ZURICH – Mika Zibanejad’s shot in overtime ended a 31-year drought for Sweden at the IIHF World Junior Championship. What it means will be seen today, with a warm welcome awaiting the team’s return back in Stockholm.
“It means a lot for us,” said Christer Englund, the President of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association and IIHF Council member. “First of all we can go on with our development program we have had for eight years.”
Englund was on hand in Calgary to watch Sweden’s most important hockey moment in recent history. It is his hope that the championship will elevate interest in youth hockey in Sweden. The games were shown live on TV, as usual, though late in the night for Europeans. Next year’s IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship will be played five hours ahead of Stockholm in Ufa, Russia, a good setup to Sweden hosting the 2014 event in Malmö.
“I also hope that our juniors who play in the elite teams will get more ice time. Now we can see that they are at a top level and can easily play in our Elitserien,” he said. “That’s also an important key to developing the players.”
For the 64-year-old, winning the gold medal game against Russia has been one of his most emotional moments. He has headed or worked for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association when national teams won bigger events – most notably the 2006 Olympic Winter Games – but ending a 31-year drought at the U20 level was a relief for him and for Swedish hockey.
Since winning its first U20 gold in 1981, Sweden has had to settle for silver seven times, including defeats in the 2008 and 2009 gold medal game, the first one a 3-2 overtime loss against Canada.
“This gold medal is my happiest moment,” Englund said. “I’ve been in the federation for many years. We won the gold medal in Turin at the 2006 Olympics and in Riga [at the 2006 IIHF World Championship], but this is the gold medal I’m most happy about.”
The win is also significant because Sweden has done well in youth development in recent years. The country has become the number-one producer of European NHL talent – by leaps and bounds. 22 out of 51 rookie signings last summer involved Swedish players.
Clubs from the Swedish Elitserien might not have been as successful as the ones from the Russian or the Swiss league in European club competition, but it is the main producer of NHL prospects not only from Sweden, but also from neighbours Denmark and Norway.
Coach Roger Rönnberg, who took over last season, was overwhelmed when talking to the media after the 1-0 overtime win against the Russians.
“I’m impressed by my players that they could challenge a team skilled like this,” Rönnberg said. “We did it this year almost the same way Russia did it last year.”
“We have been close so often,” said Rönnberg. “Last year in Buffalo I think we played better hockey, but it’s not about playing nice hockey, it’s all about winning. It’s a huge win for Sweden. We’ve been waiting so long. That’s the greatest win for Sweden since the 2006 Olympics.”
The win is that big that the team will be welcomed in Stockholm with more than a little fanfare.
“We will have a press conference at the airport. Then we will bring them to a hotel to make them ready when we go to the Royal Castle,” Englund said.
The team has been invited by Sweden’s Crown Princess and Prince. The celebrations will continue in downtown Stockholm at Kungsträdgården.
“We will have celebrations with music and artists,” said Englund. “Hopefully there will be around 20,000 people around to celebrate them. So it will be a big moment for all these young guys.”