The wild world of Swedish hockey with Peter Westermark
Saturday, 22 December 2007
If you’re looking for someone who knows as much about, say, Frolunda defenseman Ronnie Sundin as Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Mats Sundin, Peter Westermark would be a great bet. The 32-year-old native of Skelleftea, Sweden blogs for HockeySverige.se, and is a longtime contributor to outlets such as McKeen’s Hockey, Hockey’s Future, and IHWC.NET, the official Web site of the IIHF World Championship. Westermark, who teaches mathematical statistics at the Lulea University of Technology, took time out of his schedule to offer his opinionated analysis of contemporary Swedish hockey with HockeyAdventure.com.
1. What has been the biggest surprise in the Elitserien so far this season?
I must say that the performance of Brynas has been the biggest news. At the start of the year, the team was hailed as a potential candidate to win the championship. Head Coach Leif Boork had a revolutionary idea where he carried 28 men on his roster, but intended to use only three units in the games, and rotate the units that would sit out. Top players would get into 40 to 45 of the 55 regular season games. He said he’d gotten the idea from the squad rotation systems in top European football, and wanted to make sure players were well rested come playoff time. After winning his first two games, Boork rested some of his best players in the third game versus Sodertalje, an anemic 2-1 loss. After that, the team was criticized heavily in the press for resting guys just three games in–who’s tired at that point? Anyhow, it started a seven-game losing skid for Brynas. The players lost belief in the system, and the club fired Boork. They shrunk their squad and now play like any other team, using four lines. They have made a recovery lately under new Head Coach Olof Ostblom, an unknown 28-year-old blond babyface, but are not much more than an average Elitserien team.
2. What is the general sentiment among the public and media about Sweden’s potential withdrawal from the NHL-IIHF player transfer agreement next year?
Everybody wants a better deal. Frolunda executive Mats Ahdrian said recently that since football club Malmö FF got 80 million kronor (USD 12.2 million) for star Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he signed with Ajax Amsterdam, Brynas should get at the very least 10 million kronor (USD 1.5 million) for Nicklas Backstrom. The idea of transfer fees is very strongly rooted in Swedish sports, even though we have lived under the Bosman ruling (that makes every player not under contract an “unrestricted free agent”, to use NHL parlance) for 15 years or so. So, maybe the deal that the IIHF has negotiated is the best possible. But I would say that the feeling is that NHL clubs are viewed as predators on European hockey, more than as equal partners. I’m certain the lack of adequate compensation for players has created a lot of antipathy towards the NHL.
3. Ken Campbell recently wrote in his blog for The Hockey News: “Ask anyone who has scouted Europe extensively and they’ll tell you that the big ice surface with no red line has created games that often have the spectators looking for knitting needles to poke into their eyes.” Would that be a fair or unfair appraisal of the style of Elitserien hockey this season?
I think removing the red line has been a good move. Looking back to the 90’s, games were not any more offensive than they are now. Quite the contrary. Removing the red line has opened up games, and the lack of scoring in the Elitserien is not due to the red line being out. It’s more because of the defensive style that most teams in the league employ. If you watch Mora play Sodertalje, for instance, you might want to kill yourself afterwards. These are two depressing teams trying to boil down hockey to its simplest form and repeat it, over and over. But if you go see HV71 play Farjestad, you’ll see two teams with many excellent skaters with excellent playmaking ablities, which makes for interesting games.
4. You’ve followed Skelleftea AIK for years as your hometown team. The club secured promotion to the Elitserien for 2006-07, but is hovering near the bottom of the standings this year. What’s your take on the team as it stands now?
The team is stronger than last season. Lee Goren and Kent McDonell, two Canadian imports, have generated a good secondary scoring threat behind the first line with wingers Anders Soderberg and Mikael Renberg. But the team is weak at center, and injuries to any of the centers really hurt, which is what happened in November when the team endured a five-game losing streak. The top two centers were injured at the same time and there was no one to replace them. Adding another center for the final push would do wonders. The league is so tight that one player could make all the difference. Skelleftea was in the relegation round last year and survived, but it’s like hell on earth. I think it will be someones else’s hell this year. The recent win on home ice versus a top team in HV71 and a big 3-1 road win versus Lulea, which is also in the bottom third of the league, gave the club a big boost.
