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NHL teams striking it rich with Swedish pipeline

By Fluto Shinzawa, 12/04/13, 10:45AM EST


OCTOBER 20, 2013

Detroit’s group, which includes Henrik Zetterberg (above), is the most significant concentration of Swedish talent.

The NHL’s sharpest general manager acknowledges he does not know the why behind the matter. The who and what, though, are as clear as a Windex-wiped pane of glass to Ken Holland.

The who are the Swedes. The what is the high-end Swedes’ superlative style of play in the NHL.

Nobody has reaped Swedish dividends more than the Red Wings GM. Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the NHL’s five best all-time defensemen. Tomas Holmstrom was once the league’s premier net-front presence. The odor of Holmstrom’s pants remains stuck in goalies’ nostrils.

The current Swedish core of Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Mikael Samuelsson, and Joakim Andersson helped convince fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson to choose the Red Wings over the Bruins this past offseason. The Wings have ex-University of Maine standout Gustav Nyquist and fellow forward Calle Jarnkrok developing (or baking, to use a Holland expression) in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s AHL affiliate.

The efficiency of the Stockholm-to-Detroit transport system makes the proposed Keystone XL pipeline look like a 3-year-old’s ditch at the beach.

Detroit’s group is the most significant concentration of Swedish talent. There are others who play like Zetterberg and Kronwall: Henrik and Daniel Sedin (Vancouver), Nicklas Backstrom (Washington), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago), Loui Eriksson (Boston).

In less delicate times, the joke around hockey, especially among their neighbors in Finland, was that the Swedes carried themselves in a certain way. The Swedes, naturally, parroted an equally crude stereotype of the Finns. 

But the hallmarks of today’s Swedish DNA are undeniable: committed work ethic, high-level skating, and processing power to rival the National Security Agency’s best spy gear. Off the ice, they are pleasant, approachable, and gentlemanly. On the ice, they play with precision and ruthlessness.

“They’re really good competitors,” Holland said. “It doesn’t matter how hard the going gets. They don’t back off. There’s always an exception to every rule. But for the most part, they play hard. They go to hard areas. They’re respectful of the game. The ones that work their way through the system — through the Swedish World Junior, the Swedish national program, play in the NHL — they all can skate, and they’ve all got hockey sense.” 

The Swedish identity reflects the Wings’ philosophy. Holland wants smart players. Coach Mike Babcock demands his players to think the game correctly. Hockey sense is one of the primary traits Holland seeks in his draft picks. Director of amateur scouting Tyler Wright and director of European scouting Hakan Andersson target high IQ.

Andersson, who is based in Sweden, has a track record of late-round thievery. The Wings picked Zetterberg in the seventh round of the 1999 draft. Ericsson was a ninth-rounder. Franzen (third round) and Nyquist (fourth) were also steals.

The Wings are not alone in identifying and selecting draft-eligible Swedes. In 2013, 23 Swedish players were selected, third most after Canadians and Americans. The Bruins drafted two: Linus Arnesson and Anton Blidh. Peter Cehlarik, their third-round pick, is from Slovakia but has played in Sweden since 2011-12. In 2011, five Swedes went in the first round: Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson, Mika Zibanejad, Jonas Brodin, and Oscar Klefbom.

In Detroit, the Swedes’ contributions have produced the NHL’s hallmark of consistent excellence. The Wings last missed the playoffs in 1990. Among their last 22 iterations, four won the Stanley Cup. Last season, despite the departures of Lidstrom, Brad Stuart, and Jiri Hudler, and season-long injuries to Darren Helm, the Wings took Chicago to overtime of Game 7 in the second round.

Under Holland and Babcock, the Swedes’ smarts have led to seamless integration. Holland believes the hockey brain develops at younger ages. If a player arrives in the NHL without smarts, he’s behind the curve, like an adult struggling with a foreign language when a child can learn it far quicker.

“We can make you stronger,” Holland said. “But I think a lot of the instincts of the game, you either have some of those instincts by the time you’re 12 or 14, or you don’t. If you don’t have hockey sense by the time you’re 14, you’re not going to get it when you’re 18. Something’s going on where these young players have hockey IQ.”

Landeskog, Colorado’s captain, hails from Stockholm. But Landeskog is as North American as a can of Coke. As a 16-year-old, Landeskog first played for Kitchener of the OHL. The Avalanche drafted him No. 2 overall in 2011 following his second season with the Rangers. Landeskog’s English is perfect.

But Landeskog plays with the hockey IQ ingrained in Swedes of his generation. Landeskog recalled that as early as when he was 10 years old, coaches didn’t emphasize games. Instead, Landeskog’s coaches stressed good, fun, instructive practice habits.

“When we grow up, when we’re practicing back home, we do a lot of game-type situations,” Landeskog said. “You learn how to play and think the game. I think Swedish coaches are really good at coming up with drills that create game-type situations in practice. They shrink it down. There’s tons of in-zone types of games. Lots of give-and-gos and stuff like that. You learn that part of the game early on. I think the coaching aspect in Sweden has been really good. That was how we got good at it.”

Landeskog helped Sweden win the 2013 world championship and will likely make the 2014 Swedish Olympic team. Landeskog’s Detroit countrymen, the Sedin twins, Karlsson, and Henrik Lundqvist will be the lead dogs. On the big ice in Sochi, Russia, the Swedes will be among the favorites.

Because of their hockey sense, Swedes are the game’s geeks. These days, nerds rule.