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Stockholm history filled with stars, passionate fans

by Bill Meltzer

Locals in Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 host city Stockholm will tell you that there's no such thing as a "Stockholm hockey fan." Depending on where someone grows up, he or she is either a Djurgården fan, an AIK supporter or still in mourning for the recent loss of the Hammarby IF team. All three teams have graduated prominent players to the NHL.

The Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 will be held at Stockholm Globe Arena, which has hosted many of the most prominent hockey games played in Europe during the course of its 20-year history. While the Premiere between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators marks the first NHL regular-season game to be played in Sweden, the venue has hosted hockey events ranging from the World Cup of Hockey and World Championships to Elitserien (Swedish Elite League) championship games and exhibition games involving NHL teams.

Known to Swedes simply as "the Globe" (Globen, which is phonetically pronounced gloo-ben), the huge golf-ball shaped edifice is recognizable from many parts of the city. Until recent years, the 14,119-seat arena was home to both Djurgårdens IF and AIK.

While most North American fans are at least somewhat familiar with Globen from past events involving NHL players, many are unaware that Stockholm's older -- and arguably more storied -- arena is the one a large percentage of locals identify as the city's true hockey hub. Johanneshov's Ice Stadium (Johanneshovs Isstadion), more popularly called "the Court" (Hovet), has hosted thousands of games in its 53-year history. For many years, the 8,300-seat building was the home of all three major local clubs, as well as a variety of smaller clubs with lower minor-league affiliations. Today, both Djurgårdens IF and AIK once again make their full-time homes at Hovet.
Both in hockey and soccer, the traditional support bases for DIF, AIK and HIF are directly tied to different neighborhoods around the city. The working-class south side was traditionally the Hammarby stronghold. Djurgården is located in the picturesque eastern part of the city, while AIK was based for much of its history in the Solna district north of central Stockholm.

The Djurgårdens IF athletic club was formed in 1891, and the hockey program was launched in 1922: the same year as the Swedish national men's league.  Known to its supporters as "the Iron Stoves" (Järnkaminerna), DIF is the most-decorated team in Sweden. The hockey division has won 16 championships, most recently with back-to-back crowns in the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.  The club also won a pair of European Cups (1990-91 and 1991-92) in the IIHF's predecessor tournament to the new Champions Hockey League.

To North American ears, the name Djurgården, when pronounced correctly, sounds somewhat like "Your Gorden." To AIK and HIF fans, the club is often known by assorted impolite animal names -- a play on the word djur (animal) and the city's famous Skansen zoo, located in Djurgården.

DIF fans, however, attribute the derision of the other teams' supporters to jealousy. To rub a little salt in the wound, DIF fans sometimes dub their team "the pride of Stockholm" (Stockholms stolthet). In addition to having won the most championships, DIF is the only Stockholm club currently playing in the Swedish Elite League. 

Djurgården has graduated a host of players to the NHL, and is the team associated with two of Sweden's all-time greats: Sven Tumba and Mats Sundin.

The former was far and away Sweden's most famous hockey player of the 1950s and 1960s, enjoying a national status similar to that of Gordie Howe or Bobby Hull. Born Sven Johansson in the town of Tumba, he was always known as "Tumba" during his career and later had his last name legally changed.

If he'd been born a decade later, Tumba would probably have come to North America and become Sweden's first NHL star as well. Instead, he had to "settle" for eight Swedish championships with DIF, four Olympic tournaments, 14 World Championships and an array of individual honors and awards. To this day, the 77-year-old remains one of the country's most beloved athletes.

Sundin first rose to prominence as a Djurgården junior player, becoming the first European to be selected first in the NHL Entry Draft when the Quebec Nordiques chose him with the first pick of the 1989 draft. While he left for the NHL at age 19 after an excellent 1989-90 season with the DIF senior team, Sundin returned to Djurgården for 12 games during the 1994-95 NHL lockout. As a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he played against DIF in a September 2003 exhibition game at Globen.

DIF has had to weather some tough times in the 2000s. The team ran into financial problems, and operated at a significant loss. The club pared down a high-salaried roster, and younger players -- many of them homegrown in DIF's junior system -- have played a greatly increased role. The team also moved out of Globen and back to Hovet.

AIK, which is an acronym for the Public Athletic Club (Allmänna Idrottsklubben), was founded in 1891 in central Stockholm before its home-base relocated in 1937 to Solna. The hockey division was created one year prior to Djurgården's.  The team has won six Swedish championships, most recently in 1983-84.

The team, affectionately known to supporters as Gnagnet (roughly translatable to "the gnawers" and symbolized by a toothy rat), had its strongest periods of success in the 1930s and early 1980s, but is perhaps best known as the team that produced one of Sweden's all-time great goaltenders in Leif "Honken" Holmqvist. In addition, Hall of Fame defenseman Börje Salming finished his professional career with AIK after retiring from the NHL.

