How We Play Hockey in Sweden

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Victor Hedman, Defenseman / Tampa Bay Lightning - The Players' Tribune

Have you ever been on a bus full of hockey players? It’s always loud. I have been riding on buses to hockey games for 20 years now, and there’s only one time in my life I can remember it being completely silent.

It was 2006, during the Olympic Gold Medal Game. Sweden vs. Finland.

Do you understand this rivalry in North America? Maybe you think all the Nordic countries are the same friendly place. But Sweden vs. Finland is crazy. To us, it’s like Canada vs. USA.

We’re the big brother and they’re the little brother. (No, no — Just a joke for my Finnish friend Valtteri Filppula).

So the biggest hockey game in the last 10 years is taking place, and where am I? I’m stuck on a bus traveling to a road game with my junior hockey teammates. The bus driver put the game on the radio, and we listened to the third period in complete silence.

It was 3-2 Sweden, but in the final two minutes, the Finns pulled their goalie and were getting a lot of pressure. The radio man’s voice kept getting louder and louder. You know how you can tell when a goal is coming from the announcer’s voice? Everyone was tense. We could feel it coming.

Then we heard it. I’ll always remember.

“Lundqvist …

“Gör en otrolig räddning med klubban!!!!!!”

If you don’t speak Swedish, that’s:

“Lundqvist …

“Makes an incredible save with his club!!!!!!”

Tre. Två. Ett. Noll.

(Three. Two. One. Zero.)

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Sweden were world champions. The bus went crazy. Everybody jumped up and high-fived.

For us kids on the bus, this was particularly a special moment, because our heroes that were receiving the gold medals — Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Peter Forsberg — they were not just our countrymen, they were actually our neighbors. They were from our tiny community.

I’m from a place called Örnsköldsvik. Don’t worry, you don’t have to pronounce it. It is also known as O-vik.

It is not Stockholm. In fact, it’s not even near it. O-vik is a six-hour drive north of Stockholm.

What’s in O-vik? Well, there’s two things, really: There’s a big paper mill. That’s where my father works. That’s where a lot of people in the town work.

And, of course, there’s hockey.

Many people like to ask, how can a little town of 30,000 people produce Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, the Sedins and, even going way back, Anders Hedberg? When I got to the NHL, my Canadian teammates would ask, “What’s going on up there? What are you guys eating?”

It’s nothing to do with the food. I think the secret is in the community. It sounds silly, but you have to understand how different the hockey culture is compared to elsewhere in the world.

I tell guys in the NHL, and they can’t believe me, but it’s true:

The Lightning are only the second hockey team I’ve been on in my entire life. I played with the same team from the time I was six years old until I was 18 years old, when I got on a plane and came to play in the NHL.

For most of my childhood, I more or less played with the same friends from my neighborhood.

I played for MoDo.

The name might look weird. I’ll explain.

This is about as Swedish as it gets: The team is called MoDo because it was founded by the town’s big paper company, Mo och Domsjö. My father worked at the mill, but he was also the equipment manager for the hockey team. So he would go from his shift at the MoDo paper mill to his second job sharpening skates for the MoDo junior hockey team. And, of course, I would go with him.

For 12 years of my life, it was the same routine almost every day.

In the morning, I would go to school, and during every break, all the kids would go outside and play what we call “bandy.” This is like roller hockey, because you use a ball instead of a puck. However, you’re usually on ice. There’s a lot of snow in Sweden, so you can play anywhere that happens to be frozen over.

In the winter, that’s basically everywhere.

Then after school I would go to the rink to join my father. If my team didn’t have practice, I would watch another team practice. Whenever the professional MoDo team had a home game, I would be up in the standing section with all the ultras (the superfans), singing the songs.

All the hits, like this one:

To a lot of people, this might seem strange. I hear stories about youth hockey in America and Canada, and kids jumping around from team to team. There’s all kinds of travel teams you have to try out for, and expensive camps, and coaches to impress.

But in Sweden, it’s more of a family atmosphere. At least when I was young. I know it has changed a bit lately. Until I was 14, there were no “tryouts.” If you’re born in O-vik, you play for MoDo or one of the other local teams. In fact, the Sedin twins and Markus Naslund played for a team called Järved, on an outdoor rink. There are different levels, but you are never cut. When people talk about Swedish hockey, they often mention the “chemistry” of the players. But really, it’s a total philosophy of community that starts when you’re young.

I’ll give you an example:

When I was eight years old, I got to watch the 18-year-old Sedin twins play for the professional MoDo team in the same rink that I would skate in. I remember watching how fluidly they moved the puck. I mean, it was incredible. But they weren’t big shots. They were just guys from the town. They would show up to our youth camps and skate with us.

As kids, we dreamed of being able to skate and pass like them, but what’s different is that I don’t ever remember any pressure to make it to the NHL, or even the Swedish Elite League. Certainly not from my parents. They just wanted me to have fun. 

So when I think about the magic of Swedish hockey, I think of one word: fun.

Maybe it’s because physicality is not as big a part of the game in Sweden, or maybe it’s because there’s not the stress of tryouts, but I just remember hockey being so much fun.

If I am making this sound too friendly — maybe too Swedish — let me be clear.

There’s another big thing you need to know about Swedes: We love to win.

I honestly think we love to win more than anybody.

When I think about the magic of Swedish hockey, I think of one word: fun.

Swedish hockey players are incredibly competitive, and it’s because of that close-knit community. In Sweden, you’re not playing hockey against strangers. Most of the time you’re playing against your friends. And who do you want to beat more than your friends?

Of course, this stability can have its downside. As I got older and moved up the ranks to the professional MoDo team at 16, my big move was getting my own apartment in downtown O-vik.

Which happened to be five minutes from my parents’ house.

So I will admit that I lived a pretty sheltered life before I got on the plane to Tampa to come play in the NHL at age 18. I can’t speak for every Swedish player, but I know personally, it was a big adjustment.

In Sweden, you play on a bigger ice surface, so you have the time and space to be creative and daring. In the NHL, it’s not just that the surface is smaller, it’s that the speed of the game is faster than you can ever imagine in your head.

I laughed when I read Evgeny Kuznetsov’s article talking about coming over to the NHL and being so confused when his teammates on the Capitals kept dumping the puck. The culture shock is similar for Swedes, but after a few practices, you understand why the simple play is often the best play. It’s just necessity.

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I’ll tell you a story of my education.

My first practice with the Lightning, I get in the locker room and I’m seeing Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Stammer (Steven Stamkos). I mean, I went from 12 years of my teammates being my buddies from my town, to my teammates being three future Hall of Famers. 

I’m like, Okay, well, I’m just gonna shut up and listen.

I will never forget seeing Marty walking around the locker room with those huge tree trunks. He’s obviously not the tallest guy, but he has the biggest legs I’ve ever seen on a human.

I will never forget seeing Marty walking around the locker room with those huge tree trunks.

So we get out onto the ice, and the speed is incredible. I go up against Marty in a drill, and of course my first thought is, I’m a big guy. I have the size advantage. I’ll just body him and bump him off the puck.

Yeah. No.

I tried it once. And I never tried it again.

With Marty, the only way you have a chance is to keep a good gap and use your stick. You can’t check him off the puck. Marty doesn’t take No for an answer. He refused to give up on a play. He never gives in, even in practice.

Yes, we have this same expression in Sweden: “The way you practice is the way you play.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone practice as hard as Marty. It was an eye-opener to me to see superstars working like this.

That’s when I realized the difference between how we play hockey in Sweden and how you have play to to survive day in and day out to make it in the NHL, especially as a young defenseman.

It’s one thing to hear “The NHL is a grind,” or “You need to be mentally prepared.” I heard it thousands of times from Swedish teammates who had played in the NHL. But the only way you can understand the commitment it takes is through experience. (Like the experience of Vinny Lecavalier “nutmegging” you in practice a few times.)

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The following season, I had the pleasure of playing against the Sedin twins in Vancouver for the first time, and it was a special night, because they were also retiring the number of Markus Naslund.

Can you believe it? Four guys from the same small town in Sweden, all standing on NHL ice, watching Markus’s jersey go up into the rafters. Amazing.

When we caught up after the game, the talk was not about hockey. Naturally, it was, “How is your father?”

They wanted to know how my dad, the man who worked for MoDo for 20 years, was doing.

Very Swedish.

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