QUEBEC CITY, Canada – Coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was hailed as a hockey genius in 2006 when he took his team to both the Olympic and the World Championship gold. Last season, Tre Kronor finished fourth, and this season, the wins have been far and apart. To be exact, Sweden won only three of its 12 games in the Euro Hockey Tour, and was pounded by Team USA in a pre-WC exhibition game.
That’s why it’s a nervous Team Sweden that’s entering the tournament even if Gustafsson knows how to build a team, and how to make it gel during the first stage of the tournament. However, having 25 NHLers say “nej, tack”, or “no, thanks” to the national team stings.
Mikael Tellqvist (Phoenix) is a coach’s dream. He’s a great goaltender, always loyal to the team, and ready to take the back seat when the New York Rangers are sent packing and Henrik Lundqvist enters the Swedish dressing room. But even with now King Henrik, Sweden has nothing to worry about in the goaltending department. Tellqvist has what it takes to take the team as far as necessary and he’s used to having to deliver when he gets a chance. However, he only played one game in April so he may be rusty in the beginning.
He’s backed up Erik Ersberg, Sweden’s Goalie of the Year in 2007 and the Kings’ late-season surprise rookie wonder this season, and Stefan Liv, who returned from a one-year road trip in North America as a more mature goalie, and person. Ersberg ended up playing 14 games with the Kings, posting two shutouts. Liv, on the other hand, took HV71 to the Swedish title, with three shutouts in 17 playoffs games, and an amazing .938 save percentage.
There’s no Ohlund, Kronvall, Lidstrom, Johnsson or Tallinder, but there’s Kenny Jonsson. And Alexander Edler, Magnus Johansson, and Anton Stralman. A lot of potential among skilled players that just need to click, and when they do, it will be the most significant “click” in the Swedish history since the King, Carl XVI Gustaf, met (Queen) Silvia in the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Captain Kenny is the leader of the team, both on and off ice. He’s going to quarterback the powerplay, and he’s going to kill the penalties. With him, he will take the rest of them. Magnus Johansson is also a key player on the power play.
Who would have thought that Team Sweden enters the tournament with 11 forwards from the Swedish Elite Leage on its roster? The five best Swedish scorers in the NHL - Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Sundin, Sedin, Sedin - were all unavailable. Number Six, Nicklas Backstrom, is centering Team Sweden’s first line. Seventh and eighth best scorers - Huselius, Naslund - declined invitation. Sorry, Detroit, but you have the forces of Sweden praying for your exit from the playoffs so you can send Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg to Quebec.
All the more pressure on Mattias Weinhandl, the Swedish League’s leading goal scorer, and Tony Martensson, the league’s MVP, and leading scorer. If Sweden wants to get past the quarterfinals, Backstrom will have to make an Ovechkin out of Weinhandl, and Nils Ekman get back to the point-a-game level he’s had in the national team this season.
Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was a star as a player, and he’s become a star coach. He’s a players’ coach who knows how to get the best out his team. His easy-going persona seems to be exactly what a Swedish team needs to feel good, and play well. And no matter what happens on the ice, or off, nothing seems to faze him. Nothing. He keeps his eye on the target all through the tournament, and the target is gold.
By his side behind the bench, Gustafsson has Janne Karlsson, coach of Linkoping, the second-placed team in the Swedish league, Anders Eldebrink, former Team Sweden defenseman, and also team manager Mats Naslund who sometimes seems to function as Gustafsson’s emotional alter ego, letting off steam when the head coach can’t.
This is not the team that won the Olympic gold. It’s not even the team that won the World Championship in 2006. With a few NHL additions, it’s similar to the team Sweden iced last year, and finished fourth. Despite the meager results this season, Sweden has its own basic game to fall back on, and that helps with making a bunch of players a real team.
However, Henrik Lundqvist, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, and Johan Franzen would make this team a real contender.