STOCKHOLM – The prodigal son is back in the Elitserien. He tried to conquer the world, wasted all his money, was banished from the inner circles of Swedish hockey, but now he’s back. And he’s welcome by all, even his fiercest archrival.
AIK, the big, bad AIK, is back in Elitserien.
Six years ago, AIK had been relegated to the third-tier Division I, with its economy in shatters – that was the reason for the relegation – with no team, no sponsors. All they had was a blank sheet of paper, as Anders Gozzi, the club’s director of hockey operations, and former AIK player, says in his column in the club’s guide.
While the club’s junior system needed some improvement, there was some potential. In their first game in Division I, AIK used two goalies: Jonas Gustavsson, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Gustaf Wesslau, with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Also, the NHL lockout sent Gozzi two key players to work with in the qualification round games: Mattias Norström and Georges Laraque.
They sold out the Hovet arena for the last game of the season.
AIK has the most famous, or infamous, fans in Sweden. The fans have come and gone in all the years and AIK has averaged about 3,000 spectators a game, which is in the top 5 in Allsvenskan, the league below Elitserien.
The fans will carry the team, but the fans can also bury the team. On the football side, AIK fans have quarterly development discussions with the coaches, and in at least one public instance, have made decisions on who gets to play and who not.
AIK’s first game of this season, their comeback to Elitserien, was a testament to the fans’ loyalty.
Singing, chanting, taking over the stands behind the opponent’s net, throwing confetti, cheering their boys on for full 60 minutes, the fans made AIK’s comeback into an event.
The crowd cheered when the players skated to the ice, it pushed the players through first period, even when Magnus Johansson gave Linköping a 1-0 lead by scoring in the last second of the period.
Richard Gynge, AIK’s leading scorer last year, tied the game right after the intermission, and anything was possible again.
The fans mean well, but sometimes, like on the opening night, the cheering also makes the players chase the puck, try too hard, and finish checks too late, taking them out of position. The players mean well, and they want to give their all, and sometimes it translates into a needless penalty.
In the end, Linköping beat AIK 5-1, almost easily, but at least the 15 Elitserien rookies in AIK’s lineup survived their debut. Now they know what to expect.
The fans kept singing until after the game, and there’s no questioning their passion for the club. But their love is not unconditional, and if the team gets off to a rocky start... it’s going to be tough love.
Coach Roger Melin was asked whether he thinks that the team belongs in the Elitserien.
He laughed, and said: “Well, we’re here, so we’ll just have to show that we do.”
It’s very likely that the team does have a tough season ahead of itself. The club’s economy is still not up level with the top clubs, and it operates with the smallest salary budget in Elitserien, about €3 million.
Besides their opening game loss, they’ve beat Frölunda in overtime, and lost to Södertälje in overtime. The attendance dove from “sold out” – and officially 6,800 spectators – to 3,500 in their second game.
AIK also spends an additional €200,000 for event security – to avoid the incidents that happened with AIK’s football fans and forced the club to play in front of empty stadiums on more than one occasion.
Sometimes, the fans that bleed black and gold, just bleed too much.
And if AIK survives this season, and can build on its success, and work according to their long-term plan, and build the team around Stockholm players, the future looks fairly bright. A Stockholm team won TV-pucken, the major development camp in Sweden, with four AIK players on the roster, and one more on the other Stockholm team. (On the other hand, Djurgården had 13 players on the two teams).
But for now, AIK brings a lot of energy to Elitserien. Djurgården, their nemesis, went to the Elitserien final last season and on Thursday, beat the reigning champion, HV71, in their regular season opener. Even then, their fans are focused on the first Stockholm derby of the new season, on September 28.
It’s been eight years and eight months since their last derby. That time Djurgården, then the reigning champion, beat AIK 6-4 in front of 6,978 spectators.
The September game will also be played in the Globe Arena that seats 13,000, instead of Hovet, the teams’ regular home arena that seats about 5000 less. Even in the big arena it will most likely be a sellout.
It will be loud.Notebook:
- Hockey is about to surpass football in attendance. At the writing of this, the top football league has an average attendance of 6,411. Last season, hockey’s Elitserien averaged 6,210 spectators per game, but with AIK’s return to Elitserien – and a smaller market Rögle being demoted – the average is expected to rise.
- There are 30 Finnish players in Elitserien this season, up from 21 last season. Most Finnish teams are Södertälje (7), Timrå (6), and Frölunda (6).
- Of last year’s All-Star Team, as voted by the hockey journalists, two players – Magnus Johansson (Linköping) and Johan Davidsson (HV71) – are currently playing in the Elitserien. Goaltender Jacob Markström signed with the Florida Panthers, defenceman David Petrasek left for the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk. Tony Mårtensson returned to the KHL, now with SKA St. Petersburg, and Marcus Nilson is on a tryout with the New Jersey Devils. Johansson and Davidsson are also captains of their teams.