Pastrnak looking forward to deep Bruins playoff run, birth of son

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He was a kid alone in a new country, with little money and even less of the language, brought there by the lure of playing for Sodertalje in the Swedish second division for the 2012-13 season. Pastrnak would spend hours with the family that owned the restaurant, Mimmo’s Pizzeria, sometimes whole afternoons as lunch faded into dinner, while he added one and then two more meals on a bill that would come due at the end of the month. 

That future would come to fruition two years later, when Pastrnak made the NHL as a skinny 18-year-old and where he has continued to blossom over his seven seasons playing for the Boston Bruins. In that time, Pastrnak has become one of the top forwards in the NHL, embraced by fans for his dazzling goal-scoring and personality, embraced by his teammates as a bright light in the locker room, embraced for the maturity he has developed as he nears a new milestone of his own — his first child — at the same time that the Bruins are starting what they hope will be a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

But back then, back in Sodertalje, though that future was enticing, his present was a bit lonely.

They filled that void at Mimmo’s, the whole family. There was Mimmo Perrone, who owned the place, and who would play the guitar. Nicke Manikas would sing. And then there was Gabriella Perrone, Mimmo’s wife, nicknamed Lella, and her daughters.

They surrounded him. It is not exaggeration or hyperbole to say Pastrnak went there every day, sometimes twice, with Pastrnak estimating he ate at least 10 meals per week at Mimmo’s. He was comfortable there.  

“Mimmo’s has a huge, huge place in my heart,” Pastrnak said. “Mimmo and Lella and even Nicke, a huge, huge place in my heart. Still to this day, it warms me up talking about them.”

His personality then was as it is now — big, open, joyful — and it was nearly impossible for them not to love him, an emotion that is evident still, in talking to Manikas, who translated Perrone from Swedish, interjecting his own comments.

“He came in every day,” Manikas said. “For lunch, dinner. Sometimes he took home a meal, sometimes he ate here. … Everybody hangs out here when they play [for Sodertalje]. But he was very special because he came alone, he was alone. He didn’t have anyone, so he connected more with us. So, we took him into our hearts.”

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It meant so much to him then. Perhaps more now, as his understanding of family deepens with his first child, a son, due in June. While he has spent the season again separated from his mother and brother, his father having died during those years in Sweden.

This has not been the easiest year for Pastrnak, in many of the ways it has not been an easy year for anyone. He has been separated from his family, which usually comes to Boston for a lengthy stay around Christmas. 

His performance has been up and down, starting with the highs of five goals in his first three games after returning from a right hip arthroscopy and labral repair on Sept. 16. He scored a hat trick against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Honda NHL Outdoors in Lake Tahoe on Feb. 22, and then recently fell into the depths of a 13-game stretch in which he scored twice.

“It’s a bit frustrating for a goal-scorer,” Pastrnak said on the increased focus by opposing defensemen. “But obviously I’ve gotten a little more attention, especially on the power play. … That’s something new to me, to be honest, that I have to learn from. And at the same time, I like it and I use it as motivation to get better obviously in new ways.”

It is a season that started with questions about whether he would score 50 goals and is nearing its end with questions about his game. He has scored 47 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in 47 games after scoring 95 points in 70 games last season, when he shared the NHL lead in goals (48) with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin.

The Bruins’ hopes to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs partially lie with Pastrnak’s ability to right himself and his game. 

“He’s not finishing like he has in the past,” coach Bruce Cassidy said recently. “Some of it is execution. He looks like he’s fumbling pucks much more than he ever has. Why is that? For an elite player, sometimes it is a little bit of confidence for him. Sometimes it could be fatigue in certain situations. At times it’s a bit of luck, pucks bouncing on you, and you have those stretches. 

“Obviously we’re going to stick with him. We know what type of player he can be when he gets hot.”

And perhaps that time is coming once again. Pastrnak scored his 200th NHL goal on Saturday, making him the fifth-fastest among active players to reach the mark, which he did in his 437th game. Only Ovechkin (296), Steven Stamkos (354) of the Tampa bay Lightning, Sidney Crosby (396) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Evgeni Malkin (417) of the Penguins have gotten there faster. He also became the fastest player to debut with the Bruins and reach the mark, taking over for Bobby Orr, who needed 502 games. 

“I did not imagine scoring 200 goals in the NHL,” Pastrnak said Saturday. 

Video: NYR@BOS: Pastrnak records 20th goal, 200th of career

But whether or not his scoring touch has returned, Pastrnak, who turns 25 on May 25, has at least found consistency at home, where he can take a break from hockey. Paint a nursery. Build a crib. Where he has the family — with girlfriend Rebecca Rohlsson and soon his son — that he craved when alone all those years ago in Sweden.

“You come home and you don’t think about hockey at all, you obviously have other priorities,” Pastrnak said. “You’re getting ready for the baby and we couldn’t be more excited. So, hockey’s not been talked much lately at home and sometimes that’s good, you know?

“When things are going well, it’s good, and when things are not going well, sometimes you just need to think about other stuff. For me it’s been definitely something new, but I’m so excited. Family is always going to be No. 1 and at the end of the day. I’m grateful that I can live and work with a job that I love, but at the end of the day it’s just a game. [My family] is always going to be No. 1.”

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It’s not just the otherworldly talent that has made Pastrnak a star. It’s the personality, the flair, the ability to light up a room — whether it’s with a smile, a quip, or the audacity to wear the outfits that he chooses.

It’s part of what drew the crew at Mimmo’s to the young hockey player, part of what ingratiated him to his teammates in Södertälje, part of what makes him so popular with the Bruins.

“He is a person that hands out joy everywhere around him, a person with great sports and a human heart,” his mother, Marcela Ziembova, told NHL.com in 2019.

Pastrnak has an ability to fold himself into a locker room and stand out simultaneously, something that draws in teammates and fans alike. It has gotten him national ad campaigns for Dunkin’ and has somehow also kept him content to be one member of an ensemble cast in Boston.

“It’s not so big a personality that it dominates the room where he doesn’t have respect for what we’re trying to do and what players are trying to do,” Cassidy said. “When it’s business, it’s business, and fun, it’s fun. So, I think that’s what’s made David exceptionally mature for his age is that when it’s time to get down to business and train and play in practice, he’s 100 percent on board.”

It was there all along.

“It’s not like when he was in the room when he was that young that he was taking up a lot of room in the locker room,” said Ottawa Senators goalie Anton Forsberg, who played for Södertälje in 2012-13. “Just more, he wasn’t afraid of talking, or he would throw out a couple of jokes here and there.”

Forsberg, who lived near Pastrnak (and Mimmo’s), would drive him to practice most days that season. He watched as Pastrnak worked hard, in practice and after, while he created a tight bond with now-Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander and other teammates.

They too surrounded him.

“He’s such an easy guy and a fun guy to be around,” Nylander said. “Everybody just hung out. Everybody just brought him in, and everybody wanted to hang out with him.”

And to play with him too.

“He’s very much the same player,” Nylander said. “Unbelievable plays with the puck and then he scores goals, like unbelievable goals too. It was the same way when we were young. The same player, just bigger and stronger and faster.”

It all drew them in, the play on the ice, the attitude off it, the work ethic, the personality. They saw the qualities that would make him beloved, the qualities that would make him magnetic.

Because he already was magnetic.

Detroit Red Wings forward Jakub Vrana played with Pastrnak on the Czech national team starting when they were 15, went to Sweden at the same time and was taken with the No. 13 pick by the Washington Capitals in the 2014 NHL Draft, with Pastrnak going No. 25. 

“I can say one thing,” Vrana said. “Since I’ve known him, since we were kids, he hasn’t changed much. He’s still the same kid. He’s going out there and having fun playing hockey.”

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When Pastrnak would walk into Mimmo’s, he would greet Gabriella with a familiarity that underscored the relationship: “What am I gonna eat today, mama?”

“We built such a special relationship,” Pastrnak said. “I remember it was tough leaving them when I was coming overseas.”

They had tutored him in Swedish, with Gabriella refusing to resort to English — even though she could — to push him to learn the language. They believed in him, Mimmo betting Pastrnak that he would make the NHL in three years, Pastrnak promising to redecorate the interior of the restaurant if he did. Pastrnak tried to pay off the bet, after he joined the Bruins in 2014-15, but Perrone declined to take him up on it.

“He came alone at a young age. And he was like he is, he became special,” Manikas said. “He became like a son — like a small brother to me because I’m younger than Mimmo — but he’s been like a son to Mimmo. Because he didn’t have a son; he just had two daughters.”

The bond became even more important in Pastrnak’s second and final season in Södertälje, after he came home from the funeral of his father, Milan Pastrnak, who died after a lengthy bout with skin cancer in May 2013. It was the thing that had worried Pastrnak most about going abroad.

“He left home for Sweden thinking, ‘Mom, what if I never see Dad again?” Ziembova wrote. “And then that really happened. It was even more painful because of that.”

They loved him through the pain of losing his father at such a young age. He was 17.

“The way they took care of me — obviously I was there as a teenager, wasn’t making any money,” Pastrnak said. “Had some tough times living sometimes with no money, but they would always feed me. I remember I was trying to help them always, always trying to be polite and clean my dishes after myself.

“But the way they treated me is just wonderful. They’re such nice people. I’m so happy that I met them. When I go to Södertälje I try to visit them every time.”

This summer, Pastrnak’s world will grow smaller again, narrowing to a point around his new baby, before expanding gradually to encompass all he has achieved, all he has become, while the Bruins try to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the St. Louis Blues in seven games in 2019.

The families he has created. The families that have welcomed him.

He will go to Sweden again, when COVID-19 restrictions have eased, and the world has normalized. He will make his way to Södertälje, to visit Mimmo and Gabriella and Nicke.

Maybe this time he will bring his son. They will be overjoyed to see him. They will welcome him, their son and his son, as they always have.

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