Excitement growing for Gothenburg
by Lucas AYKROYD|26 NOV 2023
Jonathan Lekkerimaki, who led the golden Swedish team in scoring at the 2022 U18 Worlds, hopes to break out at his third World Juniors in Gothenburg.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin
With the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship in Gothenburg just a month away, excitement abounds among current Swedish NHL players and prospects. The Vancouver Canucks organization – always loaded with blue-and-yellow talent – provides a good snapshot of that sentiment.
Canucks draft picks like forward Jonathan Lekkerimaki (15th overall, 2022) and defenders Tom Willander (11th overall, 2023) and Elias Pettersson (80th overall, 2022) are U20 candidates to star on home ice at the World Juniors (26 December - 5 January) at the 12,044-capacity Scandinavium.
Vancouver winger Nils Hoglander, a 2020 IIHF World Junior bronze medalist, reminisced about visiting the Scandinavium in his SHL days: “It’s one of the better rinks they have there, a big rink. I remember when I played with Rogle, it was always tough to play there!”
“Being there for that tournament would be amazing,” said Abbotsford Canucks blueliner Filip Johansson, 23, who played three SHL seasons with Frolunda HC. “It’s great for the city and for the Frolunda organization to have the World Juniors there. The people of Gothenburg are very excited about it.”
At the 2024 World Juniors, the host Swedes will compete in a tough Group A with defending champions Canada and archrival Finland. And underestimating Germany and Latvia, who won silver and bronze respectively at the 2023 IIHF Men’s World Championship in Tampere and Riga, would be a mistake.
A breakout performance for Lekkerimaki in his third World Juniors could be a game-changer for the Juniorkronorna, who have only won this tournament twice (1981, 2012).
The 19-year-old Huddinge-born sniper previously led the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with 15 points when Sweden won gold in Germany. Lekkerimaki has already made some SHL history with Orebro this year, becoming just the fourth junior-aged player ever to light the red lamp in each of his first three games. In October, the 2022 World Junior bronze medalist led the league with eight goals. The key is his laser release.
“He has an amazing shot, one of the best shots I’ve ever seen,” said Abbotsford forward Linus Karlsson, the 2022 SHL rookie of the year with 26 goals and 46 points for Skelleftea. “He’s really young and really good. Hopefully he can take that next step.”
History might be on Lekkerimaki’s side. Many classic Swedish Canucks have excelled on the U20 stage before starring in the NHL.
Patrik Sundstrom led Sweden with seven goals en route to the Scandinavian nation’s first World Junior gold medal in 1981 in West Germany. He was named Best Forward and a tournament all-star.
Skating alongside Peter Forsberg, future Canucks captain Markus Naslund set the single-tournament goals record (13) in 1993 in Gavle as the hosts earned the silver medal. Naslund’s record still stands more than 30 years later.
The rugged Mattias Ohlund was named Best Defender and a tournament all-star in the Juniorkronorna’s 1996 run to silver in Boston.
And of course, there’s no overlooking Hockey Hall of Famers Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Before the Ornskoldsvik-born twins won NHL scoring titles with Vancouver and Olympic and World Championship gold medals, they finished top-five in scoring at two World Juniors (1999 and 2000).
Henrik ranked first (13 points) and Daniel third (10 points) in the 2000 edition on home ice in Skelleftea and Umea. The downside was that their teams finished fourth in 1999 and fifth in 2000.
In other IIHF tournaments, the Swedes have had better luck when hosting in recent years.
Sweden was the first nation to win a men’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship at home in the 21st century. The Sedins led the way in a 5-1 gold medal victory over Switzerland in 2013. And in 2019, Lucas Raymond’s hat trick – including the overtime winner – lifted the Swedes to a 4-3 triumph over the Russians in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship final in Ornskoldsvik.
So even if they’re too old to compete in the World Juniors themselves, Vancouver’s Swedish prospects – like their counterparts NHL-wide – are excited to see if their nation will break its World Junior home-ice drought.
“Sweden is a big hockey country and it’s a lot of fun to have one of the best tournaments taking place there,” said Abbotsford forward Nils Aman, who played 68 games with Vancouver last season. “When you’re a little kid, you’re sitting at home and watching the games and dreaming of playing there yourself someday.”
“Gothenburg is maybe my favourite city in Sweden,” added Karlsson. “It’s beautiful, not that big, but really nice. The people around there are also really nice.”
“I remember when I played the World Juniors, it was one of the funnest tournaments I ever played,” said Hoglander. “I would tell our guys to go out, have fun, and enjoy it.”