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In Sweden, Detroit is the desired NHL destination

Sunday, 05.31.2009 / 9:00 AM / 2009 Stanley Cup Final: Detroit vs. Pittsburgh

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

DETROIT -- Henrik Zetterberg says there are plenty of things about Detroit that make Swedish hockey players feel like they are at home.

"Good industry. Good people. And, most of all, a city that loves its sports teams."

But seriously, the hockey is a lot different here than it is in Vasteras, Pitea, Njuranda, Stockholm, Manefred, Lansbro and Karlskrona, where Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Mikael Samuelsson, Johan Franzen and Jonathan Ericsson have matriculated in Sweden.

How Swede it is. Seven Swedish contributors to the Red Wings. That's nearly a third of the lineup.

"And I won't be the last of them," said Ericsson, the rookie in the group. "Hakan Andersson (chief European talent finder for the Wings) and his scouts have found players in every part of our country. North, south, east and west. Elite league down to Tier 2 and Tier 3 leagues.

"They've made every young hockey player in Sweden want to play in Detroit."

It's no coincidence that the "Swedish Connection" that has helped the Red Wings win eight consecutive Central Division titles and nine of the last 10, plus four Stanley Cups in the last 11 years, pretty much covers their formative NHL years since Lidstrom arrived in Detroit at the start of the 1991-92 season and has become the best defenseman of his era.

Since Lidstrom and Holmstrom in the early 1990s, the Red Wings have used their Swedish link, Andersson, to uncover one gem after another. But it actually wasn't until 2002, when Zetterberg made it to the NHL, that the Swedish tradition really began to take shape, followed by the arrival of Kronwall, Samuelsson, Franzen and Ericsson.

From the Wings' style of play, to the seamless introduction into a new country, new culture, Detroit has become the home away from home for these skills and hard working players.

"To me, it's all about the puck possession and skill here," Holmstrom said just before the Wings were headed to a second  consecutive matchup in the Final with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "To me, the style started when the Red Wings had the 'Russian Five' (Igor Larionov, Sergei Fedorov and Slava Kozlov up front with Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov on defense) in the lineup and it has just mushroomed to a style that everyone in the NHL envies.

"No player is pushed into a job in Detroit, no matter what country they come from -- Canadian, American, Russian, Swede or Finn. Each player has to learn to play defensively responsible first and then earn ice time offensively. I remember I had my moments in the 1990s, good spurts in the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup runs. But I really didn't start playing in an offensive role here until 2002, when I played on the fourth line -- yeah the fourth line -- with greats like Larionov and Luc Robitaille."

"It's no fluke how the Red Wings develop you at the minor-league level and then work you into the lineup slowly," Kronwall said. "The key to me is that by the time I came over to North America, we had already seen how well the Swedish and European players were treated in Detroit. Plus, back home we're taught skills and discipline first."

Franzen says the biggest boost to Swedish inhabitants on the Red Wings is the success of the team, plus the fact that there are already Swedes in the lineup throughout the organization.

"The language is not as much of a barrier as it would be somewhere else," he said. "It feels a little more like home. There's always someone there who can understand what it means to trying to cope with a new language ... in a new culture."

From Zetterberg to Kronwall to Franzen and Ericsson, all grew up admiring the Red Wings and their success from thousands of miles away and wanting to play in Detroit and follow the lead of Lidstrom and Holmstrom. That was the destination they all hoped for.

"Every player that comes from Sweden is going to work hard. That's like their badge of honor. Over there, it's all about emphasizing practices and developing skills. It may seem strange to us, but the games and competition is secondary to them to practicing and developing skills." -- Brian Rafalski
American-born-and-trained defenseman Brian Rafalski couldn't find a job in the NHL until after he left his University of Wisconsin job and followed that with four years combined in Sweden and Finland, where he honed his skills and got noticed by the New Jersey Devils. Then, in his first year with the Devils, he won a Stanley Cup in 1999-2000.

"Every player that comes from Sweden is going to work hard. That's like their badge of honor," Rafalski explained. "Over there, it's all about emphasizing practices and developing skills. It may seem strange to us, but the games and competition is secondary to them to practicing and developing skills.

"I know one thing: My skills got better in those four years that I played in Sweden and Finland."

And now even Rafalski knows the feeling more at home in Detroit. Even if he made the Swedish connection to the Red Wings in a totally different way.


Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic