A change in education, coaching -- and, most important, attitude -- at an early age has played a vital role in the tremendous rise in good fortune for Sweden, the premier hockey-producing country in Europe.
It wasn't too long ago the Swedish Ice Hockey Association was forced to come to grips with the fact its educational and developmental methods had become outdated. Between 1997 and 2002, the Swedish Under-20 junior national team was deemed a failure -- finishing fourth twice and fifth or worst four other times.
Raising the bar in Sweden
Tommy Boustedt, the Sweden Ice Hockey Association's director of youth development, played an integral role in the overhaul of Sweden's hockey development during the turn of the century.
According to the 52-year-old, the most important part in building a successful youth hockey program is relentless recruitment.
"We're getting more players into hockey now in the youngest age groups (6 or 7 years old) than we've never had before," Boustedt told NHL.com. "The next challenge is to take care of all these players and try to retain them for our game."
Playing a part in that is the fact that from May through November each year, the Swedish federation invites 2,000 players ages 14-18 to one of 45 player-development camps. The federation then aims to invite 800 of the best 14-year-olds back the following year. That list is ultimately pared down to 30 by the time they are good enough to play for the Under-20 World Championship team.
"The NHL has become a good carrot for us when trying to recruit people to our programs and keep them there since soccer is huge in Europe these days," Boustedt said. "The NHL is something to aim for. The only problem today is that some of the kids go to the NHL too early; they aren't NHL-ready. The NHL is not a development league; it's a league to perform. So when you step into the NHL, you should be ready to perform.
"If a player leaves too early and isn't able to perform, it's not good for our production of players and not good for the NHL to have players not good enough."
Boustedt pointed to the fact that the Swedish federation is a non-profit organization, so if an underdeveloped player joins the NHL, it doesn't bode well for clubs footing the bill for his development in Sweden.
-- Mike G. Morreale
"Ice hockey has been a big sport for years in Sweden, but 10-12 years ago, they suddenly started to lose international games with their Under-18 and U-20 teams," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com.
Realizing this fact, Sweden's director of youth development, Tommy Boustedt, initiated a Commission of Inquiry on junior hockey in Sweden in 2002. The meeting included 120 people, including junior coaches, club executives and scouts. The professionals were broken down into groups, some working with coaching and education, others critiquing player development.
"Everyone came up with ideas on how we could change our hockey," Boustedt told NHL.com. "Some of the important things we learned were that we had to revise the demands on the coaches and educate much better. Our education material was old-fashioned … it was built by way of the old Swedish style and the old European style."
Boustedt and his group also reached out for the advice of many of the game's finest Swedish players, including Mats Sundin
, Peter Forsberg
, Markus Naslund
and Daniel Alfredsson
. The sole purpose in reaching out to a few of Sweden's most established stars, past and present, was to understand what they considered to be a major turning point in their hockey career.
"The No. 1 reason they provided us was the leadership they had growing up," Boustedt said. "They all said they had great coaching. That being said, we had to raise the quality at the youth and junior coaching levels."
Devils goalie Johan Hedberg
, a native of Leksand, has seen first-hand the amount of high-end talent making its way overseas from his native country in recent years.
"The education level for coaching from a young age to the junior ranks is really, really high," he said. "I think that has a lot to do with there's a lot of young guys coming in now and being as prepared as they are. They're getting great teaching from an early age."
Today, according to Boustedt, the level of coaching at the junior level has advanced so much that, in some areas, the quality of coaching is on par with, or even better than, that of the elite leagues.
While much time and patience was needed to bear witness to the fruits of their labor following the 2002 Summit, Sweden once again has become a legitimate threat at the World Junior Championship, taking home silver in 2008 and '09 and bronze in 2010. On top of that, at least 20 Swedes have been selected in each of the last three NHL drafts, including 24 in 2011. In 2009, seven of the 23 Swedes taken were in the opening round.
"The (Swedish Association) is paying more attention to the game around the net … getting to the areas around the net and in the corners and learning how to be efficient in those areas," Colorado Avalanche
rookie forward Gabriel Landeskog
told NHL.com. "The Sedin brothers (Henrik and Daniel of Vancouver) were probably the first to be really efficient in the corners. We've gotten better in front of the net; look at Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom
"The results of that summit meeting in the spring of 2002 are seen today," Stubb said. "Sweden is now No. 1 in Europe producing world-class talent and will continue doing so in the future. Finland actually arranged a similar kind of meeting five years ago and the results are looking good."
SWEDE SUCCESS STORY
was considered the most NHL ready prospect in the 2011 draft class, and so far, he's done nothing to prove otherwise.
Landeskog spent four-plus seasons within Sweden's junior system before spending the previous two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kitchener Rangers. Even before being drafted second by the Avalanche at the 2011 Draft, Landeskog was on record as saying he didn't want to be considered a "soft European player."
"If you want to be on the elite level, you have to compete in everything you do from the beginning," Boustedt said. "The best competitor ever was Peter Forsberg
. If we could take Peter Forsberg
's mind and put it into all our talented players that would be perfect. Being competitive is more important than skating fast or shooting hard.
"Let's face it, the word 'compete' was obsolete in this country -- we haven't been in a war in 200 years and we have a classic social democratic system that built this society, and to 'compete' has historically been a bad word."
Today, having that competitive spirit in everything associated with Swedish hockey is what has changed most, according to Boustedt.
"The word 'compete' is a good word again in Swedish hockey," he said. "Our message to the kids is what they need to do to become an elite hockey player. It has to do with hockey skills and tactics and all types of physical training. We have psychologists speaking to the kids, explaining what they should and shouldn't do."
Of the nine players picked in the 2011 Draft who made opening-night NHL rosters, three were Swedes. Of that group, Landeskog and most likely New Jersey defenseman Adam Larsson
, the fourth pick, will spend the entire season in the NHL. Mika Zibanejad
, the sixth pick, was returned to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League on Wednesday after playing nine games.
"One of the most important things in becoming a successful development league is watching the way other countries improve their game, so I'd be lying to you if I said we didn't pay close attention to what Canada and the United States have done." -- Tommy Boustedt, the Sweden Ice Hockey Association's director of youth development
Larsson has made a relatively seamless transition to the NHL despite never having played a full season in North America.
"I think all the Swedish coaches have stepped it up," Larsson said. "There's a lot of (former NHL) players who coach now, who know what to do. I think that's a big reason."
Boustedt also points to the fact Sweden is incorporating different aspects of the North American game into its coaching philosophy.
"One of the most important things in becoming a successful development league is watching the way other countries improve their game, so I'd be lying to you if I said we didn't pay close attention to what Canada and the United States have done," Boustedt said. "Maybe we didn't do that enough. The main area we've looked into is body checking and goal scoring … and needless to say we've looked into North American hockey a lot."
The Swedish federation actually invites North American coaches to camps and seminars to describe and teach their techniques.
"North Americans are very competitive, they go to the net, crash and are good along the boards," Boustedt said. "(North Americans) can body check and take a body check … areas where we have been very soft before, but that we're now incorporating into our development. The area we need to get even stronger, though, is in shooting and goal scoring."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale