How Swede it is for Red Wings
As Jim Nill, the Red Wings' assistant general manager who is in charge of the team's amateur scouting department, explains, "The passport doesn't matter to us."
In other words, if Nill and the rest of the Red Wings brass think you can play, they don't care if you plied your puckhandling skills on the Happy Face Crater on Mars, they're drafting you.
That's why the team that famously brought you the Russian Five is now sending out the Swedish Seven. The Red Wings have 11 European players on their roster -- including all of their top six forwards -- more than other Conference finalist. Their Swedish contingent, which includes such all-world names as Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom, is not only the engine of this current Stanley Cup run, it may also be keeping the local Ikea in business.
The furntiture superstore is where forwards such as the sizzling Johan Franzen snap up their end tables and kitchen stools, as well as packages of those special meatballs that remind them of home. Ikea, it turns out, is also where the Lidstrom family procures its Christmas ham.
While the Red Wings have been doing exceptional work in Detroit (they're the league's best home team) they are relying heavily on a labor force assembled 6,600 miles and a Scandinavian Airlines stopover flight away. Stockholm-based scout Hakan Andersson, who's been with the team for nearly two decades and is its head man in Europe, has helped inspire Detroit to draft the Russian-born Pavel Datsyuk, the team's leading scorer this season, in the sixth round in 1998, and to take Valterri Filppula out of Finland 95th overall in 2002.
But more significantly, Andersson is why the Wings control the market on Swedish goods. Zetterberg, Detroit's leading goal scorer this season, was drafted in Round 7 in 1999; playoff prince Franzen (as in who is Johan Franzen and what is he doing breaking Gordie Howe's records?) was procured in the third round of the 2004 draft; Niklas Kronwall, a top-four defenseman, was a first-round pick in 2000; Tomas Holmstrom, the NHL's premier front-of-the net agitator, was selected in the 10th round in 1994; winger Mikael Samuelsson and defenseman Andreas Lilja were each picked up as free agents after they spent the lockout year playing in the Swedish Elite League. (Lidstrom, Detroit's captain, was drafted just before Andersson joined the team in 1989.)
"My drafting philosophy is that I start with the rink closest to me and I work outward from there," says Andersson. "I make sure I know everyone in Stockholm, then all of Sweden, and then Finland. If some other team gets a player that we missed out of a small town in Russia, that's disappointing. But it wouldn't be nearly as embarrassing as losing someone I'd missed from Sweden. That may be why we have an over-representation of Swedish players."
Andersson is one of the most sought-after scouts in the business, an essential member of a Wings management team that has been running the NHL's most dominant franchise since the first Clinton term. He says that he's getting lucky. He recalls, for instance, seeing Samuelsson on a local sports broadcast, out of work and training with some Swedish tennis players, when the bulb went on.
"We had liked him earlier in his career, so I just called Kenny Holland [Detroit's GM] and said 'Remember that player we talked about? Well, he's free,'" says Andersson. Within days Samuelsson was signed.
Adds Andersson: "I don't care how many Swedish players or how many European players we have on our team" -- other words, folks, the passport doesn't matter -- "so long as we are winning. If we were winning entirely with players from Canada or the U.S. or wherever, it wouldn't matter one bit."
Try telling that to the bean counters in Ikea.