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Instant Replay How could underdog Sweden win the Olympic title again? Let us count the ways

Feb. 09, 1998
Feb. 09, 1998

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Feb. 9, 1998

Nagano '98

Instant Replay How could underdog Sweden win the Olympic title again? Let us count the ways

There was a time when Sweden's hockey team was coached by Anders
Parmstrom, a droll, professorial-looking man who was nicknamed
the Duck, although back then a different fowl was more closely
associated with Swedish hockey: the chicken. Parmstrom knew his
team had a reputation for shying away from rough play, and he
understood how sensitive his players were to the barnyard
epithet. But as he watched his players' timid performance in the
1981 Canada Cup tournament, he came to an inescapable
conclusion: The problem with the Swedish team, he said, "is too
many Swedes."

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1998 issue Original Layout

In Nagano that will be a problem for the United States and
Canada, but certainly not for Sweden.

Now there are too many good Swedes, tough Swedes. There's center
Peter Forsberg, the best two-way player in the world. There's
Niklas Lidstrom, the best defenseman in the world. There's Mats
Sundin, the best forward in the 1996 World Cup. These aren't the
nifty-but-meek players who drove Parmstrom to distraction as
they were being driven into the boards, not the stereotypical
Swede who would rather play chess with the devil than fight the
traffic in the corner to retrieve a puck. The Swedish team has a
strong, mobile defense, quality role players and as much grit as
a sandstorm. "You used to be able to intimidate the Swedish
teams, but not anymore," says Theo Fleury, who will play for
Canada at the Games. "Forsberg's one of the toughest guys in the
NHL."

Still, in the first Olympic tournament to feature big names like
Gretzky and Roy instead of long names like those of obscure,
eight-voweled Finns, either the U.S., which has essentially kept
its victorious World Cup team intact, or Canada, which is
Canada, will be the favorite. "On paper Canada and the U.S. have
the strongest lineups with the most depth," says Forsberg. But
during Colorado Avalanche practices, when he slams into Adam
Deadmarsh, his good friend and a winger on the U.S. team,
Forsberg playfully growls, "We will rock you." Paper might not
cover rock in Nagano.

Five factors point to a Swedish upset.

1. The big sheet

The international rink used in the Olympics is 197 by 98 feet,
instead of the NHL's 200 by 85. The nearly 2,500 extra square
feet--some of it additional space behind the net--and the
positioning of the face-off circles closer to the boards change
the game's geometry. The skating prowess of the Americans and
the Canadians should make it easy for them to adjust, but the
Swedes grew up with these dimensions and remember each theorem.
"The big ice is huge," says Barry Smith, a Detroit Red Wings
assistant coach who's serving as a Team Sweden assistant. "In
the NHL a defenseman has to take two or three strides to cut off
a pass along the boards. Now he may have to take five more. You
try to take the passing lanes, but the ice is so big that's
almost impossible." International hockey revolves around puck
possession, and only the crafty Russians can play keepaway the
way the Swedes do.

The large surface should even cover up the underbelly of the
Swedish team, a soft one, no doubt, considering that New York
Islanders general manager Mike Milbury called goalie Tommy Salo
one of the poorest-conditioned athletes on his team during an
arbitration hearing last summer. Salo lacks the stature of
Canada's Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, the athleticism of the
U.S.'s Mike Richter and the creativity of the Czech Republic's
Dominik Hasek, but he will see fewer shots in Nagano than he
does in New York because the big ice seduces forwards to make an
extra pass, even from the top of the face-off circles.

2. There's no I in lag, the Swedish word for team

Whether it is because they can speak their own language for a
couple of weeks while playing or because they realize the
necessity of scrapping personal agendas, Swedish national teams
bond quickly. In a tournament that offers elite nations three
get-acquainted practices and three preliminary games before the
knockout round, you look for fast-drying glue.

"The Swedish team is going to get together quicker than the U.S.
and Canada," says Mats Naslund, the former Montreal Canadiens
star who played for Sweden in the 1980, '92 and '94 Olympics.
"They're used to playing on the national team, and they work
more for each other. Whether it's the social democratic
government, I don't know, but we're brought up more to take care
of each other. I even find a difference between the U.S. players
and Canadians. U.S. guys are more selfish."

3. Nagano has no Ritz-Carlton

Olympic accommodations recall the Greek roots of the
Games--spartan. That might be less of a problem for Sweden than
for some other countries. "The Europeans are used to a little
less luxury," Smith says. "It's not just the Village. It's
things like not having extra ice time. You practice 45 minutes
on a certain day, from this time to that time, that's it. It's
run like clockwork. You have to be ready for a lot of extra
things. We can make those adjustments."

4. Barry Smith

On a team that features Forsberg and the veteran leadership of
defenseman Calle Johansson, the most critical voice in the
locker room might be speaking Swenglish. The hot-wired Smith,
who will run the Swedish forwards, is an American who spent four
years coaching in Sweden. He's a technical wizard--he imported
the left-wing lock from Sweden that the Stanley Cup-champion Red
Wings used so effectively--and a master at breaking down
videotape and, occasionally, language barriers. "He mixes the
two languages [Swedish and English] pretty good," says Sundin,
who worked with Smith at the World Cup. "Also, he knows how to
get a lot out of guys by the way he coaches, which is to keep
using guys who are hot that night."

Not only does Smith know NHL players better than Swedish head
coach Kent Forsberg does, but he also knows NHL referees working
the Games know Smith. "Barry will get a little more respect from
those referees than I will," says Forsberg.

5. The trap is set

Neither Team Canada nor Team USA is used to executing the
neutral-zone trap, but the Swedes will be in their familiar
1-2-2 forechecking scheme, clogging passing lanes, forcing plays
to the boards and counterattacking. On the big ice, where one
pass can beat two players, where a rock-and-roll forecheck is
sure to invite a three-on-two rush, some judiciousness is
admirable. The NHL is heralding its breakthrough participation
in the Olympics, but Sweden's trap could make it the yawn of a
new era. "When you look at how Sweden plays and how some other
teams might be forced to play," says Team Japan general manager
Dave King, "this tournament might be more interesting than
exciting."

Nearly 20 years ago the Swedes went for style points and had
nothing to show for it. Now consider Swedish accomplishments in
the 1990s: Olympic gold, two world championships, NHL rookie of
the year awards to Peter Forsberg and the Ottawa Senators'
Daniel Alfredsson, and NHL team captaincies to the Toronto Maple
Leafs' Sundin and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Mikael Renberg.

"The 1994 gold medal was great, but this time it's different,"
says Peter Forsberg. "All the countries have the best teams they
can possibly have. You'd like to look back at the first time
professionals went to the Olympics and say we won it."

Look out, U.S. Beware, Canada. The Swedes are coming. As they
say, duck.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER GOLD GOAL Forsberg, here beating Corey Hirsch of Canada to win the 1994 Games final, feels Sweden still has something to prove. [Peter Forsberg scoring goal on Corey Hirsch]COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT TAKE THAT Sweden's top players, including Niklas Sundstrom, here checking Mark Messier, are no longer Messrs. Nice Guys.
Swedes are "brought up to take care of each other," Mats Naslund
says, adding, "U.S. guys are more selfish."