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TV-Puck tournament celebrates golden anniversary

by Bill Meltzer /

2008 marks the 50th Anniversary of Sweden's TV-Puck tournament, which gives players under 17 years of age experience and exposure throughout the country. Pictured above are the TV-Puck champions from 1975.
When the puck drops on the 2008 TV-Puck tournament in Sweden next weekend, it will mark the start of the 50th installment of one of the world's most storied and unique domestic hockey competitions. The vast majority of past and present Swedish players of NHL and international renown competed in this tournament when they were teenagers.

Under its modern format, the annual under-17 tournament sees 24 teams from the various provinces (landskap) around Sweden compete in four regional preliminary groups. The top regional round teams will then play in the nationally televised playoffs. For most players participating in the tournament, the event represents their first nationwide exposure. In recent years, only the semifinals and finals are televised. In the past, however, every game was broadcasted on Sveriges Television.

None of the young players are household names at the time they compete – even the best players. But half of the allure of the tournament comes from looking back years later at what became of the kids who played in it. The other half is getting caught up in the unbridled passion the teams bring to the competition. On a team level, the tournament outcome represents the first major victory or defeat the players have experienced. On an individual basis, many youngsters can't help but view their own play as a breakthrough or setback to their dreams of someday playing in the Swedish Elite League and, eventually, the NHL.

The tourney also marks the birth of friendly (and not-so-friendly) rivalries between players who are destined to spend many years playing with and against their fellow TV-Puck competitors. Tournament alumni playing in the NHL and Europe often keep an eye on the tourney, both to root on their home provinces and see how players coming up from their original junior teams are faring.

Compiling a list of TV-Puck alumni is tantamount to assembling a who's who of Swedish hockey players. Among prominent players of the past, the tourney marked the first opportunity fans in Sweden had to watch the likes of Börje Salming, Pelle Lindbergh, Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Thomas Gradin, Rolf Edberg, Håkan Loob, Stefan Persson, Tomas Jonsson, Thomas Steen, L-G Pettersson, Calle Johansson, Johan Garpenlöv or the recently retired Mikael Renberg perform on the national stage.

The same holds true for a slew of current NHL players and prospects. To name just a few TV-Puck alumni who've gone on to star in the NHL, the tourney marked the debuts of Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Lundqvist, Tomas Holmstrom, Mattias Ohlund and Nicklas Backstrom.  Likewise, recent high-end NHL Entry Draft selections such as Erik Karlsson, Anton Gustafsson, Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Markström and highly regarded 2009 draft prospects Victor Hedman, Magnus Svensson-Pääjärvi and Jacob Josefson all competed for their home provinces at TV-Puck.
Of course, stardom in the tournament does not guarantee subsequent success as a professional player. The players are even younger than those who play for the Swedish national team at the Under-18 and Under-20 World Championships. So despite the fact that the domestic regional setup of TV-Puck means there's a wide discrepancy of talent on display, a player's success in this tournament is not a reliable predictor of subsequent professional and international stardom.

For many players who star at TV-Puck, it proves to be their only claim to fame. A good example is Stockholm goaltender Axel Berglund, who captured Best Goaltender honors at the 1999 tournament by posting an eye-popping 0.43 goals-against average and .974 save percentage for his championship-winning TV-Puck team. But Berglund never advanced beyond the Djurgårdens IF junior ranks to play at the professional level.

Other standouts, such as 1997 tournament Best Defenseman selection Lars Jonsson (drafted seventh in the 2000 Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins), go on to be pros but struggle once they reach the top level.

Center Anton Gustafsson, the Washington Capitals' top pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, has competed in the TV-Puck tournament.
But the beauty of TV-Puck is that viewers never know if they're getting a sneak preview of a glorious career to come. Those who watched Thomas Gradin dominate the 1972 tourney for Ångermanland or watched Sundin lead the way for victorious Stockholm in 1986 win or witnessed Forsberg and linemate Naslund decimate the opposition in Ångermanland's 1988 tournament victory saw something truly special.

Under the current tourney setup, preliminary round group play will be held from Sept. 5-7. With some exceptions, the regional brackets are set up geographically.

The 2008 south regional will be held in the town of Åmåls and pit host province Bohuslän against Blekinge, Småland, Skåne, Västergötland and Östergötland. The north regional is in Boden with host province Norrbotten opposing Jämtland, Medelpad, Västerbotten and Ångermanland. The eastern regional (which includes two teams from western Sweden) will be played in Uppsala with the host Uppland team playing Gotland, Stockholm, Södermanland, Göteborg and Halland. Finally, the western/central regional is in the town of Sunne with host entry Värmland playing against Dalarna, Gästrikland, Hälsingland, Västmanland and the county of Örebro.

The tournament quarterfinals, semifinals, gold-medal and bronze-medal games will move to Stockholm and take place at the storied Hovet arena in the Johanneshov section of the nation's capital. The finals will be played Sept. 21 with the quarterfinals and semis taking place on the two preceding days.

Four-time winning district Småland is the defending TV-Puck champion. But the historical powerhouses of the tourney are 11-time champions Stockholm (which also has taken 10 runner-up finishes including 2007), seven-time titlists Värmland, six-time winners Dalarna and five-time titlists Ångermanland and Västerbotten.

At the conclusion of the tournament, there are also the aforementioned individual awards presented for the best goaltender, best forward and best defenseman. The latter award is called the Lill-Strimma's Stipend (Lill-Strimmas Stipendium) in memory of inaugural tournament star Lennart "Lill-Strimma" Svedberg, who starred in the 1960s for Timrå IF and Brynäs IF Gävle and the Swedish national team before passing away at age 28 from injuries suffered in a July 29, 1972 automobile accident.

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