ZURICH – Thirty-one years was the longest wait for any Swedish national hockey team between two IIHF gold medals. On January 5, 2012, Roger Rönnberg’s juniors slayed that dragon by winning the U20 gold after defeating Russia in the final.
Only some weeks after the gold medal success in Calgary, Roger Rönnberg started the preparations for the 2013 IIHF World Juniors in Ufa, Russia by selecting a U19 national squad for a 4-nations tournament in Switzerland at the February International break. A successful program never rests.
But the coach found some time for IIHF.com to reflect on the 11 magical days in Canada.
The World Juniors evokes amazing emotions. What’s the reason behind the popularity of this event?
I think there are two reasons. It’s about young players who come across as incredibly ambitious, pure and genuine. And with this they reach into the inner soul of an entire nation. And the second reason is the product. It’s high-level performance and excellent entertainment.
Why did it take Sweden so long to win gold despite the fact that your system almost constantly develops high-quality junior players?
To be fully correct – it’s only in the last six or seven years that we have had a real chance. Before that, Sweden was happy to make it to the playoffs. We didn’t produce exceptional talent in the years 2001-2006. And also, this tournament is very difficult to win. This is probably the simple reason why teams with Peter Forsberg or Mats Sundin didn’t win.
Will the win in Calgary have any lasting effects on Swedish hockey?
I really hope so. Across the line in our program, we should be able to reinforce the quality of stepping up when everything is on the line, to win the crucial games. We should also be able to seize the opportunity now that young players like Max Friberg, Mika Zibanejad, and Johan Gustafsson have become household names. We should be able to seize the momentum.
You often said during the event that “You don’t have to play well all the time; you need to win the games that matter.” Was that a lesson from Buffalo 2011?
Yes, to a certain degree. But maybe more a lesson we have learned from some men’s World Championships and also from previous World Juniors. It’s a new mindset. We must be in top shape when it all boils down to one game, not to repeat mistakes or to be emotionally drained prior to the key games.
What other things did you and the team improve on from last year?
We worked hard on our special teams and on discipline. We had a good power-play; we killed penalties well, and in the later stages of the tournament we hardly took any penalties.
Which is the more important job – to win the World Juniors or to properly educate the players for future men’s World Championships and Olympics?
Both. We are creating an environment where players are proud to play for the junior national team and later for the big Tre Kronor, to take part in the World Championship and Olympics. It’s all part of a long-term plan.
Sweden has improved gradually from say 2005. What’s behind that success?
We were not good at the turn of the century, and we took a new direction in 2002. As an example, the federation initiated a series of centralized high-performance camps and we introduced twelve regional instructors whose job is to constantly visit clubs to assist them with maintaining a high-quality program.
Who should take credit for the success – the clubs, coaches, the federation?
Many can proudly do so. The clubs are doing an excellent job. They are executing the development program very well. Many clubs are linked to hockey academies, and our junior leagues are of a high quality. Our system is also based on a well-balanced practice-to-game ratio. The combination of all those factors creates a good environment which produces good players.
Do you feel that the players face too much pressure when returning to their Swedish pro clubs after the World Juniors, almost expected to carry the club?
No, I don’t think so. These players have extremely competitive characters and they love the challenge. They thrive with the pressure. But I feel that they often sign NHL contracts too soon. Too often we see a player who maybe is a seventh defenceman or a fourth liner who signs an NHL contract. It very seldom works out well. To be successful, you need to become a front-line player in the Swedish league first before going to the NHL. Former World Junior players like Calle Järnkrok and Jacob Silfverberg are very good examples who stayed in our league instead of jumping at the first NHL opportunity.
Which qualities do you attribute to Swedish juniors specifically?
Our players are hockey smart. They are gifted with creativity, and they are able to solve tricky situations. They are smart with the puck and also excellent skaters. We should continue to foster those qualities and not try to copy others.
The next two World U20s will be staged in Europe. Do you have any advice to the organizers to close the gap between events staged in Canada and in Europe?
They must realize that what they have is a top quality product with an incredible potential. They need to promote it and to sell it as such. They also need to start promoting and selling very early. There is a lot here that European organizers can learn from Hockey Canada.
NOTE: This interview was taken from the IIHF’s bi-monthly newsletter Ice Times. Click here to download the newest issue.