5. How would you describe the impact Ed Belfour has had on the Leksand franchise to date?
It has sparked a lot of interest around the club, that’s for sure. Leksand had the wildly inconsistent Dane Peter Hirsch in nets last year, but they’re now more solid and are considered a better bid to earn promotion to the Elitserien. In the top games, Belfour hasn’t been that impressive, to be honest, and at this point, it’s impossible to be sure whether he’ll be a star or just a star name. Just as interesting as the hockey aspect is how Belfour is spending his days in Leksand. It’s a small place–only a few thousand people live there, and there’s not much to do. He said he likes hunting and stuff, but now that he has killed his moose and done all the visits to the local businesses and hospitals, what’s left? I imagine him sitting alone on a couch in a rented apartment with a can of beer, watching re-runs of Days of Our Lives.
6. Let’s talk about another 42-year-old. Fans of the now-defunct Minnesota North Stars and Quebec Nordiques may be shocked to learn that Tommy Sjodin is still playing pro hockey, currently in his ninth consecutive season with Brynas. What’s your evaluation of this veteran defenseman? Can he keep playing as long as Chris Chelios?
He has been an absolute key player for Brynas throughout the years, but his play this season hasn’t been as good as in previous years. Sjodin has been promised a position with the club when he retires, and he’s approaching the end, but apparently wants to keep playing. This spring, his wife sent an open letter to the local press complaining about how badly Sjodin has been treated by the club — the position he was originally promised (GM) has been filled, and if he was to retire now he would be given some marketing position, which he wasn’t happy about. But Sjodin negotiated a new contract, and now he’s back on the ice yet again, the only player in the league without the mandatory visor due to a grandfather clause, always chewing his gum.
7. At age 17, MoDo defenseman Victor Hedman (eligible for the 2009 NHL Draft) has received lots of attention for playing in the Elitserien. How much of the hype is justified?
He is certainly an exciting prospect with his blend of size and skill. In a game a month ago, he went coast to coast and nearly scored what could have been the Elitserien goal of the season, but his shot was stopped. However, MoDo has a strong blueline with a lot of veterans ahead of him–including Mattias Timander, Hans Jonsson, and Pierre Hedin, among others–so it’s tough for Hedman to get a good amount of ice time.
8. Who are some Elitserien or Allsvenskan players that are underrated right now and deserve more attention, either as future NHLers or as potential new stars at the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Canada?
Tony Martensson failed in his attempt to crack the NHL with Anaheim a few years back, but has taken his offensive game to another level this season with Linkoping. He’s leading the scoring race with 38 points in 29 games. Not many players are at a point-per-game-pace in the goal-starved Elitserien. He’ll certainly get a chance to perform at the 2008 IIHF World Championship. One new player that’s surfaced as a real threat this year is Farjestad’s Fabian Brunnstrom, who has made the jump from the lower amateur leagues to the Elitserien seem like a small one. He has 20 points in 28 games so far. I also think that Lulea’s Johan Harju is ready to make the jump to the NHL. He’s a big forward with a nose for the net who has 12 goals in 28 games so far. Harju’s been drafted by Tampa Bay and could be even better suited for the gritty NHL game than, say, Fredrik Modin. Even though Harju hasn’t got a big shot like Modin, he’s just as “goal-horny,” to use a Swedish term.
9. What are Sweden’s chances for success at the upcoming World Juniors?
Head Coach Par Marts has said that the team is gunning for gold, but that might be a bit too ambitious. If they get a medal, that would be a big success. The good thing is that Sweden’s best player is the goaltender, Sodertalje’s Jhonas Enroth. He’s put up a .925 save percentage so far in his first Elitserien season and is very mature in his game. He is definitely a future NHLer. Offensively, much will fall on the shoulders of promising Vasteras center Patrik Berglund. He’s scored 23 points in 21 Allsvenskan games, which is impressive. One downside for the junior team is that many players picked from Elitserien clubs have failed to earn regular spots in that league.
10. What are some other interesting, humorous, or memorable things you’d like to share with our readers about the state of Swedish hockey today?
Well, speaking of Par Marts, he visited Canada to watch Swedish players currently in major junior hockey, and he came away unimpressed. He stated that the hockey was “macho and hierarchic” and that there was too much focus on benching players, which he believes is old-style management. Another bit of surprising news is that Niklas Sundstrom currently leads the league in PIM (104). Most of those come from whining to the referees and earning 10-minute misconducts. There’s just something in the MoDo atmosphere that makes it impossible for players to shut up. They have a tradition of whining and their games always take the longest. It goes all the way from the coaches to players like Sundstrom. It’s a never-ending conference.