OSLO – It’s no secret that the Norwegian hockey program ranks a notch a below the world’s elite powers. Norway’s hockey program has long been caught up in the chicken-and-egg dilemma of whether a sport develops in proportion to its municipal funding, sponsorships and coaching or whether the latter fall into place as the sport demonstrates its ability to attract top young athletes.
For Norwegian hockey, progress is measured not by unrealistic hopes of winning medals in IIHF-sanctioned tournaments against the top teams, but rather by ensuring itself of opportunities to continue playing against the elite countries.
“Just for us to play in the Olympics and have a chance to compete against the best players in the world is really special,” said Norwegian defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who plays in the NHL for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Just a few short years ago, Norwegian hockey seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. Back in 2007, the international season was a comedy of errors for Norway. After the World Championship – where the Norwegians barely held onto its spot at the top level – veteran national team members threatened to withdraw from the team if significant changes weren’t made. At the U20 level, the Norwegians narrowly avoided relegation from Division I to Division II.
In response, the Norwegian Ice Hockey Association reorganized its leadership. They unanimously elected a new president endorsed by the top Norwegian players, Ole-Jacob Libæk, to replace Bjørn Ruud after a 14-year tenure as the federation president. Libæk previously served as head of the organization from 1985-1993. The results have been gratifying. Today, morale has never been higher.
The Norwegians were the surprise story of the 2008 World Championship. The same national team that was besieged in turmoil one year earlier reached the medal round and finished eighth. Along the way, Norway beat Germany, took Finland to overtime and threw a huge scare into Canada before a late goal by Rick Nash led the Canadians to a 2-1 victory. Norway followed it up by hosting an Olympic Qualification tournament and winning a spot in the 2010 Olympics. In the rousing finale of the qualification tournament, the Norwegians downed Scandinavian archrival Denmark. A hat trick by Patrick Thoresen keyed the climactic victory.
“That was great to see,” said Tollefsen. “But the biggest thing is keep moving forward, and build off the success.”
In order to sustain long-term advancement, the Norwegian association has been taking steps in recent years to strengthen its player development resources at the youth and junior hockey levels.
On the first front, the federation has attempted to devote more resources to youth recruitment. At higher levels, most Norwegian elite league teams have established ties to high schools and colleges where the sport is practiced up to 20 hours per week. Most of the junior players affiliated with the top clubs attend these schools.
These steps will take years to make a significant impact at the senior level, but the right building blocks are in place to continue growing the game in Norway. In the meantime, the Under-20 program recently took a big step forward. By virtue of winning the gold medal at the 2010 IIHF World U20 Championship Division I Group B in Poland, Norway earned a promotion to play in the top-level 2011 tournament in Buffalo, New York.
Over the course of the five-game Division I tourney, Norway enjoyed a staggering 33-8 goal differential. Keep in mind that this level of dominance came from a program that just a few years ago was nearly relegated to Division II in that category.
The most impressive player in the tournament was Norway’s Scott Winkler. In five games, Winkler tore apart the opposition for six goals and 14 points A third-round pick (89th overall) by Dallas in the 2008 Entry Draft, the 6-foot-2 (189 cm) centre currently plays for Colorado College. The son of a Canadian father and Norwegian mother, Winkler was born and raised in Norway and received his early hockey education in his home country before coming to North America to play AAA midget hockey before moving on to the USHL and collegiate hockey.
While Winkler’s game has taken some time to come around in North America, his combination of grit and anticipation was too much for the other teams in the Division I tournament to cope with. Even when he wasn’t putting the puck in the net, Winkler was creating havoc and controlling the puck down low in the offensive zone. Winkler’s linemates, wingers Jonas Lovlie (six goals, nine points) and Andreas Martinsen (five goals, nine points) finished second and third among all scorers at the tourney. Meanwhile, goaltender Lars Volden (1.47 GAA, 95.8 save percentage in four starts) was scarcely tested and rarely beaten.