AIK is also known for having one of most fanatically loyal -- and often controversial -- fan clubs in Sweden. Fan clubs in Europe are also a little different than those in the United States; at least for professional sports teams. European hockey fan clubs are modeled on the style of soccer fan clubs. There are team fight songs that are sung throughout, and orchestrated chants and cheers led by the fan club that are usually much more elaborate than the "Let's go (favorite team name)" chants popular in North America.

The hockey fan clubs in Europe tend to exhibit a considerably lesser degree of hooliganism than the soccer fan clubs. While incidents of rival fan clubs physically clashing with each other or the police are not totally unheard of, the hockey clubs are usually characterized by singing for the home team and taunting the opposition and refs than they are for violence.

For many years, AIK's Black Army (the team wears black jerseys with a yellow shield crest) was the most notorious of all the Swedish fan clubs. The Black Army was the loudest, and often the most obnoxious, of the fan clubs in Sweden; worshipping AIK players, while hurling invective at the opposition, especially hated rival Djurgården. Unfortunately, on a few occasions, hooligans identifying themselves as Black Army members have crossed the line into violence and drew the sort of headlines that neither AIK management nor most of its fans wanted.

On the other hand, the AIK fans' loyalty to their favorite players could also be touching. In the early 1980s, Per-Erik "Pelle" Eklund formed one of the top lines in Swedish hockey history, along with Rolf Edberg and Peter Gradin. The trio was instrumental in AIK's 1983-84 championship.

The following summer, when news broke that the Philadelphia Flyers had signed Eklund to a two-year contract, the Black Army was determined not to let it happen. They organized a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm.

All the rally accomplished was to baffle embassy workers who had no idea who this Eklund guy was and why the locals were so adamant he not be allowed to leave Sweden. But it showed just how adamantly AIK fans supported their club. Years later, when Eklund returned to Sweden after a lengthy NHL career, he signed with Leksands IF.  Rather than jeering him, the AIK fans gave him a huge ovation and serenaded him as they did in the old days.

The club was a middle-of-the pack team for much of the 1990s, but enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid-1990s when it recruited the top scoring line in Europe -- Pavel Patera, Martin Prochazka and Otakar Vejvoda Jr. -- away from Czech team HC Kladno. Thereafter, however, AIK fell on tough economic times and was relegated from the Elite league to the top minor league in Sweden, called Allsvenskan.

AIK's current squad in Allsvenskan is one of its strongest in years. The team recruited veteran offensive defenseman Dick Tarnstrom (who got his start with AIK) to be its captain. The club also has an immensely talented, if enigmatic, goaltender in former Montreal Canadiens prospect Christopher Heino-Lindberg. The team has won three of its first four games this season and figures to compete for a spot in the Elitserien qualification tournament played at the end of each season.

The Hammarby athletic club -- HIF or "Bajen" to the locals -- traces its roots back the furthest. Created in 1889, the club was originally an association of rowers. Eight years later, it added other athletic departments and adopted the Hammarby IF name. Historically, the hockey team played in the top national league from 1922 until it was relegated after the 1956-57 season.

Bajen was a hockey powerhouse in the earlier years, winning eight Swedish Championships (1932, 1933, 1936, 1937, 1942, 1943, 1945 and 1951). But by the late 1950s, the senior team lagged behind both DIF and AIK. 

The men's team yo-yoed between the top league and relegation -- playing at the top level from 1958-59 to 1960-61, 1967-68 and 1969-70 before remaining in the minor leagues for the next 12 years. In these years, Bajen was better known for its youth teams, headed by future Swedish (and later Finnish) national team head coach Curt "Curre" Lindström.

Hammarby's most famous product was goaltender Pelle Lindbergh. Born in 1959, he rose quickly through the ranks of Hammarby's boys teams to play for its senior squad and the Swedish national team. After being drafted by Philadelphia in 1979, he joined AIK for one season in Elitserien before leaving for North America. In 1984-85, Lindbergh became the first European goalie to win the Vezina Trophy. Less than five months after accepting the award, he died in an automobile accident.

Hammarby's senior team spent most of the last three decades playing in Swedish minor leagues, but continued to graduate young players, such as New Jersey Devils defenseman Johnny Oduya, who have gone on to play for Elitserien squads and/or North American pro hockey. Bajen played in Elitserien during the 1982-83 and 1984-85 seasons before being relegated for the next 23 years.

Unfortunately, early this year, the hockey section of Hammarby IF declared bankruptcy. Despite efforts to save the team, the organization liquidated its assets and folded the hockey team. However, Hammarby IF's soccer team lives on.
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