Toronto Maple Leafs rookie William Nylander's first NHL goal, in March 2016, was something of a family affair. The electric Swedish forward caught a pass off the face-off from Brooks Laich and buried a lightning-fast wrist shot into the Ottawa net. But it wasn't the first Laich-to-Nylander connection: Laich had assisted William's father, Michael, on his final NHL goal, in 2009. Today, William and his younger brother, Alexander, are following in Dad's footsteps and hope to light the lamp in the NHL for years to come.
Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, Michael Nylander honed his craft at the city’s picturesque outdoor rinks. “I remember at our school, as soon as the ice was frozen out there, we were playing all the time,” he says. “Even at lunchtime!”
He was drafted by the Hartford Whalers in 1991, and made his NHL debut the following year, scoring 11 goals in 59 games.
The center bounced around the NHL, doing stints with everyone from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and was playing for the Calgary Flames when William (1996) and Alexander (1998) were born.
Fast forward to 2014: William was taken eighth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Two years later, Alexander was selected eighth by the Buffalo Sabres. Just like Peyton and Eli Manning, these two brothers will battle in the pros instead of the driveway.
“I think it’ll be a blast,” says William of their new Eastern Conference rivalry. (Though, everer the older brother, he adds jokingly: “Of course, I beat him at everything.”)
The two credit growing up around the pro locker room with their dad as essential to their game today. “Just being there with him at the rink, and seeing what the dream was—it put in your head a goal to strive for,” says William.
And, as he notes, it’s not like they were just watching scrubs on a perennial cellar dweller: When Dad was playing for the Washington Capitals in the mid-aughts, a young Alexander Ovechkin put up 65 goals.
William and Alexander picked their father’s brain after games, but Michael never bombarded them with X’s and O’s. Instead, he let them move at their own speed. “As they got older, that’s when the language of hockey developed,” he says. “It’s hard
to talk to a 10-year-old about system, or forechecking! When the time was right, we started doing that.”
Michael put them in the gym when they each turned 12, practicing Olympic lifts—but with no weights. "We were working on technique, which I think was very healthy for me and my brother," says William. “That helps us now when we’re doing lifts and squats. It gave us the right form from the start, which wouldn’t have been the case if we’d just hit the gym and started squatting heavy.”
These days, William and Alexander are highly skilled, cerebral players in the Swedish tradition: They can skate, pass, shoot, and play both ways. They spend their summers in Sweden with their dad, who works them hard both in the gym (with single-leg lifts, squats, cleans, deadlifts, core—everything needed to be a successful hockey player) and on the squash court, which the Nylanders swear is the ideal cross training for hockey.
“In squash you have to read what’s going to happen before it happens,” says William.
And when the weather is nice? The Nylander boys like to hit the links. But while his sons might be able to deke him on the ice, the old man, at 43, can still hit it long and straight.
“I’ve been winning by a stroke here, a point there, so it hasn’t been like, a domination,” he says.
“But a win is a win, right?”