Six years ago, the Swedish junior program was in disarray and the U20 national team was closer to relegation than winning a medal. Today, the "Junior Crowns" are challenging Canada for gold and the program again produces prospects over whom NHL scouts are salivating. Tommy Boustedt, the Director of Youth Development within the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, explains the dramatic turnaround.
Sweden has always prided itself in developing good hockey players, who traditionally were competitive on all levels. In the early 2000s this was not the case anymore. Thommie Bergman, the Toronto Maple Leafs' European scout, who in 1972 became the first Swede to play regularly in the NHL, had this to say in 2003:
"It is sad, but the Swedish juniors are not competitive anymore," Bergman said after the 2003 World U20 Championship in Canada. "The players simply don't have the ability to compete at the highest level and the junior national team is behind Slovakia and Switzerland, not to mention the top four. If nothing happens it could be a matter of time before the U20 is relegated to division I."
In 2003, they were really close to this embarrassment. The "Junior Crowns" were playing in the relegation round and only a hard-fought but wobbly 5-4 win over Belarus saved their status as a top-pool team. It wasn't much better the next year; relegation round again, but the Swedes at least were better than Switzerland, Austria and Ukraine.
Fast forward four years. IIHF Ice Times bumped into scout Thommie Bergman again, this time prior to a Champions Hockey League game in Linköping, one day after he and of other NHL prospect watchers evaluated the U20 Four Nations Tournament in Uppsala, Sweden, where the hosts swept Russia, Czech Republic and Finland.
"This is the best class (players born 90-91) of Swedish juniors I have seen so far," said an impressed Bergman, who is never afraid to speak his mind. "The turnaround from the dark years is remarkable and Sweden is a bona-fide challenger for the World Junior gold in Ottawa."
Bergman claims that this team has the potential to be better than last year's group, which defeated Canada in the preliminary round, 4-3, and lost the gold medal game to the same team, 3-2, in overtime.
So, what is the reason behind the transformation from mediocre at best, to world class contender?
Tommy Boustedt left coaching at the professional club level in 2002 and accepted the challenge as Director of Youth Development of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association the same year. Although the worst results of the junior national team were still to come, Boustedt realized in 2002 that things were not well with the association's once proud development program.
The same year, Boustedt initiated a Commission of Inquiry on junior hockey in Sweden.
"We took an honest and thorough look at the state of our development," said Boustedt. "You could compare it with the hockey summit that Hockey Canada organized years earlier when they had problems in major international competition. Part of the inquiry was a summit meeting with 120 people, junior coaches, club executives and also Swedish NHL scouts."
"We held workshops, everyone was asked to speak their minds and the process generated in 100 proposals being submitted of how to improve junior hockey in Sweden. We formulated a five-year plan and pledged to implement the 100 improvement proposal within this period."
All proposals were aimed to achieve two major objectives:
1. To develop more players for the Swedish top pro league.
2. To consistently have the U20 and U18 national teams compete for medals.
"The commission of inquiry and the hockey summit in 2002 proved to be a turning point, although it took some time before we saw the changes," said Boustedt. It's like turning the course of a big ship; it takes time before you see the new path."
"In concrete terms, our new vision resulted in improved coaching and player development. We were also happy to see the IIHF implementing the new rule interpretations on restraining fouls in 2005. I believe that the new game enhanced the qualities which Swedish players traditionally excel in."
This all sounds great, but in which tangible qualities are the Swedish juniors of today better than the ones in 2003?
Tommy Boustedt lists four major differences:
- Attitude. "We have too long had a mentality of 'it's great to participate and it's nice to win'. We have tried to get away from this Swedish mentality which is so prevalent in our society. We have taught our players to 'love to compete and to win'.”
- Goaltending. "The concept of goaltending coaches was vastly neglected years ago. Now we want all goalies on all levels have their own coaches. We see the results; our level of goaltending has improved dramatically."
- The physical game. "We don't back down anymore and the 'Chicken Swede' is dead."
- Scoring. "We have been working very hard on practicing offensive zone positioning, driving to the net, jumping on rebounds, all things that make you score."
The class of 90-91 is really the first which reaped the benefits of the "Swedish junior revolution".
"I am told by scouts that as many as ten Swedish players from this group can be selected in the first round of the next NHL entry draft," says Boustedt. "Our previous record is six."
So, which players will carry the Junior "Tre Kronor" in Ottawa? According to Boustedt, this quintet must be successful if Sweden wants to displace Canada from the top of the U20 world:
- Mikael Backlund, F. "He has seven points in six games last year as an underaged player and should be even more dominant this year."
- Joakim Andersson, F. "Plays a regular shift for Frölunda in the Swedish top pro league. Very solid, good playmaker, had six assists in the 2008 World Juniors."
- Victor Hedman, D. "Only 18, many scouts predict that he will go first overall in the 2009 NHL draft. He was named to the U20 All Star Team as a 17-year-old."
- Jacob Markström, G. "Born 90, but already one of the best goalies in the Swedish league. Sweden's best goaltending prospect in many years."
- Oscar Möller, F. "Our best forward made it to the Los Angeles Kings roster. We had a dialogue with the NHL club. He badly wants to play in Ottawa, with Team Sweden."
If this group will lead Sweden to its first U20 gold in 28 years, we will only know on January 5, 2009. But one thing should be secure – they won't run the risk of being relegated.
Ice Times sat down with Tomy Boustedt, the Director of Youth Development of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, and asked him to give a brief summary of the traditional top junior teams. Here’s what he had to say about Sweden’s toughest competition in Ottawa and about teams that missed the cut to be among the elite 10 this year:
They have ten times as much of anything if you compare with Sweden. They have players, coaches, rinks, money. On top of that, the country has great hockey people in their system. Canada deserves everything they have earned because they have worked hard for it. For me, they are the clear favourites.
The Russians have a consistently high level of individual skill and a great practice technique. In this aspect, they are actually ahead of Canada. At this year’s U20s, the will be high in the standings, as usual.
The U.S. has a great development program in Ann Arbor. It's the program with the most scientific approach to almost every aspect of the game. With this program the Americans have been able to close the gap in skill if one compares the program with Russia and Canada.
The Finns were incredibly consistent for a long time. But in recent years, they have slipped a bit and they are very much aware of it. The Finns fit a little to easily into their stereotype right now, lacking high-end skill. But I am confident that they will bounce back.
The Czechs suffer from the migration of juniors to the Canadian leagues. It's a good move for some players, but not for all. This has resulted in them not being as good as they once were.
The Slovaks are in a similar position as the Czechs and they are even more exposed as they don't have the same depth as the Czech Republic. But the Slovaks are doing well with the U20 team playing in their top professional league.
The junior development is not at the same point as it was in the early 2000s when they were among the top four in both U18 and U20. But they are slowly coming back and developing some very good talent who get quality time in the top Swiss pro league.
NOTE: For his work with Sweden's youth hockey program, Tommy Boustedt earned a position on The Hockey News' prestigious list of 100 Hockey People of Power and Influence, which is published every December.