Fantasy football helps foreign-born players assimilate to American culture

Defenseman Jan Rutta, left, grew up following the NFL in the Czech Republic and helped start a fantasy football league with some of this Blackhawks teammates -- but the rookie is hesitant to ask veterans like Patrick Kane, right, for advice. Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

On a Thursday night during Chicago Blackhawks training camp, a handful of players were gathered in a hotel room. Wearing sweats, they carried bottles of coconut water and bags of chips to snack on, and revved up their laptops to do what millions of other Americans did this fall: draft a fantasy football team.

Shortly before the No. 1 pick was on the clock, 31-year-old goalie Jeff Glass interjected as the voice of reason.

"What are we even doing drafting a league in Week 2?" Glass typed into the draft's chat interface.

"I mean," Glass said several weeks later. "The whole thing was so ridiculous."

Actually, the Thursday night game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans had already kicked off. So this league technically would begin during Week 3 of the NFL season. They carried on anyway.

Welcome to a fantasy football league unlike most others. Its eight pretend general managers are professional hockey players (seven are in the Blackhawks organization, including top-four defenseman Jan Rutta, while the eighth, forward Kyle Baun, was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in October). One is Czech, one is Finnish, two are Canadian, three are Swedish and one is American. Their football knowledge spans a spectrum from Swede Robin Norell, who said his introduction to the sport came when he "watched the last game of the year and did a competition where you fill in boxes" (Super Bowl squares), to defenseman Luc Snuggerud, the lone American, who grew up in Minnesota as a devout Vikings fan.

"This is my third league," said Snuggerud, a 2014 Blackhawks draft pick who played at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "I do one with my buddies from college, my buddies from home, and this one is with a bunch of European guys. But I love it. When you're in our locker room, there are guys from so many countries. Some guys have families, some guys are, like, 19. But we're just like everyone else on Sundays, who sit on their couch and watch football all day and then talk about it on Mondays. We just happen to be hockey players."

It's also a window into how some foreign players try to assimilate into American culture. "Football, it is a big thing here," said Ville Pokka, a Blackhawks defensive prospect who grew up in Finland. "Everyone in America is talking about football, always. So it is good for me to see why."

Just as Pokka and his fellow young prospects are adapting to life in the pros, they're also learning that it takes commitment to keep up in fantasy football.

Norell didn't realize that he needed to set his lineup in the first week, and he lost handily with half of his players on bye weeks. Erik Gustafsson, a fellow Swede, drafted three excellent players in Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Allen Robinson. The only problem? All three had already suffered season-ending injuries. This is what happens when you begin in Week 3. Inexplicably, Gustafsson is in first place.

"It's hilarious," said Glass, a Canadian who grew up following the NFL. "There's been no trades. The waiver wire is dead. Some guys don't even set their rosters. You could pretty much hit the waiver wire right now and get a full team."

Rutta and Viktor Svedberg, a Swedish defenseman currently playing in Rockford of the American Hockey League, are the masterminds behind the league. They're both adopted football fans. At home in Stockholm, Svedberg said, "we had a little bit of coverage on television."

"The games started at 7 p.m. our time, which is perfect," Svedberg said. "Those were the early games in the U.S. You come home, you watch the first game, and then go to bed."

Rutta, a 27-year-old Czech league product who made the Blackhawks out of camp, is an Indianapolis Colts fan. ("They were good when I first started following football," he explained. "And I like the quarterback, the [Andrew] Luck guy.")

In camp, Svedberg and Rutta discovered that they both wanted to start a fantasy football league -- they had each played in ones in Europe -- and canvassed the locker room to see who else would be interested. "We just asked everyone, 'Are you in a league?' No. 'Are you?'" Svedberg said. "So we got a group of people who weren't playing already. It turns out to be a bunch of Europeans. That was not the point. Everyone else had just been doing it already!"

Although Svedberg is good at getting organized, he still has work to do as commissioner: Given that the league started three weeks late, it's unsurprising that everyone is late on their payments. Nobody has paid the $50 buy-in yet.

Few other players in the Blackhawks organization are aware of the league, and Rutta, as a first-year player, isn't exactly forthcoming about it. The two biggest football fans on the Blackhawks are veterans Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook. They're in a longstanding league among Blackhawks teammates, which includes some players who have moved on. Seabrook just happens to be Rutta's defensive partner. "I don't want to ask them for advice," Rutta said. "We have other things to worry about."