Will Sweden’s long wait end?

Nearly relegated in ‘03, Tre Kronor could win gold this year

Scotiabank Saddledome Calgary Alberta Canada

Swedish coach Roger Rönnberg was just nine years old when Tre Kronor won its only WJC gold in 1981. Photo: Andy Devlin / HHOF-IIHF Images

CALGARY – Believe or not, but Sweden, one of the prime producers of hockey talent in the world, has won one paltry IIHF World Junior Championship. And that was more than 10 years before any of today’s players on the Swedish team was born.

Will they finally be able to dispel the curse of 1981?

So many great Swedish players have represented their country on the under-20 level. But still, stars-to-be like Peter Forsberg, Mats Näslund, Mats Sundin, Markus Näslund, Nicklas Lidström, Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Henrik Lundqvist and Nicklas Bäckström never won a World Junior gold medal.

The development standard in Sweden is so high that players like Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Holmström and Johan Franzén, all big names in the NHL today, were never even considered for the national U20 team when they were juniors.

And the funny thing is that when Sweden did win this event in 1981 in Kaufbeuren, West Germany, they did it with a group which was far from outstanding.

Only one player from the group born in 1961-62 became what can be labeled a “star” – Patrik Sundström, who played 10 NHL seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils. His twin brother Peter, defensive forward Jan Erixon and defenseman Michael Thelvén could be described as “serviceable” on the highest international level. Jens Öhling became a durable force in the Swedish league and also on the men’s national team, but he never played in the NHL.

Others from that class became decent domestic league players, some with more or fewer noteworthy appearances on the national team, while some didn’t pan out at all.

Sweden always has produced fundamentally sound players and its program has been reaping medals at the Olympics and the men’s World Championship for years. But the situation at the IIHF U20 level was quite alarming between 1997 and 2007, when the Swedes failed to win a single World Junior medal for 11 eleven years.

Actually, the state of things was so dire in the early 2000’s that the “Junior-Kronor” were closer to being relegated to the U20 Division I than to winning a medal in the top division. In the 2003 event in Halifax, the Swedish team performed so poorly in the Relegation Round that only a narrow, hard-fought 5-4 victory over Belarus in their last game saved them from the humiliation of demotion.

This writer remembers being approached by Swedish team leader Peter Forsberg (no, not that Peter Forsberg) after Sweden’s crushing 8-2 defeat against Canada in the Preliminary |Round in Halifax. A visibly shaken and dejected Forsberg confided: “We are not on the same planet as the Canadians.”

Something had to be done. Enter Tommy Boustedt. The career coach left his position with  Frölunda Gothenburg of the Swedish Elitserien and took over as director of youth and junior development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation.

“Whatever we did, we weren’t doing the right thing with young hockey players in Sweden,” said Boustedt who now is the general manager of all Swedish national teams, including this one in Calgary. “Development stalled, and our junior teams back home played a system which did not reward skill. It was passive and destructive. We needed a total overhaul.”

“It is true that traditionally our junior system has been geared towards having the players fully developed when they are 22-23, and this is one reason why we always have performed better at the senior than on the junior level,” Boustedt added. “But around 2003, we couldn’t continue repeating that refrain anymore. It was time for action.”

There is not enough space here to describe what Boustedt and his group initiated, but what was so visibly broken began to show signs of improvement a couple of years later – first at the IIHF U18 level, with bronze medals in 2005 and 2007. Also in 2007, there was a visible improvement – fourth place – at the World Juniors on home ice in Leksand, Sweden.

Under coach Per Mårts, Sweden made it to the gold medal game in 2008 (losing 3-2 to Canada on Matt Halischuk’s OT goal) and in 2009 (losing to Canada again, 5-1 in Ottawa). But the most important thing was that Sweden had returned as a serious contender.

Sure, there were still no gold medals, but Sweden was back on “the same planet” as Canada and the other main contenders, Russia and the U.S.

The improvement wasn’t just in terms of the event results. Scouts gradually refocused and realized that the best NHL prospects outside of North America are nowadays to be found in Sweden. The numbers reflecting that trend are clear.

++ Since 2006, Sweden has been the European country with the most players selected in the NHL draft. 2011 was a record for Sweden with 28. No other European nation was even close. After the draft, Toronto GM Brian Burke quipped: “You couldn’t even go to the washroom without a Swede being picked in the meantime.”

++ Since 2007-2008, Sweden has put the highest number of rookies into the NHL of all European nations. An impressive average of ten new Swedes in the NHL per year increased to a remarkable 16 in 2010-11.

++ In 2009, Sweden took over the title of “prime European producer of NHL talent” from the Czech Republic. There were 54 Swedes in the NHL in 2009-10 and 63 last season. A new record will be set when this season is over, as  more than 65 Swedes have already played at least one game in the NHL in 2011-12.

Just from the Swedish bronze medal team in Saskatoon 2010, no less than 14 players have already played in the NHL, which really is a striking development.

But for coach Roger Rönnberg, all the foregoing developments don’t matter right now. He’s not concerned with players who have gone on to do other things, or the losses in recent gold medal games, or the irritating talk about 1981.

Rönnberg and his team are 60 minutes away from gold – although in this tournament, that might well turn into 80 plus a shootout – and he likes his team very much.

“We are a tough, resilient group,” he said. “We came back from being 3-0 down against Russia on New Year’s Eve and from being 2-0 down against the Finns in the semi-final. This shows character.”

He calls his team “vinnarskallar,” which, in English, would loosely translate to “winning heads.” It means that they have the necessary attitude when things are on the line.

“You don’t win championships like these by playing well all the time,” said coach Rönnberg after the semi-final. “You win gold by finding ways to win the games that matter.”

On Thursday at 18:00 at the Saddledome in Calgary, he and his “winning heads” have a game that matters.

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