A Breath of Fresh Air

The Swedes have a chance to beat the mighty Soviets, thanks to a brainy, creative style of play
January 27, 1988

Ten thousand Swedes Ran through the weeds Chased by one Norwegian
—ANONYMOUS

The funny thing—and here funny means strange or demented, as in "Bucko, you've got some funny ideas about sportsmanship"—was that even as the Swedes were clinching their first world hockey championship in 25 years last April, in Vienna, even as they were dazzling their fans and frustrating their Canadian opponents with an exhibition of passing, skating and shooting that turned this medal-round game into a 9-0 rout, some of the Canadian players were calling them "Chicken Swedes."

In the corners, before face-offs, along the boards, a number of players on the Canadian team—ignoring the scoreboard—hissed idiotically: "Chicken Swede, Chicken Swede." The inapt use of that familiar North American hockey refrain was more a testament to the mentality that permeates the sport on this side of the Atlantic than to any flaw in the Swedish character. The Swedes answered the Canadians with picturesque goals. This was their long-overdue day in the sun, a championship that, by most accounts, marked the biggest triumph in Swedish hockey history. (Sweden had won the world title on three previous occasions, but in 1962. the last time it had done so, neither the Soviets nor the Czechoslovakians had competed in the championships. In '53 and '57, neither the U.S. nor Canada participated. All those teams were present in Vienna.) They weren't going to let a few Canadian numbskulls ruin it. Besides, it was nothing they hadn't heard before. Over and over again.

"It's a myth," says Sweden's national team coach, Tommy Sandlin. "But every time we play against the U.S. or Canada, it's 'Chicken Swede.' Every time." He pauses and smiles tolerantly. "And our jerseys are yellow, too."

Someday, those of us who live in the New World may get over the fact that Swedish hockey players are not tough in the conventional and, may we suggest, superficial sense of that word. They almost never fight. They usually will not even fight back when they are mugged within the tight confines of an NHL rink, where the ice is 15 feet narrower than it is on the 100-foot-wide international rinks such as the one on which hockey will be played at the Calgary Olympics. Nor do the Swedes put much stock in "winning the little battles along the boards," which North American coaches hold so dear. Their bodychecking is too infrequent to be called pathetic; they hardly know the meaning of aggressive forechecking, to say nothing of dumping the puck in and digging it out of the corners; and that dearest of American beliefs—that winning is "the only thing"—is anathema at all levels of Swedish hockey, where sportsmanship is actually revered.

Like we said, Chicken Swedes.

How, then, can this country, with a population of only eight million, compete on a more or less equal basis with those far more populous—not to mention macho—hockey powers, the Soviet Union, Canada, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.? How is it that these Scandinavian pussycats are viewed as the best bet to knock off the favored and purportedly prepotent Soviets for the gold? "We are a small country and have not so many good players," says Sandlin, overstating his case just a little. "We can never be as well prepared and conditioned as the Russians, or as tough as the North Americans. So we must pick a team that will be the most clever. That is the Swedish style." There's an expression for that on this side of the Atlantic, although we haven't heard it used much in a hockey context: brains over brawn.

To make one thing perfectly clear: The Swedes play wonderful hockey. It's not just the way they skate, as if gliding on air; it's more than their magical passing and unselfish teamwork. Their whole approach to the game is a marvel, and it is summed up by Sandlin in a single phrase: "The players are more important than what they do."

Swedish training techniques are enlightened, particularly in the way coaches teach young players. And while the Swedes stress excellence, their attitude toward winning and losing is a model of perspective. For weekly examples of this, tune into the pro tennis circuit sometime and compare, say, Stefan Edberg's manner in defeat to that of America's own Johnny Mac, who, not incidentally, is a New York Rangers fan. In Sweden they haven't lost sight of one simple fact: Sports are games, and games—yes, even hockey—are for play.

"The attitude is different here," says Thomas Gradin, who played nine seasons in the NHL, scoring more than 200 goals for Vancouver and Boston, before returning to Stockholm this season to rejoin the AIK club. "Hockey isn't life. In Canada, it's life. Players quit school to play hockey. They're traded from one city to another. And when they stop playing, a lot of them don't know what they want to do. They've been so long in hockey, they've been away from life."

