STOCKHOLM – The IIHF World Junior champions received true royal treatment when they returned home after Sweden’s first U20 gold medal in 31 years. Coach Roger Rönnberg and his players were received by Crown Princess Victoria and 6,000 fans in downtown Stockholm on Saturday.
When Sweden last won the under-20 gold medal in 1981, the win was hardly noticed in media and the players got polite applause during pre-game ceremonies when they returned to their regular clubs.
The ratings from Swedish television from Thursday’s gold medal game against Russia – a thrilling 1-0 overtime win – were still not announced on Sunday, but it is believed that between 500,000 and one million Swedes stayed up between 2am and 5am the night between Thursday and Friday to watch the game. (Official numbers will be available on Monday).
These would be extraordinary numbers for a country of nine million people, where hockey is indeed popular, but where junior hockey, or junior sport in general, does not have a vast following.
All this has changed in the last four to five years after Swedish Television (SVT) started to cover the IIHF World U20 Championship and, at the same time, the Swedish junior program improved significantly.
So when the Swedish players, all with their gold medals around their necks, landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, they were greeted by several hundreds of fans, friends and relatives, before a bus took the team, coaches and officials to the Royal Castle where the world champions were received by Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel, both steadfast hockey fans.
Meanwhile, fans, mainly teenaged girls, started to gather at the Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden), a park in central Stockholm where a stage was a set up for presentation of the newly crowned champions.
When the players arrived from the Royal Castle, over 6,000 fans had gathered at the park and the players where introduced one by one. The biggest ovation was given to Mika Zibanejad, Djurgården Stockholm’s 18-year-old who scored the overtime goal and made Sweden explode in the wee hours on Friday.
“This is sick,” said Zibanejad to the Swedish news agency TT. “I could never have believed that so many people would show up.”
“It’s hard to understand what’s going on. This is fantastic,” said Max Friberg, who was generously applauded for his nine goals and who was one of two Swedish players on the All-Star Team.