I can just call him and he'll answer and try to calm me down, but there hasn't been any so far. It might come, but then I know he's got my back. So, that's good.  

TSN: How often do you talk to him?

Hildeby: I always talk to him before games I play, generally. So, I mean, at least once a week and obviously some weeks might be more if I feel I need it. Just text him and see if he's got time and then give him a call. So, at least once a week. 

TSN: What's your goal this season? What do you want to accomplish? 

Hildeby: First of all, getting confident in the American League and try to play as good as I can here, get as many games as I can, and then we'll see from there. Only God knows, right? ... Just try to take it day by day. But I think you should always dream. The sky's the limit. Everything can happen and it can go very quick.

TSN: Last season you played with Farjestad BK in the Swedish Hockey League where Matt Tomkins was the other goalie. What's it like seeing him make his NHL debut this season and earn his first win with the Tampa Bay Lightning?  

Hildeby: Really motivating. We played an entire season together and created a pretty special bond. We've stayed in touch. I've sent him a couple messages congratulating him. I'm really happy for him. If you want a goalie right now to motivate you, I think Matt Tomkins is the guy. Like, how old is he? Twenty-nine? And his journey towards the NHL has been so much up and down. He's always stayed with it, being professional, just as I said I want to do, taking it day by day, and seeing where it gets you. He's got his games in the NHL and the chance to break into the league and I really hope he does.

TSN: What's it like to see NHL games being played in Sweden this week?   

Hildeby: It means a lot. Like, especially to all the kids out there. I remember I watched a game in Sweden back when I was a little younger and it was a cool experience. That's when dreams are made, when you get to see real things, so it's good what they're doing.