There was a time when Sweden's hockey team was coached by Anders Parmstrom, a droll, professorial-looking man who was nicknamed the Duck, although back then a different fowl was more closely associated with Swedish hockey: the chicken. Parmstrom knew his team had a reputation for shying away from rough play, and he understood how sensitive his players were to the barnyard epithet. But as he watched his players' timid performance in the 1981 Canada Cup tournament, he came to an inescapable conclusion: The problem with the Swedish team, he said, "is too many Swedes."
Now there are too many good Swedes, tough Swedes. There's center Peter Forsberg, the best two-way player in the world. There's Niklas Lidstrom, the best defenseman in the world. There's Mats Sundin, the best forward in the 1996 World Cup. These aren't the nifty-but-meek players who drove Parmstrom to distraction as they were being driven into the boards, not the stereotypical Swede who would rather play chess with the devil than fight the traffic in the corner to retrieve a puck. The Swedish team has a strong, mobile defense, quality role players and as much grit as a sandstorm. "You used to be able to intimidate the Swedish teams, but not anymore," says Theo Fleury, who will play for Canada at the Games. "Forsberg's one of the toughest guys in the NHL."
Five factors point to a Swedish upset.
1. The big sheet
The international rink used in the Olympics is 197 by 98 feet, instead of the NHL's 200 by 85. The nearly 2,500 extra square feetsome of it additional space behind the netand the positioning of the face-off circles closer to the boards change the game's geometry. The skating prowess of the Americans and the Canadians should make it easy for them to adjust, but the Swedes grew up with these dimensions and remember each theorem. "The big ice is huge," says Barry Smith, a Detroit Red Wings assistant coach who's serving as a Team Sweden assistant. "In the NHL a defenseman has to take two or three strides to cut off a pass along the boards. Now he may have to take five more. You try to take the passing lanes, but the ice is so big that's almost impossible." International hockey revolves around puck possession, and only the crafty Russians can play keepaway the way the Swedes do.
The large surface should even cover up the underbelly of the Swedish team, a soft one, no doubt, considering that New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury called goalie Tommy Salo one of the poorest-conditioned athletes on his team during an arbitration hearing last summer. Salo lacks the stature of Canada's Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, the athleticism of the U.S.'s Mike Richter and the creativity of the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek, but he will see fewer shots in Nagano than he does in New York because the big ice seduces forwards to make an extra pass, even from the top of the face-off circles.
2. There's no I in lag, the Swedish word for team
Whether it is because they can speak their own language for a couple of weeks while playing or because they realize the necessity of scrapping personal agendas, Swedish national teams bond quickly. In a tournament that offers elite nations three get-acquainted practices and three preliminary games before the knockout round, you look for fast-drying glue.
"The Swedish team is going to get together quicker than the U.S. and Canada," says Mats Naslund, the former Montreal Canadiens star who played for Sweden in the 1980, '92 and '94 Olympics. "They're used to playing on the national team, and they work more for each other. Whether it's the social democratic government, I don't know, but we're brought up more to take care of each other. I even find a difference between the U.S. players and Canadians. U.S. guys are more selfish."
3. Nagano has no Ritz-Carlton
Olympic accommodations recall the Greek roots of the Gamesspartan. That might be less of a problem for Sweden than for some other countries. "The Europeans are used to a little less luxury," Smith says. "It's not just the Village. It's things like not having extra ice time. You practice 45 minutes on a certain day, from this time to that time, that's it. It's run like clockwork. You have to be ready for a lot of extra things. We can make those adjustments."
4. Barry Smith
On a team that features Forsberg and the veteran leadership of defenseman Calle Johansson, the most critical voice in the locker room might be speaking Swenglish. The hot-wired Smith, who will run the Swedish forwards, is an American who spent four years coaching in Sweden. He's a technical wizardhe imported the left-wing lock from Sweden that the Stanley Cup-champion Red Wings used so effectivelyand a master at breaking down videotape and, occasionally, language barriers. "He mixes the two languages [Swedish and English] pretty good," says Sundin, who worked with Smith at the World Cup. "Also, he knows how to get a lot out of guys by the way he coaches, which is to keep using guys who are hot that night."
Not only does Smith know NHL players better than Swedish head coach Kent Forsberg does, but he also knows NHL referees working the Games know Smith. "Barry will get a little more respect from those referees than I will," says Forsberg.
5. The trap is set
Neither Team Canada nor Team USA is used to executing the neutral-zone trap, but the Swedes will be in their familiar 1-2-2 forechecking scheme, clogging passing lanes, forcing plays to the boards and counterattacking. On the big ice, where one pass can beat two players, where a rock-and-roll forecheck is sure to invite a three-on-two rush, some judiciousness is admirable. The NHL is heralding its breakthrough participation in the Olympics, but Sweden's trap could make it the yawn of a new era. "When you look at how Sweden plays and how some other teams might be forced to play," says Team Japan general manager Dave King, "this tournament might be more interesting than exciting."
Nearly 20 years ago the Swedes went for style points and had nothing to show for it. Now consider Swedish accomplishments in the 1990s: Olympic gold, two world championships, NHL rookie of the year awards to Peter Forsberg and the Ottawa Senators' Daniel Alfredsson, and NHL team captaincies to the Toronto Maple Leafs' Sundin and the Tampa Bay Lightning's Mikael Renberg.
"The 1994 gold medal was great, but this time it's different," says Peter Forsberg. "All the countries have the best teams they can possibly have. You'd like to look back at the first time professionals went to the Olympics and say we won it."
Look out, U.S. Beware, Canada. The Swedes are coming. As they say, duck.
Issue date: February 9, 1998
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