Hockey players in Sweden, even the best ones, are never "away from life" for long, because they either hold jobs or go to school. Real jobs, not as in the Soviet Union, where the hockey players are given army rank so that they can pretend they're amateurs. (Major Tretiak, indeed!) Humdrum everyday jobs. Gradin is an administrator in the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation, but most of the players work outside hockey. Gradin's brother, Peter, an AIK teammate, is a policeman. Others have jobs in banking and retailing. Some go to universities. "Sports in Sweden is very popular," says Hakan Södergren, one of the top players on the national team and an insurance agent. "But as far as the people are concerned, it isn't work. It shouldn't be the way you support your family. There's a lot of jealousy here. In Canada, they say, 'Gretzky makes all this money, isn't he great.' In Sweden, they say, 'Södergren makes how much? Is he worth it?' "

S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádergren made the equivalent of about $50,000 playing hockey for Djurgardens and for the national team last year, which was one of the highest hockey incomes in Sweden. But even that was less than it seemed, for most of it went straight to the socialist government, which taxes incomes of more than $31,000 at a rate as high as 75%. Salaries for players in the Elite league average the equivalent of $16,000 a year—the price of a bottom-of-the-line Volvo—and rookie wages start as low as $500 a month. The players enjoy a few perks, of course. For one, clubs help players get apartments in Stockholm, where finding housing can be very tough. And the clubs use their influence to get jobs with a future for their young signees.

Once hired, though, the players are treated, and paid, the same as any other employee. Södergren, for instance, takes time off on game days and for practice. Consequently, he's paid less than his fellow insurance agents.

And since all the players have regular jobs, there are no in-season player trades among teams. No midseason transfers from Stockholm to Skelleftea. Each club in the 12-team Elitserien is pretty much set from the beginning of the season to the end. Changes are made only during the summer. One benefit of this approach is that the relationship between the coach and his players is more that of mentor, not dictator, to his students. Indeed, Sandlin is nicknamed the Professor. One of the toughest adjustments Swedish players have to make when they come into the NHL is to the coaches, who sometimes assume an adversarial role and attempt to motivate players by yelling and screaming and threatening to send them to the minors. "You are thinking, 'What's going on here?' " recalls Stefan Persson, a veteran of four Stanley Cup championship seasons with the New York Islanders and now a sportswear distributor in Sweden. "Before I came to the Islanders, I'd never heard a coach raise his voice."

As far as players supplementing their incomes with big-money endorsements, forget it. What little ancillary income there is goes not to the player but to the sports club to which he's under contract. (There are no player agents in Sweden, or this surely would be changed faster than you can say h‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ág klubba—high-sticking.) Mikael Andersson is a case in point. One of the national team's leading scorers, Andersson made a magazine and newspaper advertisement for McDonald's last summer. His club, Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árkl‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áven, got a donation of some $8,000 out of the deal. Andersson's cut? A VIP card that entitles him to one free Big Mac a day. There's a man who deserves a break today.

Small wonder, then, that it's the dream of every young Swedish player to go to the NHL to play with—and against—the professionals. It's his only chance at big money. So he yearns to tread in the footsteps of Thommie Bergman, the first Swede to play in the NHL, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings in 1972. To follow the lead of Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom, both of whom joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in '73. It was Hammarstrom, or, more correctly, Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard, who helped spread this "Chicken Swede" business when Ballard remarked demeaningly, "Hammarstrom could go into the corner with six eggs in his pockets and not break one of them."

Hammarstrom probably could have. He was a stylish skater. More to the point was whether any Swede could have skated into the corner without having his skull cracked open. The first time Salming faced the Philadelphia Flyers, in his second NHL game, he was cross-checked and beat upon by Dave Schultz, who was in his nose-crunching heyday, then speared by Ed Van Impe. It was a strategy that, to some extent, goes on to this day. Intimidate the Chicken Swede. See what he's made of.

