When the Columbus Blue Jackets face off against the San Jose Sharks on Friday night for the first of a two game series, it will mark the third year in a row that teams from North America’s NHL have opened regular season play in the Swedish capital.
The choice of Stockholm as one of the first sites selected by the NHL to showcase the league’s hard-hitting and high-tempo brand of hockey to European-based fans is hardly surprising.
Through 2009, only one other European country had produced more NHL players than Sweden – the Czech Republic. And the Swedish men’s national ice hockey team, affectionately known as Tre Kronor, has amassed an impressive merit list, taking home eight World Championship titles and eight Olympic medals, including two golds.
“It means a lot for Swedish hockey to have the NHL come to Stockholm. People are proud to see the Swedes that play in the NHL,” says Catarina Oscarsson, a spokesperson for event arrangers Live Nation.
Tommy Boustedt, who heads up national team talent development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation (Svenska Ishockeyförbundet), agrees.
“It’s extremely important for the NHL to come to Sweden and put on a show,” he says.
He explains that there are so many sports and so many professional leagues vying for the public’s attention that it can be a challenge to maintain interest in the sport.
“The goal of every youth player is to become an NHL star, so coming here allows the kids the chance to see it live and helps generate more excitement about the sport.”
Despite Boustedt’s concerns, Hockey Federation figures indicate that Swedes’ interest in hockey is in no danger of fading away. The country of about nine million boasts 598 ice hockey clubs and 2,406 teams. If the Federation’s statistics are to be believed, nearly one out of every 100 Swedes owns a pair of hockey skates.
Given ice hockey’s popularity, both for Swedes cheering in the bleachers and taking the ice themselves, it’s easy to conclude that the sport is deeply rooted in Swedish culture, having spread organically from the country’s thousands of frozen lakes and ponds and culminating in packed stadiums and lucrative television contracts.
But a recently completed doctoral dissertation tells a more complicated story marked by nationalism, social welfare, and realpolitik.
Entitled “The People’s Home On Ice: Ice Hockey, Modernization and National Identity in Sweden 1920–1972” and authored by Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University in Växjö, the thesis explores how hockey was “transformed from a rather insignificant North American cultural import to one of Sweden’s most treasured pursuits”.
He points out that, from the mid-1800s through the early-1900s, the winter sport of choice among Swedes was bandy, a sport also featuring skates and sticks, but played on a much larger ice surface and requiring teams to have 11 players on the ice at a time, as opposed to hockey’s six.
Oddly enough, Sweden’s path to becoming a hockey hotbed actually began with an American filmmaker and businessman named Raoul Le Mat who thought Sweden should field an ice hockey team to compete in an exhibition of the sport as part of the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.
To assist in the endeavor, Le Mat recruited a Swedish-American friend named Ernest Viberg, as well as American Thomas Cahill, who is considered the founding father of soccer in the United States.
Together, the three managed to convince Sweden’s top sporting officials that an Olympic ice hockey bid was worth pursuing, even though none of the squad’s players had ever played the sport before.
Bandy players were recruited and trained to play ice hockey in the hope that Sweden would be able to show it was a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.
According to Stark, Swedish athletics were influenced by nationalist currents sweeping across the country early in the 20th century. Sweden's union with Norway had been scrapped, and symbols of the Swedish nation began to take on greater importance.
"There were strong nationalist feelings in the country and developing a strong sports programme was part of that," says Stark.
With Le Mat as coach, Sweden played its first international ice hockey match on April 23rd, 1920, defeating Belgium 8-0. The ragtag squad managed to eke out a fourth place finish in the tournament, earning the honour of hosting what was to become the first European Ice Hockey Championship the following year.
As it turned out, however, the 1921 European Championship tournament only attracted two teams: Sweden and Czechoslovakia. But the Swedes scored a 7-4 victory, allowing them to claim the title of European ice hockey champions within one year of coming it into existence.
The Swedish Ice Hockey Federation was formed in 1922, providing more organizational muscle to efforts to convert bandy players into hockey players. The sales pitch to sporting clubs around the country emphasized hockey’s smaller ice surface and the smaller number of players needed to field a team.
The Federation even donated hockey sticks and electric lighting to a number of sports clubs to make it easier for them to start up hockey programmes.
