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'Hockeytown' has a branch office in Sweden

by Karl Samuelson

The Detroit Red Wings currently boast seven players on their roster who hail from Sweden, the most of any NHL team.
Swedish players have been in the NHL since the mid-1970s, when a young defenseman named Borje Salming joined the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Swedish National Team.

Salming blazed a trail for world-class athletes to follow, and a few years later his countrymen provided sparks to other NHL teams, including Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson of the New York Rangers, Thomas Gradin of the Vancouver Canucks, Mats Naslund of the Montreal Canadiens and Hakan Loob of the Calgary Flames.

Today, every NHL team has a Swede in its lineup, but one team has eclipsed all others in the successful integration of Swedish hockey players – the Detroit Red Wings.

Five of Detroit’s top 10 scorers last season were Swedes, and this season seven of their regulars hail from the “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

So what is it about the Red Wings’ organizational culture that enables Swedish players to excel?

“I think, first off, they come here and there are other Swedish players,” Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said. “Any time you go to a foreign country and there are people from your own country, you instantly become comfortable with the environment. We play a European style of game. It's a puck-possession game. It's a style of game that I think most Europeans are comfortable with and I think it has allowed us to have the success we've had.

”Maybe some people think that we should be grittier and there's probably some merit to that. But we've kind of stuck to our philosophy. The Swedish players that have come here – Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg – are world-class players. The other Swedes that have followed them are comfortable with our team. They all seem to live in a similar area of the city. They travel together back and forth to the rink. Just having an environment where you're really comfortable and a situation where you feel confident with the style of play allows a player to reach his potential. That's why I think we've had success with our Swedish players.”


”Detroit has played a puck-possession game for the last 12-15 years,” Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “They want the type of player that can thrive in that environment. I remember a few years ago when it seemed like they had half of Russia playing there. They’ve had a good mix of European and North American players. But I think the gap is closing in that North Americans are getting more skilled and the European guys are coming over earlier, playing junior here and getting bigger, as well. The Swedish guys they have are pretty talented.”

New York Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan spent nine seasons in Detroit and added further insight into the strong contingent of Swedish stars in “Hockeytown.”

“I think that it happens whenever there’s a strong leader from one particular nationality,” said Shanahan, who won three Stanley Cups in Detroit. “Then they get scouting tips from guys like Lidstrom and Zetterberg because they play with certain players in World Championships and tournaments. Sometimes a player is not getting a fair shot with his NHL team and the guy becomes available, like Mikael Samuelsson, for example. So the Red Wings (management) will go to one of the Swedish players and ask if the player could be good in Detroit. They get scouting tips, but I also think that when a player does get to Detroit it’s nice to have that comfort where the wife will instantly have friends and they get to maintain some of their own culture.”

“It has happened here in New York with the Czech players,” Shanahan added. “(Jaromir) Jagr has helped bring along guys like (Martin) Straka, (Michal) Rozsival and (Marek) Malik. Pittsburgh just let Rozsival go and he’s our No. 1 defenseman. It happens on different teams where there’s a strong presence. In Dallas, it’s the Finns. There are a lot of Finns and I’m sure (the club) goes to (Jere) Lehtinen and asks him about the guys from Finland. I think that’s what happened in Detroit. First, they feel more comfortable when they get there, but secondly, they get the heads-up from the guys that know them from growing up in Sweden and from World Championships.”

The linchpin of the Swedish connection in Detroit is team captain Nicklas Lidstrom. Lidstrom has set the gold standard for future generations of Swedish hockey players by winning five Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman. His game is fueled by incredible hockey sense. An excellent skater with tremendous vision on the ice, the talented rearguard has an effortless way of establishing dominance on the blue line.

Lidstrom utilizes more smarts than starch in the defensive zone and is one of the league’s most dangerous players in the offensive zone.

"We play a European style of game. It's a puck-possession game. It's a style of game that I think most Europeans are comfortable with and I think it has allowed us to have the success we've had."

-- Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland

“Nick is a solid all-around player in every aspect of the game,” Holland said. “He can score and is a great passer. Nick knows when to jump up into the play and is excellent defensively. He is not overly physical, but doesn’t get beat one-on-one because he is so smart. He does it all, defensively and offensively.”

Holmstrom is second in seniority among the Swedes in Detroit and resembles the Tasmanian Devil on the ice, especially deep in the offensive zone where he wreaks havoc on opposing defenders.