Sometimes it worked. "Since intimidation is nonexistent in Sweden, the type of player who can be intimidated is not weeded out by the selection process," says Anders Hedberg, who joined the Winnipeg Jets in 1974 and once had a 70-goal season in the World Hockey Association. "In North America, he will fall by the wayside very early."

Thus, every Swede who turned pro was tested. Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Willy Lindstrom and the late Lars-Erik Sjoberg were highly skilled players who were subjected to such thuggery night after night that their Jets teammate, the great Bobby Hull, once sat out a game in protest. "None of the new players from Sweden gets tested the way we were 10 years ago." recalls Hedberg, who's now back in Stockholm working for Manufacturers Hanover Bank and serving as chief of scouting for the AIK club. "You had to be pretty determined to stay."

But they did stay. And one after another, other top Swedish players followed—Kent Nilsson, Persson, Tomas Jonsson, Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Pelle Lindbergh, Mats Naslund, Gradin—and they were better prepared, mentally, for the base realities of life in the NHL. There are 24 Swedes in the league this year. They elevate the NHL by their presence, but the truth is it is not a forum in which the Swedes can showcase their skills. The rinks are too small and the selfless teamwork that they're accustomed to is missing. Swedish players are not individualists. "There is so much team play when our players are young that we do not have superstars," says Sandlin. "Other countries are faster and stronger and tougher. But to coordinate, to act as a team, I think the Swedes are best in the world."

And now there is evidence that a new breed of player is coming to the NHL from Sweden—a bigger, tougher, meaner cat who can give as well as he gets. Tomas Sandstrom of the Rangers. Ulf Samuelsson of the Hartford Whalers. In time they may bury the Chicken Swede image the good ol' American way—with violence. Then, after their NHL careers are over, they will return to their homeland with a sizable nest egg. "Sweden is a nice place to grow up and to grow old," says S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádergren. "But when you're in your prime and are one of the elite in your field—not just athletes, but artists and businessmen—it's best to move away."

One of the first places to be left behind is Kiruna. Surrounded by black, thousand-foot-high slag heaps—the residue of its iron mines—Kiruna is the place to grow up in Sweden if you want to be a hockey player. "It's the cradle of ice hockey here, like Montreal in Canada," says Andersson, one of three members of the Swedish Olympic Team who was raised in this town of 24,000. But when they were old enough and good enough, they left.

In winter, the sun never gets above the horizon in Kiruna, which is almost 2° above the Arctic Circle. It's the northernmost town in Sweden to have commercial air service, and between November and February four to five hours of dusk is what passes for daylight. Snow is on the ground from October until April, and it's May before the ice has thawed from the lakes. But the kids don't skate on the lakes anymore. Not much, anyway. They play hockey in the new indoor arena. And if the ice there is unavailable, they can skate at the Matojarvi Rink, one of the oldest indoor ice facilities in Sweden.

Built in 1962, Matojarvi isn't very old by North American standards, but then the sport of hockey didn't come to Sweden until 1920. That was the first year ice hockey was played in the Olympics, in Antwerp, Belgium, and the Swedish Bandy Association (bandy is a hockeylike game, and perhaps its progenitor), anxious to participate, fielded a makeshift team that finished fourth. At that time, North America was far ahead of the rest of the world in hockey. In the '24 Olympics, for example, Sweden again finished fourth and lost to the U.S. and Canada by scores of 20-0 and 22-0, respectively. (Sweden won the silver medal in the '28 Games, when the U.S. was absent, the highest it has ever finished in Olympic hockey.) It was a gulf that would not be bridged until the '50s.

The Swedish game was played outdoors back then, on community rinks, on lakes, in open-air stadiums. Spectators would fuel themselves against the cold by taking hits from bottles of vodka or aquavit hidden in their briefcases. That practice didn't end when the Matojarvi Rink was built. "This rink is like a deep freeze," says Mikael Lundström, the coach of the local sports club, Kiruna AIF. "The last time that Kiruna had a team in the Elite league, in 1973, it was so cold in here for the playoffs that the keys on the organ froze. When the organist tried to play, the sounds it made were very strange, not at all musical. Everyone felt very badly, since the organ had been borrowed from the church."

