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'Swedish Seven' win hearts of Detroit's hockey faithful

Without them, some say, the Red Wings wouldn't now be contending for the Stanley Cup.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2008

Wings: Franzen and Lidstrom celebrate a goal during Game 3.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/AP

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Just outside Detroit, aka Hockeytown, is a little patch of the old country that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock markets as "Little Sweden" to potential recruits.

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Using the Ikea-festooned expat community in the Detroit suburb of Novi as bait to lure Swedish players to Michigan has paid off for Babcock: This year's Stanley Cup pits Detroit's "Swedish Seven," including Swedish captain Nick Lidstrom, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Canadian captain Sidney Crosby and stars Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa.

Win or lose, there's little doubt in Hockeytown that the Swedish quest to prove themselves on the world stage, a national stubbornness, and commitment to team play have made the Three Crowns a unique hockey breeding ground for the National Hockey League (NHL) – already the most international of US pro sports leagues.

"Without the Swedish players, the Wings would not be remotely close to where they are – in fact, they wouldn't even be in the playoffs," says Matt Schwartz, editor of LetsGoWings.com.

Led by Lidstrom, who could become the first European captain to win the Stanley Cup, the Detroit roster reads like the credits of a Bergman flick: Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Andreas Lilja, Niklas Kronvall, and Mikael Samuelsson.

Their roles vary. Lidstrom is an impenetrable defenseman known in the locker room as "the perfect human." There's Holmstrom, a gritty demolition man, and Franzen, whose Viking visage hides a sly dexterity. There's the playoff-leading scoring zoom of Zetterberg and hard-hitting defenseman Kronvall, along with role players Samuelsson and Lilja. Six of the seven won Olympic hockey gold in 2006.

The Swedes aren't the only stars: Russian Pavel Datsyuk and Canadian Brad Stuart, along with American veterans like Brian Rafalski and Chris Chelios, have been core to the team. Through dashing two-way play, staying out of scrums, and grasping that a team makes a player stronger, not the other way around, the Red Wings are playing near-flawless puck-possession hockey that has them up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. Detroit kept Pittsburgh off the scoreboard for two games on home ice at "The Joe" before succumbing 3-2 to the Penguins at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena on Wednesday.

Of course, many Canadians are rooting for Pittsburgh, where their Sid "The Kid" Crosby, his boyish face graced by a whisper of whiskers, isn't old enough to drink champagne from the Stanley Cup should his team win. Either way, it's a matchup between two storied hockey markets that has the stick-and-puck crowd buzzing and TV ratings rising.

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