Le Mat further cemented his place in Swedish hockey history by establishing, with financing from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company, the Le Mat trophy. Since 1926, the Le Mat was been awarded to the Swedish ice hockey champions. Today the trophy goes to the winner of Sweden’s top hockey league, the Eliteserien.
Throughout the interwar period, hockey was portrayed as a “modern temptation which pointed toward the future”, according to Stark. By 1938, the Swedish national ice hockey team received its current ‘Tre Kronor’ moniker, thus ensuring an association for both the team and the sport with the country’s national heraldic emblem, one of Sweden’s most important national symbols dating back to the 1300s.
The sport’s popularity exploded after World War II, by which time more than 200 hockey teams had been established across the country. Sweden hosted the World Championship in 1949, coming in a respectable fourth place.
And when the Soviet Union entered and won the World Championships for the first time in 1954, suddenly Tre Kronor’s performance on the ice become a proxy for how much Sweden felt it could flex its muscles internationally during the Cold War.
“Despite being such a small country, Sweden was able to compete with the major powers on the ice,” Boustedt says.
“Seeing Sweden compete in the big international tournaments generated more interest and mystique around hockey.”
Sweden’s love affair with Tre Kronor reached new heights in 1970, when more than 5 million people – an estimated 82 percent of the adult population – tuned in to watch Sweden battle the Soviet Union in the World Championship finals.
Even though Sweden lost the game 3-1, Tre Kronor had established itself by that time as “Sweden’s most beloved national team”, providing inspiration for young athletes in Sweden who would later go on to compete for their country and, in many cases, make their way to the NHL as well.
An explosion in the building of publicly-financed indoor ice hockey rinks also helped ensure the sports continued expansion. In many communities, the ice hockey rink served as a community gathering place, another expression of the symbiosis between state and society characterized by Sweden’ social democratic folkhemmet .
“Society and sport are very intertwined in Sweden. It’s like you can’t have one without the other,” explains Boustedt.
So while the efforts of Le Mat and those who came after him ensure that there is no shortage of good ice hockey to watch and in Sweden, the arrival of teams from the world’s top professional league – each of which include Swedes on their rosters – ratchets up enthusiasm among Swedish hockey fans to another level.
Of course, it will be hard to match the fever pitch that filled the Ericsson Globe Arena for last year’s games, which featured a Detroit Red Wings team that had finished the previous two seasons as NHL league champions and runners-up and featured eight Swedes in the line-up.
And while ticket sales for the NHL matches in Stockholm are down somewhat from last year, it may actually be an overabundance of other top-level hockey in Sweden which is to blame, explains Oscarsson.
“There is a lot of interest in ice hockey in Sweden right now and matches in the Eliteserien are quite popular,” she says.
“It may simply be that, with so many choices, people have elected to see other matches instead of paying the somewhat higher price to attend an NHL match.”
Swedes suiting up this year include the bruising San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray and teammate Niclas Wallin, who was traded to the club in February after nearly a decade with the Carolina Hurricanes.
But the happy homecoming expected by Swede Andreas Lilja, a member of the Red Wings team which won the Stanley Cup in 2008, didn't turn out as planned. While flying with the team to Stockholm, Lilja learned he had been cut by San Jose, prompting him to lament to the Aftonbladet newspaper, "You’d think they could have known this before we flew over from the United States."
Among those lining up across the ice for Columbus are Swedish defenseman Anton Strålman, centre Samuel Påhlsson, and left winger Kristian Huselius.
Fans at the Globe on Friday will also be treated to a ceremonial puck dropping by Swedish hockey great Markus Näslund, a five-time NHL All-Star during his more than ten years with the Vancouver Canucks.
And as Swedish hockey fans cheer their countrymen and the NHL teams they represent this weekend, it may perhaps dawn on them that it was a different, smaller band of North Americans, who, nearly a century ago, helped establish the sport in Sweden to begin with.
“Hockey is unique in the way it started out in Sweden - what you had were a couple of entrepreneurs who were looking for a way to promote themselves and maybe make some money,” Stark explains.
“Rather than a national movement evolving out of something at the grassroots level, instead you had the opposite: an effort at the national level which eventually spread to local neighbourhoods and towns. Ice hockey didn’t start off with a strong base among the population. Most people didn’t even know what ice hockey was.”
And for anyone who still wonders whether ice hockey now has firmly established itself in the hearts and minds of the Swedish public, a visit to the Ericsson Globe Arena this weekend should put any lingering doubts to rest.