Salming came from Kiruna. He lived across the street from the Matojarvi Rink, learned the game there and is still the local hockey legend—although Peter Lindmark, the goalie on the national and Olympic teams, runs a close second. Now that a new arena has been built (today there are 200 indoor rinks in Sweden, 50 more than there were five years ago), Matojarvi is outdated. The pipes that used to make artificial ice have been ripped out, and the curved wooden roof covers nothing but a naked cement floor. But in winter, in Kiruna, who needs artificial ice? It is cold enough by the end of October that the cement floor can be flooded and the ice frozen naturally, giving the kids a second covered surface on which to play and practice. Winters are long and the youngsters take advantage of it. "The skating ability of the young players is better up here," says Lundstr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ám. "They play a fresher way of hockey than they do in Stockholm, a more honest way, with more skating and passing and shooting and not so much cleverness. But it's very difficult to get the younger players to stay."

There's no draft of 18-year-old hockey players in Sweden. They're free to play for whoever is interested in them. When you are from Kiruna—whose closest rival is 320 kilometers away and whose longest road trip is 900 kilometers by train—well, Stockholm (or Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árkl‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áven or Lulea) looks pretty good. So, as soon as they are good enough to play senior-level hockey, the best Kirunans leave. And those long dark hours of winter become a fond but distant memory of youth.

There are only 60,000 kids between seven and 15 years old playing hockey in Sweden. (The U.S. has 160,000 players in that age group.) Yet from this base a disproportionate number of the world's best hockey players are developed. It's a testament to Swedish coaching. "The only way we can keep our position in the hockey community is to take care of every player and educate him technically," says Claes-Goran Wallin, an official of the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation. "The ordinary players have to make good. In your country there are so many talented players you can afford to lose the ordinary ones."

That's doubtful. But the Swedes, clearly, have been able to overcome the handicap of a smaller talent pool. They play fewer games than their North American counterparts, practicing, instead, fundamental skills. At a recent clinic for eight-year-olds in a suburban Stockholm rink, for instance, 43 kids were using the ice at once. The coaches had set up portable boards along the blue lines to divide the 200-by-100-foot surface into three separate rinks of 100 by 67 feet. There were six different goals to shoot at, two of them only 2 feet by 18 inches (a regulation goal is 4 by 6 feet). In one section the kids were passing back and forth over sticks that had been randomly strewn on the ice; in another they were skating backward around cones; in the third they were just playing shinny. "You don't have to win games when you're seven, eight or nine," says Wallin. "What's important is that coaches look ahead to the long plan so that their players are winning games when they're 27, 28 or 29."

The long plan includes teaching young players the Swedish style of skating, which is different—faster and smoother—from that favored by North Americans. Americans skate, for the most part, with a wide base. They push off with their inside edges at about a 45-degree angle; the result is short, powerful strides—chop, chop, chop—that are generated by the groin and the inner thigh muscles. In Sweden the feet start closer together. As the skaters stride, they turn their ankles and push straight back, a thrust that depends, not on the groin muscles but on the more powerful quadriceps and buttock muscles. The weight is then shifted to the outside edge of the front skate during the glide; back to the inside edge during the thrust.

"This technique we learned from the Czechoslovakians," says Arne Stromberg. who has been called "the father of Swedish hockey" and coached the national team from 1960 through '71. "We are now teaching our players to skate only on the inside edges when they are in tight to the goal, as the North Americans do. It gives them greater stability when they are checked."

This sort of technical training is virtually ignored at all but the highest levels of hockey in North America. In Sweden, where 4,000 coaches voluntarily attended clinics this year, it's fundamental for players of all ages. When youngsters reach 13 or so, they begin to practice teamwork. Until that time they have worked primarily on individual skills like skating, stick-handling and passing. They are put into five-man units—one line, one set of defensemen—and each unit plays together all the time. In such a system it's not so important who scores a goal, as long as someone on the unit gets one. "Deep down, it's the Swedish mentality," says S‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádergren. "Everything equal. The passing means as much as the scoring."

"We are a socialist country," says Sandlin, "and players and people want to be equal to each other. It's very, very important to understand we're different people from Americans."

There are problems with such selflessness. "I grew up being taught that when you practiced a two-on-none against the goalie, you have to pass all the way," says Gradin. "If you shot, the coach would say, 'Here, you have a friend, too. Pass to him.' The killer instinct to drive for the net and do it yourself isn't there."

Most Swedes freely admit they don't shoot enough. They do so in the manner one might admit to, say, a weakness for chocolate. They like to pass. They see nothing particularly harmful in overpassing. It probably has something to do with their soccer training as well. To shoot the ball—or puck—is to give it away. "I remember Canadian coaches coming over in 1957 and saying, you pass too much when you're in the shooting area," recalls Str‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ámberg. "This has been a sickness for a very long time."

Still, it's a sickness that blends very well with the Swedish hockey philosophy. "The Swedish style is being patient, thinking defensively, keeping the puck on your own team and waiting for a mistake," says Södergren. "When you see your chance, you counterattack. We won a world championship that way."

The Swedish style wasn't always so conservative. But a 10-year period, stretching from 1977 to '86, in which the Swedes played the Soviets 56 times without a win, losing 54 games and tying two, convinced Sandlin, who was coach of the national team in 1978-80 and took the job again in 1985, that a tactical change was in order. "You must first ask yourself, Ts it worth it to beat them?' " says Sandlin. "I don't want to beat the Russians if I have to be like them to beat them. Your Vince Lombardi said to win is everything, but this is not at all the way we think. I don't want my players to eat anabolic steroids like the Russians and Czechs. I don't want them to practice 1,500 hours a year like the Russians, or 1.300 hours a year like the Czechs. You must have other interests. I want 600 to 700 hours of practice, and we will try to win with that. The quality of life must be better than the quality of sport."

So Sandlin started with a given: The Soviets would be stronger, better conditioned and faster. To compete, he decided, the Swedes had to slow the tempo down. "Delayed offense, reinforced defense" is what he calls the concept.

It works like this: Unless the Swedes have a clear breakaway, they bring the puck up ice deliberately. When they lose control of the puck, they don't forecheck to get it back. Rather, they retreat to the neutral zone, all three forwards clogging the middle of the ice by skating intricate weaving patterns, forcing the Soviets to advance, more or less unhindered, along the boards. "We'll let the other team have certain areas of the ice we don't consider dangerous, and we'll outman them in the critical areas," says Sandlin. "It's very frustrating to the Russians, whose offense is based on setting up two-on-ones and three-on-two situations."

The more frustrated a team is, the more likely it will be to lose patience and make an ill-advised pass or gamble. When that happens, the Swedes want to be in position to pounce on the opening and create a scoring chance. It's a strategy that is strikingly similar to the way Sweden's top men play tennis—Mats Wilander, Kent Carlsson, Anders Jarryd. Counterpunch—some say bore—you into submission.

Since this waiting game was implemented by Sandlin, the Swedes have played the Soviets six times and have two wins, two losses and two ties. "We know now we can beat them," says Södergren. 'The mental thing is behind us. We've lost our fear for the big teams."

It is Sunday night in Stockholm. Hockey night at Johanneshov Isstadion, the 10,266-seat arena in which AIK and Djurgardens play their home games. For now, anyway. Next year those teams will move next door to the huge domed stadium that's under construction; it will be the site of the 1989 world championships.

Because tonight's game features the two Stockholm-based teams, AIK and Djurgardens, it's a near sellout. This isn't typical of Swedish hockey. Many Elite games attract only a few thousand spectators, lending credence to the NHL theory that it's violence that sells the seats. It is also true, however, that the best Swedish players are in North America, and the Swedish fans, who follow the NHL closely, know it.

