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The funny thing—and here funny means strange or demented, as in "Bucko, you've got some funny ideas about sportsmanship"—was that even as the Swedes were clinching their first world hockey championship in 25 years last April, in Vienna, even as they were dazzling their fans and frustrating their Canadian opponents with an exhibition of passing, skating and shooting that turned this medal-round game into a 9-0 rout, some of the Canadian players were calling them "Chicken Swedes."
In the corners, before face-offs, along the boards, a number of players on the Canadian team—ignoring the scoreboard—hissed idiotically: "Chicken Swede, Chicken Swede." The inapt use of that familiar North American hockey refrain was more a testament to the mentality that permeates the sport on this side of the Atlantic than to any flaw in the Swedish character. The Swedes answered the Canadians with picturesque goals. This was their long-overdue day in the sun, a championship that, by most accounts, marked the biggest triumph in Swedish hockey history. (Sweden had won the world title on three previous occasions, but in 1962. the last time it had done so, neither the Soviets nor the Czechoslovakians had competed in the championships. In '53 and '57, neither the U.S. nor Canada participated. All those teams were present in Vienna.) They weren't going to let a few Canadian numbskulls ruin it. Besides, it was nothing they hadn't heard before. Over and over again.
"It's a myth," says Sweden's national team coach, Tommy Sandlin. "But every time we play against the U.S. or Canada, it's 'Chicken Swede.' Every time." He pauses and smiles tolerantly. "And our jerseys are yellow, too."
Someday, those of us who live in the New World may get over the fact that Swedish hockey players are not tough in the conventional and, may we suggest, superficial sense of that word. They almost never fight. They usually will not even fight back when they are mugged within the tight confines of an NHL rink, where the ice is 15 feet narrower than it is on the 100-foot-wide international rinks such as the one on which hockey will be played at the Calgary Olympics. Nor do the Swedes put much stock in "winning the little battles along the boards," which North American coaches hold so dear. Their bodychecking is too infrequent to be called pathetic; they hardly know the meaning of aggressive forechecking, to say nothing of dumping the puck in and digging it out of the corners; and that dearest of American beliefs—that winning is "the only thing"—is anathema at all levels of Swedish hockey, where sportsmanship is actually revered.
Like we said, Chicken Swedes.
How, then, can this country, with a population of only eight million, compete on a more or less equal basis with those far more populous—not to mention macho—hockey powers, the Soviet Union, Canada, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.? How is it that these Scandinavian pussycats are viewed as the best bet to knock off the favored and purportedly prepotent Soviets for the gold? "We are a small country and have not so many good players," says Sandlin, overstating his case just a little. "We can never be as well prepared and conditioned as the Russians, or as tough as the North Americans. So we must pick a team that will be the most clever. That is the Swedish style." There's an expression for that on this side of the Atlantic, although we haven't heard it used much in a hockey context: brains over brawn.
To make one thing perfectly clear: The Swedes play wonderful hockey. It's not just the way they skate, as if gliding on air; it's more than their magical passing and unselfish teamwork. Their whole approach to the game is a marvel, and it is summed up by Sandlin in a single phrase: "The players are more important than what they do."
Swedish training techniques are enlightened, particularly in the way coaches teach young players. And while the Swedes stress excellence, their attitude toward winning and losing is a model of perspective. For weekly examples of this, tune into the pro tennis circuit sometime and compare, say, Stefan Edberg's manner in defeat to that of America's own Johnny Mac, who, not incidentally, is a New York Rangers fan. In Sweden they haven't lost sight of one simple fact: Sports are games, and games—yes, even hockey—are for play.
"The attitude is different here," says Thomas Gradin, who played nine seasons in the NHL, scoring more than 200 goals for Vancouver and Boston, before returning to Stockholm this season to rejoin the AIK club. "Hockey isn't life. In Canada, it's life. Players quit school to play hockey. They're traded from one city to another. And when they stop playing, a lot of them don't know what they want to do. They've been so long in hockey, they've been away from life."