KARLSTAD, Sweden – Färjestad Karlstad has been such a dominant force in Swedish hockey for so long now, that a season without Färjestad on top of the standings or in the final can be interpreted as a sign of something being wrong in the Loob-land. Färjestads BK, or FBK, has made it to the final 17 times all in all, eight times since 1997, including six consecutive years between 2001 and 2006, winning in 2002 and 2006.
In the last 13 seasons, Färjestad has finished in the top-four 12 times – they dropped to 7th in 1999-00 – and in the top-2 seven times.
That’s why bowing out in the semi-finals in 2007 could be shrugged off just as a glitch in the system. After all, they still won the regular season.
But last season, Färjestad finished fourth in the regular season, and was ousted from the playoffs in the semi-finals.
End of an era?
Färjestad is back on top. It secured the regular season title at home in the Löfbergs Lila Arena on Thursday when it beat HV71 Jönköping 3-1. The Karlstad team now has 96 points, and a seven-point lead over HV71, with just one game remaining in the Elitserien regular season.
If anything, it’s the beginning of a new era.
This season’s edition is the first that’s been put together by Thomas Rundqvist, IIHF Hall of Famer, and a former Tre Kronor giant who took over from Håkan Loob, another IIHF Hall of Famer and Triple Gold Club member as the GM of the club when Loob himself became the CEO.
“Some people might think I was an idiot to take on this job now,” Rundqvist said in the club’s magazine about a year ago, referring to the fact that it was Loob whose team had made it to the final eight times in 11 years, and that the boots were might big to fill.
But Rundqvist is a big man.
“I always want to win, I don’t accept finishing second and while I understand that for the outsiders it can look like the only way for us is down, but for me, that’s a great challenge,” he said.
Right now, Rundqvist can look back at this team and be happy, but by the end of November, after 25 games, Färjestad was still seventh in the league, long-time fan favourite and team captain Jörgen Jönsson was injured, as was his sidekick Peter Nordström. Austrian goaltender Reinhard Divis had disappointed early on in the season, and even the attendances were down somewhat.
In the first 25 games, Färjestad had 11 wins.
But then the team started to kick with all four cylinders. And in this case, the metaphor is apt, as Färjestad’s strength lies in the depth of its roster. Team’s leading scorer Rickard Wallin has 45 points in 53 games, ninth in the league. The captain also has a new four-year contract that will make him the corner stone of the team until 2013.
Behind him, Jesper Mattsson, back as a forward after last season’s defenceman experiment, has 38 points in 44 games, for 20th in Elitserien.
In the next 28 games, Färjestad took 18 wins, including ten consecutive wins at home, a new club record.
Then again, Färjestad has the league’s lowest goals against, it’s been scored on 121 times in 54 games, six fewer than Frölunda, and 21 fewer than HV71.
This was also the season that Jonas Gustavsson emerged as the team’s starter goalie. The 24-year-old Stockholm native has the league’s best goals-against average at 1.99, and leads the leading with his 93.09 save percentage as well – while facing third-most shots in the league. He’s backstopped his team to 22 wins this season in his 41 games. And as a true company man, his injuries have occurred close to two international breaks so he has been able to stay at home and nurse them instead of playing with Tre Kronor.
Halfway through the season, Rundqvist picked up Dick Axelsson from Djurgården Stockholm, and the 21-year-old Red Wings prospect responded, getting 18 points in 21 games, having collected 12 points in 18 games for the Stockholm team.
And, yes, even Jörgen Jönsson has returned to action.
Färjestad tops the league again, and all is well in Karlstad. Loob, Rundqvist, head coach Tommy Samuelsson – who have known each other since 1970s when they were all up-and-coming stars in Färjestad, and now have their sweaters up in the arena rafters – have built a little empire in the middle of Sweden.
Next step: Europe. Färjestad, and Loob especially, have been vocal in their ambition to create a multinational league, somehow, somewhere. The regular season win is step towards that, too.
Of course, the Swedish champion will qualify directly to the CHL.
Besides, Rundqvist just doesn’t accept finishing second. Notebook:
- If Per-Åge Skrøder wins the Elitserien scoring title, he will become the first non-Swede or non-Finn to do so. The Norwegian forward has 30 goals and 29 assists this season, and he’s the only one breaking the 30-goal mark.
- Leksand, AIK Stockholm, and Västerås grabbed the three spots in the qualification series to Elitserien. The fourth Allsvenskan team will be determined in a qualification series between teams finishing 4-7.
- Södertälje, the last-place team in Elitserien, fired coach Jim Brithén on Wednesday and re-hired Leif Strömberg whom the club fired in November. Strömberg will now enter the qualification series for the third time in four years with Södertälje. First, getting relegated in 2006, getting promoted in 2007, and now trying to stay afloat again.