But tonight is a big game for so early in the season, and the usual Scandinavian reserve is absent. Mayhem is in the air. At one end of the arena a special section is cordoned off for the most rabid AIK fans, who are called the Black Army. The section where they sit is known as Ape Mountain. The Black Army has been known to break windows and start fights after games. At the other end of the arena another section is reserved for the Djurgardens fans, a less ornery bunch, who have nicknamed themselves the Blue Saints.

These two sections are on their feet the whole game, trading insults. They are very much part of the show. When a Djurgardens player is penalized for charging—a rarely seen foul in Swedish hockey—Ape Mountain erupts: "That's the place you belong, you little pissant!"

After Djurgardens scores the first goal, the Black Army vengefully chants: "Now you're going to die! Now you're going to die!" Later the Army adds: "Djurgardens is the ugliest thing in the whole city. You look like apes in a box."

But when AIK fails to score, the Black Army quiets down. Now it is the Blue Saints' turn: "You're only singing when you're ahead. What's wrong? Why don't you sing?"

To which Ape Mountain responds: "You're only running after the game. What's wrong? Why don't you show up?" (This is an invitation to rumble, which explains why, at the conclusion of the game, the Djurgardens fans are asked to use one subway station and the AIK fans to use another.)

So even the Swedes call each other Chicken Swedes. More unseemliness develops during the game when the captain of the AIK team calls time, skates across the ice to the public address system and grabs the microphone. "We found a stone on the ice," he says, holding up the offending object. "Don't ever throw that kind of crap out here."

Unchastened, the Black Army points across the area to the Blue Saints: "You did it, you did it."

It's the opposite of an NHL game. The violence is all in the stands. On the ice, the game is very Swedish. The two teams play a similar style—cautious, defensive. They're a pair of counterpunchers waiting for an opening. There are few scoring chances, but when one does occur, it is a good one. Djurgardens wins, the players shake hands, and Ape Mountain disperses, grumbling.

As of today we have very lively discussions about what should be the Swedish style. How can we make it better?" Gradin says after the game. "Sandlin tells the coaches, "We have to be more aggressive.' But they raise their hands when he says this and remind him, 'Yes, but you didn't play this way in the world championship. You didn't play this way in the Canada Cup.' He tells them, 'Do as I say, and not as I do.' "

Swedish hockey is an open forum, a little of this, a little of that, ever-changing and debated. The Swedes have borrowed from the Czechs, Soviets and Canadians; they have borrowed from soccer and bandy. Perhaps even from tennis. Swedish hockey is the thinking man's approach to quite a fun game. Come to think of it, it may be time we learned to borrow from them.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAKIDS IN KIRUNA, A CRADLE OF SWEDISH HOCKEY, RETURN HOME FROM PRACTICE TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRATHEY START YOUNG IN SWEDEN AND GET TOP TRAINING FROM PROS LIKE HEDBERG PHOTORONALD C. MODRAPEEWEE TEAMS FACE-OFF ON A RINK NEAR STOCKHOLM PHOTORONALD C. MODRAEVEN IN AN OUTPOST LIKE LITTLE KIRUNA, SOMEBODY HAS TO BE NO. 1 PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIN SUMMER OR FALL YOU CAN STILL PLAY ON THE COBBLESTONES OF STOCKHOLM PHOTORONALD C. MODRATHE BEST YOUNG PLAYERS CAN LOOK FORWARD TO NHL CAREERS PHOTORONALD C. MODRAFOR A McDONALD'S AD, ANDERSSON EARNED ONE BIG MAC A DAY PHOTORONALD C. MODRATHE BLUE SAINTS AREN'T AS ROWDY AS THE BLACK ARMY, THOUGH THEY TRY PHOTORONALD C. MODRASANDLIN SHOWS OFF THE GOLD THE SWEDES WON AT THE '87 WORLDS PHOTORONALD C. MODRAELITE LEAGUE PLAYERS ALSO HOLD DOWN FULLTIME JOBS PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWINTER DAYS END EARLY IN KIRUNA, BUT HOCKEY GOES ON SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)