“Tomas has tremendous hands,” Holland said of the 34-year-old veteran who last season reached the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career. “He really knows how to use his body to protect the puck under pressure in the corners and along the wall. He likes to get into the corners and bang, muck and grind. Tomas will camp out in front of the net and take a lot of abuse. He never stops working. If you knock him down he’ll get back up and through sheer determination get right back into the thick of it.”

“Holmstrom is just a warrior,” Shanahan said. “He is a clutch scorer. The bigger the obstacle the harder he tries.”

Holmstrom’s perseverance inspires his more naturally talented teammates.

“It is not easy to stand in front of the goalie,” says Zetterberg of his fellow countryman. “Tomas takes a beating in front, but he is also great at tipping pucks. There is a lot of practice behind that. He stays after practice to work on that part of his game. I think he's the best in the league in that part of the game.”

Zetterberg is emerging as one of the best in the League in his own right. The 27-year-old forward paced the Red Wings with 33 goals last season and is entering the prime of his career.

“I just don’t know how they got that guy in the seventh round,” Shanahan said. “There’s not a flaw in Zetterberg’s game. All those Swedes are good teammates and they’re all good people. The leadership starts with Lidstrom and Holmstrom. Actually, Holmstrom is the most vocal of the Swedes. He is very popular and very funny. Zetterberg is the centerman version of Steve Larmer. He is the kind of guy you want on the ice for every single situation. The fact that he is a centerman and not a winger makes him more valuable. But it’s amazing how they got him 210th overall.”

“Zetterberg was a little bit of a late bloomer,” Alfredsson said. “He always had great talent and great vision and now he is getting stronger. He is put in those situations where he is the go-to guy and he is getting used to that. Zetterberg is definitely one of the biggest up-and-coming stars in the League.”

The same case can be made for 26-year-old defenseman Niklas Kronvall.

“I think he’s great,” Shanahan said. “Kronvall just had some bad luck with injuries, but if he hadn’t been hurt the first few years of his career, I think he would be an All-Star by now. Kronvall has offensive upside. He is a big hitter and a great skater. This guy is just a great player that the NHL hasn’t seen enough of yet, because he has had some freakish injuries.”

Kronvall is seen as one of the next great European defensemen.

Red Wings' captain Nicklas Lidstrom, a native of Vasteras, Sweden, is regarded as one of the NHL's top defensemen.

“I played with him in the World Championships and he was unbelievable,” Alfredsson said. “I thought for sure that he was going to be the next star offensive defenseman in the League. He has had quite a few setbacks with injuries, but I think he has the potential to be one of the best in the League.”

Detroit has its share of reclamation projects – players who were either cast aside or ignored by other NHL teams. Andreas Lilja was a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2000, but bounced around the NHL, AHL and the Swedish Elite League before landing a full-time job with the Red Wings in 2005-06.

“Lilja is a guy that was cast aside by other teams and again I think Detroit got the scouting tips from guys like Lidstrom,” says Shanahan. “Lilja is a guy that sacrifices his body on 5-on-3’s and resembles another goalie back there. You like all of your teammates, but some guys you have a special place for because of the way they sacrifice for the team. Lilja was one of those guys for me. I just really liked him as a player and as a teammate for the way that he sacrificed his body blocking shots.”

Samuelsson and Johan Franzen took different routes in their journey to the Motor City, but both players were available to all other NHL teams on several different occasions.

Samuelsson signed as a free agent in September 2005 and Franzen was drafted as a 24-year-old forward (97th overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft.

“Samuelsson is a solid player,” Alfredsson said. “I think he has a great shot. He is one of those guys that you might not see him for most of the game and all of a sudden you look at the score and he’s got two goals. This guy is very opportunistic. He has found the right place in Detroit. There’s not a lot of pressure on him so he can go in there and do his job, but at the same time he can get some power-play time where he is at his best.

“Franzen will dig in the trenches and he is a good penalty killer,” Alfredsson said. “He is a big man with good size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and also has a great shot. Franzen is one of those guys that in a good year will get you 15 goals without a question and probably get four or five of them while his team is shorthanded. Detroit certainly does a great job at bringing in guys and getting the most out of them.”

One could reasonably assert that the Swedes in Detroit give the Red Wings a distinctive Swedish personality.

“Yes they do,” says Dallas Stars assistant coach Ulf Dahlen, who served as an assistant coach for Sweden’s national team from 2003-2004. “Lidstrom and Holmstrom have been a big part of that team for a long time. They’ve given the Swedish players a good reputation and the guys they’ve been adding have built even further on that reputation.”

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