When Sweden’s U20 team was forced to play in the relegation round in Halifax 2003, the rest of the world may have been slightly surprised, but not the Swedes.
Just a few months prior to the tournament, Tommy Boustedt, then a newly-appointed director of development at the Swedish hockey federation, had put out the Bat-Signal, and gathered over a hundred hockey people - coaches, scouts, agents, managers - to Bosön in Stockholm to discuss the grave situation of player development in the country.
Flash forward to the present. Sweden has played in three World Juniors finals within four years, and won the title in 2012. Sweden produces more NHL players than any other European nation. Last season over 60 Swedes played in the NHL. About the same number are competing in the league this year, while another 30 are in the AHL trying to break into the league.
“You have to give credit to the federation for taking the initiative and making it a priority. The real work is then done at the clubs, of course, not in an office in Stockholm,” says Gunnar Svensson, one of the participants at the Bosön meeting over ten years ago, and father of Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson, who won two silver medals in the World Juniors and now plays with the St. Louis Blues in the NHL.
“Also, Torgny Bendelin was a big part of the process. He took over the under-20 team after the Bosön meeting, and was the head coach for the next four years, while also traveling across the country as a hockey evangelist. Pär Mårts took over the team from him,” he adds.
These days, it’s hard for any rough diamond to slip through the cracks unnoticed. Every year, over 800 under-15 and under-16 players - 400 in each age group - attend development camps across the nation. All in all, about 2,000 players attend the Swedish development camps in all age groups, both boys and girls. Every year, the following season under-17 and under-18 national team hopeful get invited to a summer camp where the focus is on off-season tests, individual skills, and nutrition.
“The federation invested money and other resources in the program, and they had good partnerships with sponsors and the Swedish Olympic Committee,” says Svensson.
The coaching material has been updated, each district has its advisor to help and support the coaches and players in their region, and there are programs to improve the recruitment of new players.
Another important aspect was the willingness to look elsewhere for inspiration and advice. In 2004, Erkka Westerlund voiced concern over the future of Finnish hockey because “in the 1990s, you never saw any Swedes in the coaching seminars, and now, you don’t see any Finns.”
“One of the things Sweden did was to look for other countries, and admit that we didn’t have all the answers. We’ve also had more exchange with North American hockey,” says Svensson.
"The NHL has become a good carrot for us when trying to recruit people to our programs and keep them there," Boustedt told NHL.com in 2011.
"The NHL is something to aim for. The only problem today is that some of the kids go to the NHL too early; they aren't NHL-ready. The NHL is not a development league; it's a league to perform,” he added.
But with NHL dreams in their heads, the kids attending the summer camps are in a hurry. And so are the agents wanting to represent them. According to the rules, agents can’t approach the players until January 1 of the year they turn 16.
“On January 1, and a few days after that, the kids in the under-16 national team and the ones who have impressed in the TV-pucken [an annual tournament among district teams] are contacted by most of the 38 licensed agents in Sweden,” says Svensson, one of those licensed agents.
Svensson represents, for example, Nicklas Bäckström and Henrik Zetterberg, two Swedish NHL stars.
“Do the kids need agents? No. A kid playing in Leksand, going to a hockey high school there doesn’t need an agent for contract negotiations. Maybe it’d be good to have somebody as a mentor, as an advisor to help him navigate his career the right way … whatever that is.”
Svensson does know what the wrong way is.
“Unfortunately, sometimes the agent calls up the coach or the GM about his client not getting any powerplay time. That’s when he’s just being a poor hockey dad. Sometimes you see a kid go from one team to another in the middle of the season, and when that carousel starts, the end is hardly ever a good one,” he says.
The Swedish federation recently announced a savings program of over half a million Euros annually for the next five years. Half of that will come out of the national team and development programs.
“In the past, we’ve used the surplus from the previous World Championships but you can also ask yourself if the federation is supposed to have 1,900 kids in its programs when the clubs also have their development programs. We’ll probably just try to be more effective so the quality won’t weaken,” said chairman Christer Englund.
But for now, Sweden’s leading the charge in European player development and served notice to other countries. Finland has kept a close eye on what their neighbours have done, as have the Danes and the Norwegians.
“And Slavomir Lener has taken parts of the ideology to the Czech Republic, too,” says Svensson, and refers to the former Czech national team coach, current director of national teams, who coached two seasons in the Swedish league between 2008 and 2010.
“It will be interesting to see how the financial situation of the federation affects all this. It would be strange if it didn’t have any effect on the player development at all,” Svensson concludes.