BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Four Swedish hockey officials flew across the Atlantic Ocean to meet with the NHL's general managers Wednesday. They arrived Tuesday night. At least one of them, Jorgen Lindgren, CEO of the Swedish Hockey League, planned to head right back home Thursday.
"It's important," Lindgren said.
Their goal was to convince the GMs it would be best for everyone if NHL teams allowed Swedish prospects to stay home longer to develop, a difficult argument considering the control and convenience NHL teams have in the American Hockey League.
Sweden is immensely valuable to the NHL, and the NHL to Swedish hockey. After Canada and the United States, Sweden produces more NHL players than any other country. Eighty-one Swedes have played in the NHL this season, compared to 38 Russians, 38 Finns, 33 Czechs and 13 Slovaks. With a population of fewer than 10 million people and fierce competition from sports like soccer, Swedish hockey needs players like Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson and Nicklas Backstrom to inspire Swedish kids.
"NHL is a dream for young guys," said Tommy Boustedt, general secretary of the Swedish Hockey Federation, "and if you have a dream, then maybe, maybe, you'll choose hockey."
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From the Swedish perspective, the problem is NHL teams draft Swedish players and often bring them to North America at a young age. The Swedes question why they should pour money into their junior system when they never see their players perform at home. If they lose incentive to invest in their junior program, that not only will hurt the junior program in the short term, it will hurt Swedish hockey and the NHL in the long term. They argue they have a strong developmental program and outlined it in a presentation to the GMs. They want to produce NHL-ready players.
"If they go too early, they aren't NHL-ready," Boustedt said. "Maybe every second player that goes too early will never, never reach their own potential. They will stop developing. Of course that doesn't matter when you have big numbers of players to choose from, but we have so few players because we're such a small country. Everyone that has talent for hockey must become an elite athlete."
Lindgren said the SHL loses about 25 players a year to other leagues, not just in North America but elsewhere in Europe, so it is losing the equivalent of a team a year. He said there are more than 50 Swedish players in the AHL.
"We know that 100 percent of those 50 players would make a huge difference for us," Lindgren said. "We would make a difference for the player, because we train them in the system. They are playing leading roles in men's team, in senior team, and really, really on a high level and would probably make by the end of the day a good possibility for the NHL team to have a more NHL-ready player coming over by staying a year or two longer."
From the GMs' perspective, it can make sense to keep prospects in Sweden in some cases, but there are significant downsides.
"They do put a lot of emphasis on development [in the SHL], but it's also about winning," Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. "It's a pro league. Coaches are under tremendous pressure. They do have the relegation system still there. It's a real fear in some teams and coaches, I think."
Especially when an NHL team has invested a first- or second-round pick in a prospect, it does not want to see him lose ice time to a veteran when it could prevent that from happening in the AHL.
"It's easy to sit kids," Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray said. "My coach in the American League may not like some of my young guys some nights, but I have the ability to tell him to suck it up and play them. So there's that."
Also, Sweden is thousands of miles away and AHL affiliates are relatively close, allowing NHL teams to keep close tabs on their prospects, and the SHL plays on the larger international ice sheet. Murray brought up the ice to Peter Forsberg, vice president of the Swedish Hockey Federation.
"I said to him, 'Build a rink in Stockholm, build a rink in Gothenburg and make it our size and maybe make it between 6 and 10 feet wider than our rink, and it would be a great incubator for us,' " Murray said. "He laughed, but he didn't say no. They're open to a lot of ideas."
Murray listed Swedish players who had stopped in the AHL on their way to the NHL like Karlsson and Robin Lehner.
"Some guys spend half a season there, and some guys need two seasons there," Murray said. "But it's a good development league. We consider it the best development league. They would have to make a strong argument and have a great model for us to consider, especially a first-round pick, them going back."