Robert Hagg walked out one of the equipment rooms at Flyers Skate Zone, exchanged friendly greetings and smiled in his locker stall.
The 25-year-old defenseman is enjoying himself during a season in which enjoyment has met obstacles.
Hagg is amid a contract year and has dealt with healthy scratches in a competitive group of blueliners. Cracking the lineup was a task in itself. Staying in it has been another test.
But those pressures of the NHL paled in comparison to the news he received alongside his close friend and teammate Oskar Lindblom. In December, the 23-year-old Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones.
"He’s a mentally strong kid," Hagg said Tuesday. "It’s impressive."
So Hagg pushes forward. He's tough on the ice, but sports a big smile off of it — just like Lindblom. Hagg never needed another reason to work hard and have fun. After learning of Lindblom's cancer diagnosis, he had one.
You’re putting life in a different perspective," he said. "It was really tough when we found out and a couple of weeks after that. Ever since then, I felt like he wants us to keep playing, keep winning, that’s what he wants. That’s the only thing you can do for him, as well. Keep fighting with him, but he wants you to play and do well.
I think there’s an extra push for the whole team knowing that. It’s great when he’s coming down, you can tell everybody is happy. We had a chance to see him the other day, the whole team, you feel the vibe, there’s so much energy coming into the locker room and I think that helps. It’s going to help now and in the end, too, because we need all the energy we can get.
Through their Swedish connection, Hagg and Lindblom have grown close with the Flyers. They knew each other prior to joining the Flyers' organization, playing together in 2012-13 on Sweden's U-18 IIHF World Junior Championship team and U-18 international club. This season, through success and hardship, their bond has fortified.
"When he moved over here, we got closer because we saw each other every day basically," Hagg said. "But I felt like even going through this part, it’s bringing us closer as friends, too. You’re getting closer if you’re from the same country, speak the same language and you can help each other out in that way. I felt these years have brought us closer together and I think it’s bringing us even closer together right now.”
Hagg and Lindblom live nearby each other in downtown Philly on the waterfront.
"My girlfriend and his girlfriend are pretty tight," Hagg said. "I talk with him quite a lot."
As Lindblom has undergone his cancer treatment, Hagg has seen his friend's strength.
"He’s still like the same person, you can’t really tell what he’s going through," Hagg said. “He’s living the same way he did before. It’s good to see him. … Nothing bothers him."
With injuries to Shayne Gostisbehere (knee) and Justin Braun (groin), Hagg jumped on his chance to play. He has come out of the lineup only three times since Dec. 29, a stretch in which he has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and a plus-16 rating over 26 games. In those 26 games, the Flyers have gone 19-5-2.
“He’s found a way to earn a spot in our group through an opportunity — Ghost got hurt, Haggs came in and has played real well, and at the same time, the team’s game has picked up," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday. "He’s playing within his limits — he’s high percentage, he’s physical when he needs to be and one of our best defensemen at blocking shots.
"I’ve liked what he has brought to our group, so hopefully he can continue to contribute the way he has been doing.”
As a third-pair defenseman, Hagg knows his game. And he has played it well. Not trying to do too much and doing the little things have kept him in the lineup.
Furthermore, his fearlessness in blocking shots (team-best 6.30 per 60) and standing up for others is not lost on his teammates.
“He brings a lot to this team, plays the right way defensively and he’s there to block every shot he can," Kevin Hayes said Tuesday. "We have a couple guys like that on our back end. It’s a stat that no one really cares about, but it goes a long way within this group. We know how important he is to this team. I mean, he’s a great guy, too, so it makes it that much better.
“He’s a happy guy, he’s a great teammate. I’m happy he’s on my team.”
Robert Hagg defends his captain.— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) March 5, 2020
Tom Wilson will head back to the box. pic.twitter.com/Q9tYNJRZYZ
Robert Hagg blocks a shot up high. pic.twitter.com/7OSUKrODhZ— Ryan Gilbert (@RGilbertSOP) March 1, 2020
In the second year of a two-year, $2.3 million deal, Hagg has played some of his best hockey as an NHLer with restricted free agency ahead this offseason.
"Of course it’s a big year because it’s a contract year, but I went through it two years ago, as well," he said. "Last year, I thought I had a good season and this year, when I’ve been playing, I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job and that’s the only thing I can control. That’s what I’m focusing on. When I’m in the lineup, I want to stick in, so I’m taking every [opportunity] as I can and try to do the best of it.”
Hagg, not an offensive-minded blueliner by any stretch, has joined in on the scoring. Through 47 games, Hagg has put up 13 points (three goals, 10 assists), seven shy of matching his career high.
“I've felt pretty good the whole year, but of course lately, a little bit more offense from my side," he said with a smile. "It’s always fun to put the puck back in the net and getting a few assists here and there."
He even scored the first man advantage goal of his career in the final minute of a 6-2 blowout over the Panthers last month. One power play shot this season, one goal.
“One hundred percent so far, so should be in there," Hagg said with a laugh. "No, it was a fun time, 50 seconds left in the game, it was fun to try how it feels to be out there.
“I feel the whole season has been like that, fun season. I can’t imagine it’s already March."
For Lindblom, Hagg and the Flyers will keep pushing.
"Even though there have been ups and downs during the whole year, in this room, I’ve had a lot of fun this year," Hagg said, "and I think it’s only the start of it, too.”
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