ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Mehrdad Zibanejad stood outside a restaurant on the concourse level here at the Xcel Arena late Friday night, a world away from his roots. A small smile crept across his face as he talked in broken English — his fourth language — about his fatherly pride and the wild twists and turns a life can take.
“Nobody knows the future and what happens,” said Zibanejad, the father of Mika Zibanejad, who had been selected sixth overall by the Ottawa Senators a few hours earlier at the NHL entry draft.
Naturally enough, the younger Zibanejad instantly topped newscasts and became front page news in Ottawa, where hockey is a passion.
Yet considering that Mehrdad Zibanejad had barely even heard of the sport growing up in Iran, and has never skated, it’s more than a tad intriguing to see how he came from there to here. He was a star tennis and volleyball player, but any kind of idyllic life disappeared after his teenage years.
In the late 1970s, the Iranian revolution erupted. Strikes and civil demonstrations took over the streets and thousands were killed by armed guards. It’s estimated that 10 per cent of the country’s population marched in protest against the Shah of Iran, who was eventually overthrown and replaced by the Ayatolla Khomeini in 1979.
The elder Zibanejad chooses his words carefully in explaining what was happening all around him.
“I don’t want to say too much,” he said. “The reason I moved was the Revolution. They closed all the universities and high schools. We had nothing.”
At 23, he scoured the world looking for a safe landing spot to further his education. He thought about going to Germany before settling on Sweden, where he studied to become an IT engineer.
“Sweden was the first choice for me. Some people I knew gave me information about the social life in Sweden.”
In Sweden, he met his wife, Ritva, a native of Finland.
While his father first pushed him towards tennis, Mika wasn’t nearly as passionate about the courts as he was about the ice outside Stockholm.
“It’s important to start in some sport,” the father said. “It doesn’t matter which. Once he was five or six years old, he was at the arena every day.”
While it didn’t take long for Mika Zibanejad to establish himself as a star youth player in Sweden, his father has always made sure that learning about everything around him was front and centre in his development. “Education is very important, but education is not just going to school, there are other things, too,” said Mehrdad.
Accordingly, Mika speaks Swedish, Finnish, English, Farsi and is learning French, which will appeal to some Senators fans in West Quebec. Given the family’s international background, it’s also interesting that he describes himself as a “North American” style of player, definitely comfortable with physical play.
By proving himself in the Swedish Elite League, matching up against much older players, Zibanejad surged in late season rankings. In some circles, there was surprise that the Senators chose him ahead of Sean Couturier, also a centre.
The way the father sees it, however, a number is just a number.
“It doesn’t matter where (you get picked),” he said. “There are many players, seventh round, sixth round, who get chosen. Motivation is the most important thing.”
Before Mehrdad Zibanejad left to rejoin the celebration of his son coming to Ottawa, he put the whole experience into context. He says he’s contemplating making another major move, this time to North America.
“This does not happen every day,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s not normal, but not too crazy.”
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