STOCKHOLM, Sweden - More than a few players will feel right at home when the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues open their NHL seasons with a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday.
Eight players who will lace up their skates are natives of Sweden.
"I would say the Red Wings could be the second national team back home," Detroit centre Henrik Zetterberg said. "People are really fired up for this. We have a lot of fans in Sweden."
Zetterberg missed all eight of the team's exhibition matches in North America because of a sore groin. But he scored a goal in his comeback as the Red Wings routed Swedish Elite League club Farjestad 6-2 on Wednesday in their preseason finale on the larger European surface.
Zetterberg, one of Detroit's top players, should be joined by fellow Swedes Nicklas Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Thomas Holmstrom and Jonathan Ericsson at the Ericsson Globe arena. Andreas Lilja, another Swede, is injured, while Swedish rookie Daniel Larsson is Detroit's third goalie.
The St. Louis team includes Swedes Patrik Berglund and Alexander Steen.
Detroit has been the NHL's leading club for developing top Swedish players, starting in 1972 with Thommie Bergman, who played 246 games in six NHL seasons.
Lidstrom's long career with the Red Wings started in 1991, and Friday's opener will be the 39-year-old Detroit captain's 1,331st regular-season game.
A six-time winner of the Norris Trophy awarded to the NHL's best defenceman, Lidstrom hails from a city close to Stockholm. He will have plenty of family members and friends at the games this weekend.
"It's like a dream for me, to get the chance and return to Sweden during fall," Lidstrom said after Thursday's practice. "I can't remember the last time I was home at this time of the year. "
"And then having the Red Wings here and play for a team that I have represented for 18 years, that is really big."
After falling one win short of repeating as Stanley Cup champions in June, the Red Wings lost forwards Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson and Tomas Kopecky, who all signed with other teams.
"We lost almost 90 goals," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "Even though a lot of teams have gotten better, I still think we're a Stanley Cup contender because our defence is as good as anyone's defence and I like the rest of our team."
St. Louis thrashed Linkoping of the Swedish league 6-0 in their final preseason game Tuesday. That game was also played on the larger European ice surface, but the season openers will be held on an NHL-sized rink.
"Our last three games we played pretty good as a team," said Blues forward David Perron. "We got better every game we played, which is good. "
"We're ready for the season now."
The game Friday will mark only the second time in league history that NHL teams will begin their regular season in Sweden, one of Europe's top hockey countries and the winner of Olympic gold at the Turin Games. Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators split their opening weekend series in the same 14,000-capacity arena.
Fan interest is huge for the doubleheader with the games selling out in mere hours.