STOCKHOLM – Back in 1991, Peter Forsberg was one of 11 Swedes selected in the NHL draft. This year, the draft was nothing short of a Swedish invasion.
Seven Swedes were drafted in the first round alone, for a total of 25. Only Canada and the United States had more players taken. “It’s a record,” Forsberg said. “I would never have guessed there would be seven Swedes in the first round.”
Swedish experts credit a revolution at the grass roots of Swedish hockey.
They say an emphasis on making the players mentally tougher has created a new generation of Swedes better prepared to make the leap across the Atlantic.
“The biggest change is the attitude improvement,” said Hakan Andersson, a Detroit Red Wings scout based in Sweden for the past 20 years. “Swedes have always been skilled, but they used to be more timid.”
Forsberg, who was drafted sixth in 1991, agreed.
“The kids are playing tougher and with more confidence,” said the two-time Stanley Cup winner who returned to Swedish team Modo last season. “You could see that when they played Canada at the World Junior Championships in January.”
Sweden’s under-20 team won silver medals at the past two world junior hockey championships, losing both finals to Canada. They finished in eighth place in 2003 and their results have improved steadily since.
Forsberg said that there is now more focus on improving individual skills rather than tactics, something the Swedish national hockey association says is another reason for better team performances.
The need to work hard both on and off the ice has also been drilled into coaches and players.
“The kids are well prepared outside of hockey now. They’re eating right and working out,” said Forsberg, a two-time Olympic champion who spent most of his NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche.
Forsberg identified this year’s second overall draft pick, defenceman Victor Hedman, as an example of a Swedish player that, at six-foot-six and 220 pounds, is not only big but mobile.
The five-time NHL all-star added that Hedman and the 24 other Swedes drafted this year will find it tough to go straight into starring roles in the NHL.
“My advice is to be patient,” Forsberg said. “Coming in as a 19-year-old, it’s not easy, it’s a tough league.”
Things started changing in 2002 when the Swedish Ice Hockey Association launched an initiative to improve the performance of its juniors after five years of mediocre results in international youth competitions. Weaknesses were identified and addressed, and coaching education and hockey high schools was overhauled.
“The head of Sweden’s hockey development stood in front of us all and said, ‘If you think we’re good then please leave the room,”‘ said Gunnar Svensson, a Swedish hockey agent.
An “ABC of hockey” curriculum was written by the association for the first time and was given out to 400 clubs throughout the country. Twelve chief coaches were hired to mentor the clubs and coaches in their areas.
The curriculum is divided by age group and provides “everything that a club or coach needs to develop a player, including on-and off-ice drills and psychology,” said Tommy Boustedt, Sweden’s head of hockey development.
Competitive practices emphasizing winning were designed to create a stronger mentality.
Boustedt said it used to be acceptable for Swedish junior teams to finish in the top four in international competitions. “Now the only thing the players are going for is gold,” he said.
Each year since 2005, Sweden has had more players enter the NHL draft than any other European nation.
“I think they’ve done a good job developing their program, but it’s cyclical,” said David Conte, head of scouting for the New Jersey Devils. “I think it’s just a coincidence. Good begets good. They are a very good group and they are pushing each other to be better.”
The number of Russians drafted has decreased steadily in recent years as many of the country’s young players prefer to stay in the domestic league. Only seven Russians were drafted this year – one in the first round.
Still, Swedish hockey officials believe the overhaul of training for coaches and players is starting to pay off, creating stronger leaders and better players.
“They’re asking more from the players in terms of the quality and quantity of practices. They’re treating them less like boys and more like men,” said Svensson, a former Swedish Elite League coach.
The Swedish government has provided some funding for coaching education and has also allowed the ice hockey association to license 37 hockey high schools.
The specialized schools for teenagers 16 to 19 allow players the time to practise during the day and travel to games while juggling their studies.
Hockey high schools existed before 2002, but “we have raised the demands on the clubs running the hockey high schools over the past five years or they lose their license,” Boustedt said. “The players are required to have specific individual training three mornings a week as well as their team training.”
Magnus Paajarvi Svensson, drafted 10th overall by the Edmonton Oilers, is one of the Swedish players whose all-around game benefited from a hockey high school.
“Hockey gymnasium was a very good time for me and I developed a lot,” he said.