Thoughts on Swedish Youth Hockey

By pbadmin

In the 6th round of this year’s entry draft, the AIK defender Jan Sandström was picked by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. If 21-year-old Sandström makes it to the NHL, he will also be the 6th player from a small town in northern Sweden called Piteå to join the league.

Piteå is a small town located in northern Sweden. The city with it’s suburbs has about 25 000 inhabitants and the whole county about 40 000. There is no logical explanation to why this particular town should be such a good place for hockey players to develop, but apparently, it is. The city only has two indoor rinks. Pitea’s arena only has room for 1920 spectators and is ready to be torn down. Piteå Hockey has also suffered a lot because of their economy in the past years, but despite of all this, the town seems to develop talented hockey players in a very rare and interesting way.

The first Piteå player to play in the NHL was the Islander defenseman Stefan Persson. During his NHL career (1977-86), he was fortunate to win three Stanley Cups with the Islanders. Persson played 622 NHL regular season games, and scored 369 points and 574 PIM. In a recent voting among journalists he was nominated to be the 6th best Swedish defenseman ever to play the game of hockey.

The second NHLer from Pitea was another defenseman – Lars Lindgren. Playing in the Vancouver Canucks 1978-83 and with the Minnesota North Stars 1983-84, Lindgren scored 139 points and attended the penalty box for 325 minutes during his 394 regular season games. After his career he began coaching and today he is the head coach of Piteå Hockey’s senior team in Allsvenskan North (Swe 1st division). Last season, he was successful enough to coach Piteå to win the 1st Division North with a team containing 21 players from the Piteå area, which is indeed a pretty impressive number of Pitea-developed players in the line-up at such a high level.

The following Piteå NHLers are players of today and need no introduction – names like Mikael Renberg, Tomas Holmström and Mattias Öhlund speak for themselves.

To the Swedish reader, names like Leif R Carlsson, Jan Asplund, Lars Hurtig, Robert Skoog, Tomas Berglund, and Lars Edström might ring a bell. These are all players who have two things in common; they are all respected hockey players or former players in the Swedish Elite League (most of them also in the Swedish national team), and they all started their careers in Piteå.

It has become quite a tradition for Piteå players to move to Luleå if they get the chance to play in the Elite League. A more or less informal farm team contract existed. Renberg, Holmström and Öhlund all went from Piteå via Luleå to the NHL. A few years ago the relation between Piteå and Luleå got quite bad, since Piteå weren’t really happy about what they got in return for the players they delivered to Luleå. The co-operation between the clubs seemed to be very one-sided. This was noticed by another Elite League club, AIK Solna. The former AIK coach Timo Lahtinen was very interested in a particular Piteå defenseman and as a result, AIK and Piteå signed a five year farm contract.

Jan is a good skater and a very good positional player all over the ice and it’s very rare to see him make mistakes because of bad positioning. Thanks to his good skills and responsible play in the defensive zone, he has gotten a lot of playing time on the penalty kill, both 3-5 and 4-5. With his 192 lbs and a height of 6’2″, size won’t be his biggest problem if he gets a chance to play in the NHL. I see no reason why he wouldn’t make it to Anaheim in a few more years, but like for all late round picks it won’t be a walk in the park to make it. But then again, who believed in Detroit’s late round pick from Piteå in 1994? Looking back, Holmström has really proved that it is possible just by using the right attitude. It will indeed be interesting to see whether Sandström will make it or not. He was definitely one of the regulars on the national junior team in his age group (1978) all the way from U16 to U20. And back then, many people thought of him as the most promising Swedish defender born that year.In my opinion, which is based on the games I’ve seen him play lately, he is still as promising as ever, but he will never be the player who many want him to be. He may never be a leading scorer on an NHL team, but his hard work will still be appreciated and it might take him all the way to the NHL.

Whatever happens, hockey-life will go on in Piteå and the politicans have finally agreed to build a new arena. Hopefully Piteå will give the game many interesting players in the future as well. There are lots of kids in the town with a lot going for them and I would expect us to see more Piteå prospects soon. Also the co-operation with Luleå seems to grow again.

If you compare Piteå to for example MoDo, the big difference is that Piteå work with their own players, while MoDo has a nation wide high school talent base to pick from. Through the years it has been very rare to see junior players in Piteå Hockey who aren´t born in the town, and if someone isn’t, he has moved there for other reasons than to play junior hockey. Is there something to question about MoDo? Are they the best without a match? Well, I won’t say that MoDo isn’t doing a great job, but I do believe that there are a few things which are interesting to take under consideration.

In Örnsköldsvik, where MoDo is located, things work in a whole different way. From all over Sweden, 16-year-old kids come to play for MoDo juniors. What MoDo usually demands of these kids is that they should have experience from the Swedish U16 national team, but there are exceptions from that. MoDo’s junior team is based on these new talents and the best of their own players, who usually are very good too. This concept has made MoDo a solid team in the Swedish J20 Super Elite League, but by no means do they dominate. One of the reasons for this could be the fact that MoDo uses many juniors in their senior Elite League team, which could make the junior team weaker, but speaking for the last season, MoDo only used three juniors in the senior team regularly (the Sedin twins and Mattias Karlin). Last season, the MoDo U20 team ended up 4th in the J20 Super Elite final standings and only made it to the quarter-finals in the play-offs. The year before, they finished 8th. Since MoDo is one out of two Swedish Hockey high schools with official nation wide selection of players and the fact that it is indeed a very popular place for 16-year-old talents to move to, it is kind of odd that they don’t get a stronger junior team. Sometimes, when a junior player leaves his club for MoDo, there are some hard feelings involved from the former club towards MoDo.

So in that way, ‘Swedish Hockey Heaven’ is by no means always a heaven to everybody involved. Especially not to the teams in cities with poorer economies, that take pride in using their own players for their own junior teams.

Another thing that has crossed my mind is where all the talents who leave their home towns for Örnsköldsvik in their mid teens end up. Some end up on MoDo’s senior team, some move home and play in their town’s Div 1 or Div 2 clubs. Some of them even quit, but the fact that very few of them make it to the NHL is somewhat obvious. It should be told that Peter Forsberg, Markus Näslund and Niklas Sundström all are Örnsköldsvik guys from the beginning. Prospects like Mattias Karlin, the Sedin twins and Pierre Hedin also grew up in the MoDo area, but what happens to the juniors who move there? Why do we see so little success from their side compared to the original MoDo players?

Maybe they get lost among all the other stars. Players who would have been leaders on their own junior teams, and gotten good experience in being a leader both on and off the ice, become average players in MoDo juniors and get lost in the shuffle. Well, these are only theories even though they are interesing such.

A player like Mathias Timander is from the state where Örnsköldsvik is located, but still too far away to be called an original MoDo Player, and Anders Eriksson grew up nowhere near Ö-vik. These two players haven’t been too lucky in the NHL so far, though Anders has been working on a more physical game. The interesting thing here is also that both Anders and Mathias are defenders who moved to Örnsköldsvik in their mid teens. Can this be another MoDo weakness – defenders of NHL standard?

Well, we’ll see if Hans Jonsson will make it in Pittsburgh. In a way, he is different from the usual MoDo defender since he uses his body every now and then, but I don’t see him as more than a 3rd or 4th liner for the Penguins anyway. Besides him, it looks pretty weak on the MoDo defensive side. The typical MoDo defender doesn’t seem to really be the type of defenders that the NHL is looking for. To mention two solid Swedish NHL defenders, we can look at Niklas Lidström (Västerås) and Mattias Öhlund (Piteå). The first is already a very respected player and the second is getting there. Solid defenders are what are missing if MoDo is going to be serious about calling themselves a complete hockey heaven…

Is MoDo really ‘Swedish Hockey Heaven’ or perhaps ‘Swedish Magic-Forward Heaven’? The only criticism you hear towards MoDo is that they mainly concentrate on developing one particular type of player. They’ve got a whole senior team full of them. The typical MoDo player is a good skater who is magic with the puck. I would like to believe that hockey is more than just one type of player, even though a player like Forsberg is fantastic!

There are several reasons why MoDo is in a very good situation compared to their closest national competition. For example, many of the other cities which have had a good hand with hockey players in history, such as Kiruna, Piteå and Skellefteå, don’t have senior teams in the Elite League nowadays. Skellefteå had one back in the 80’s, but now they are in the 2nd highest league like Piteå, and Kiruna just fell down to the 3rd league. Since Piteå and Kiruna don’t have the structure developed to take juniors from outside and educate, and Skellefteå’s hockey high school loses on the fact that the senior team isn’t what it used to be. It leaves the greatest talents in northern Sweden to make an important decision, whether to move from home to attend hockey high school with MoDo or their hometown.

The last few years, three Skellefteå juniors on national team level left for MoDo. With this tendency it’s pretty obvious why MoDo is in a leading position when it comes to recruiting junior players in northern Sweden. And the team’s good reputation also makes it an attractive place for southern Swedes to move to. Even though many cities in the south also have very good junior organizations nowadays, there will always be a few stars who will move to Örnsköldsvik. But in the long run, all teams have to understand that at this non-commercialized level of hockey, the players they develop themselves are what they really should be proud of, not the guys they buy.

As for MoDo, that still means they have plenty of players to be very proud of, guys who have gone all the way through kids hockey in MoDo to the NHL. But a lot of their success compared to other Swedish towns is based on the fact that they work with many players from outside. This not only because they get a stronger team by recruiting talented juniors, but also because the loss of such a player for the other team involved makes the other teams weaker. The question is whether it’s a good thing in the long-run or not. Maybe they would have been better of at home where they are “somebody” and not just “another player”.

In any case, I don’t blame MoDo for riding a successful strategy, as long as they don’t brag too much. And both MoDo and their players from outside should respect the proverb “If you forget where you came from, you are likely to end up there soon again”.

This is why it’s very convenient to be on top today if you want to get recognized internationally, while other organizations were in their “prime” back when it was still somewhat rare that a European player got the chance to play in North America. I’m sure MoDo has many, many glorious days left, but other clubs will see brighter days sooner or later, so don’t stare yourself blind at ‘Swedish Hockey Heaven’ cause there is a whole world full of great hockey out there !