VANCOUVER – Pär Mårts helped to sing the background vocals on the official 2013 World Championship song, “En För Alla För En” by The Poodles. But Sweden’s head coach is now focused on getting his players to perform in perfect harmony at the Olympics next February.
The 60-year-old Falun native broke the World Championship “home ice curse,” dating back to 1986, and won his first gold medal as a head coach when Sweden defeated the upstart Swiss 5-1 in the final in Stockholm last May. Twice previously Mårts had tasted gold, as an assistant at the 1992 Worlds and the historic 1994 Olympics, but those were a long time ago. He also guided the resurgent U20 team to every medal but gold from 2008 to 2010.
With just over a month to go until the Swedish roster is announced for Sochi, Mårts has some critical decisions to make as he inspects Sweden’s deep and talented NHL contingent. Going for its first Winter Games title since 2006, Tre Kronor is considered among the top favourites along with Canada, Russia, and the United States.
IIHF.com caught up with Mårts between periods when the Vancouver Canucks hosted the Chicago Blackhawks at Rogers Arena on November 23. Fittingly, Chicago’s 2-1 winner came from Marcus Krüger with assists to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
Where have you been on this current scouting tour?
I started off in Pittsburgh. After that I went to Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington. I’ll watch two games here in Vancouver before going home.
What do you try to achieve in each city? Is it more important to see the players performing on the ice or to spend time with them?
It’s both. It’s good to see them play, what role they have and how much ice time, stuff like that. But also, you talk to them about what’s coming up. So I have a team in my mind, but I haven’t announced it yet. We’ll see what happens.
You had a team in Stockholm earlier this year that was pretty special. You broke the World Championship “home ice curse” dating back to 1986 and won your first gold medal as a head coach. What did that mean to you personally?
I don’t know. That’s what you’re aiming for all the time, to win something. But that’s behind me now. I’m aiming to win more golds. That’s what’s driving me. What happened in the past is nothing. The next step is the Olympics coming up, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.
The Sedins are playing upwards of 22 minutes a night here in Vancouver under coach John Tortorella. What do you think about that approach?
I think it’s good, because they need a lot of ice time. They had just about the same in Stockholm when we won the gold medal. They need to play more PK and power play and stuff like that. I think they need that much ice time because otherwise it’s tough to perform.
Erik Karlsson came back from a serious Achilles tendon injury last season. How do you like the way he’s rebounded with Ottawa this year?
I think it’s good. He’s a key player for us, especially on the power play. I’m happy that he’s playing well now, because we’ll need him.
For a lot of people, Alexander Steen is one of the biggest surprises this season. He’s always been a good two-way player, but he’s scoring like crazy with St. Louis this year.
He’s doing well. I think it was good for him when he played in Modo [Örnsköldsvik] last year during the lockout. It was kind of different hockey. On the big rinks you have to skate a lot more and you can have the puck more. I’ve always known he was a talented player, but finally he’s found a way to score. That’s good.
You have a lot of great leaders within Tre Kronor. Have you decided on your captain for Sochi yet?
Not yet. In my mind, but I won’t tell you right now. Henrik [Sedin] is a captain, [Henrik] Zetterberg is a captain, we’ve got several guys who could be our captain.
There are close to 60 Swedish NHLers this season. Will there be non-NHL players on the Swedish roster?
There could be. I’m thinking about one or two, no more. You see, we’ve got a lot of young players. It’s good for them to play and see what’s happening. So just one or two.
What are the different challenges you face as a coach in Sochi compared to playing the World Championship in Stockholm?
I don’t know if it’s that’s big of a difference. We’ll meet better players, but our team will also be much better. You have to handle more pressure, perhaps, and help the players to succeed more.
Your first game will be against the Czech Republic. Do you like starting off against a top team instead of playing a weaker team?
Do I have a choice? [laughs] I think it can be good for us. You have to be there right from the start.
At the Worlds, you played the Swiss in the final. People used to assume that Switzerland would lose in the quarter-finals at best. Do you see them now as potentially a medal threat at the Olympics?
No. Not in this time. No. They can’t play that well one more time. But I think they have eight players here in the NHL, and they’re technically good. That’s what I see in them. They’re well-coached. Sean Simpson has done a good job.
You were an assistant coach at the Lillehammer Olympics where Peter Forsberg scored his famous shootout winner. You also had to get past Canada in this year’s quarter-finals in a shootout. So you know how important the shootout can be. Do you like to have a specific plan in advance, or do you base your shooter selections on who’s performing well in that game?
You have to scout the opponent’s goalie first to see how he acts and then choose your players. But I think you have to do that before the game starts, so the players have time to prepare themselves a little bit.
What will be the key to winning it all in Sochi?
With so many stars together, they have to accept the ice time they get and be happy when the other guys are successful. That’s the key.