Sweden’s best-known exports for many people include Ikea furniture and the music of Abba. But in American sporting circles there’s no doubt what comes top of the list: Swedish professional ice hockey players.
There's no doubt that the pace is faster in the NHL compared to on the larger European rinks, but most Swedish rookies don't seem to have a hard time keeping up. Photo: David Stoecklein/Scanpix
Swedish hockey players take to the ice young, often as early as three or four years old. Supported by parents eager to see their children gliding across the ice with sticks in hand, hockey hopefuls are also backed by a well-developed organization of coaches, referees, officials and players — the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. The organized efforts of the Association have led to the development of players who not only turn the heads of die-hard local fans, but of scouts and agents in the prestigious North American National Hockey League (NHL).
Young talent pool
Oscar Möller was 18 when he was drafted to play for the Los Angeles Kings in the 2008/09 season. After two seasons in Canada playing in the major junior Western Hockey League, the Stockholm native was obviously excited when he got the nod from the Kings. “Making it to the NHL was one of two highlights of my career so far,” he says.
The second highlight? “Scoring my first NHL goal. That was a dream come true.”
While impressive, Möller’s story is far from singular. The pool of young hockey talent in Sweden is large, which is why Sweden often tops the list when it comes to the number of players that European countries send to the NHL. For the past few years, Sweden has led this European list and finished third on the international list, with only the United States and Canada having more players drafted.
Just a few of the noteworthy rookies from Sweden who have made strong entrances into the NHL include Henrik Zetterberg, Johnny Oduya, Nicklas Bergfors, Fabian Brunnström and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“There’s this general desire for Swedish kids to play in the NHL,” Möller explains. “Everyone wants to do it.”
Eye on coaching and leadership
While everyone may want to come to the NHL, Swedish players are not brought up thinking about their own careers. The Swedish focus on team play and leadership is well received by players and coaches alike in the NHL.
Börje Salming came early to the NHL. During his first NHL season, in 1973, he was voted Toronto's Rookie of the Year. During the player introductions at the 1976 Canada Cup, over 12,000 people at the Maple Leaf Gardens gave Börje standing ovations for five minutes. Photo: Frank Gunn/Scanpix
Hockey legend Börje Salming, the only Swede to date to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame, says: “Nobody is a star. Everybody is a part of the team. If you don’t have a team, you don’t have anything — and this is something that all Swedish players grow up hearing from their coaches.
“If you look around the NHL, a lot of the teams have Swedes as captains and co-captains. I think that says a lot. It means that the Swedish players are respected and looked up to by their fellow players.”
A strong back and hard work
Young Swedish players often receive dedicated parental support. It is not unheard of for parents to take time off from work to purchase equipment for their hockey-playing children, or drive countless kilometers to and from practices and games. Möller’s parents were no different, providing constant support to him and his younger brother, Carl-Johan, also a hockey player.
“I am very thankful for everything that my parents have done for me, both on and off the ice,” Möller says. “They have been there for me always, no matter what.”
Samuel Påhlsson was drafted to the NHL by the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and has gone on to play with the Boston Bruins and the Anaheim Ducks. In addition to hard work and determination, he attributes the success of Swedish players in the NHL to the strength and breadth of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association.
“The programs for children and young adults are unique when it comes to hockey,” Påhlsson says. “I always had coaches and trainers who were well educated in the sport and very capable when it came to dealing with players.”
Of the many youngsters currently on the ice in Sweden, there are sure to be more who make it through to the NHL. When offering advice for these future players, Påhlsson says: “Recognize your talents and then work, work, work — every single day. The smaller rink of the NHL means that play is a lot more intense than in Sweden. This is something you have to be ready for.”
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After residing in Sweden for several years, writer and blogger Anders Porter now lives in San Francisco, where he writes for the canine and feline members of Dogster.com and Catster.com. Unsuccessful in his own stab at the NHL, he still has a full set of his own teeth.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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