'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.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/AP
Wings: Franzen and Lidstrom celebrate a goal during Game 3.
Bruce Bennett/Pool

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.

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.

"It's a fine line between being successful and losing a game, so you never want to take anything for granted," says Martin Raymond, the men's hockey coach at McGill University in Montreal and a friend of both Red Wings coach Babcock and Penguins coach Michel Therrien. "I definitely wouldn't take Pittsburgh for a done team. They're a force to be respected, and I think Detroit will respect them." Burdened by its own success, Detroit has been forced to look to Europe for talent. With three Cups in 10 years and as perennial playoff contenders, the team has had only three first-round draft picks since 1999, with the highest being picked 27th overall. At the same time, the team's Stockholm-based scout, Hakan Andersson, started unearthing unpolished gems. Zetterberg, a top scorer in the playoffs, was drafted a lowly 210th overall in 1999. Samuelsson wasn't even playing hockey anymore when Detroit activated his contract. He had two goals in Game 2.

Detroit quickly learned a basic fundamental truth about Swedes, says Lisa Werner Carr, coauthor of "Modern-Day Vikings: A Practical Guide to Interacting with the Swedes." "When a Swede gets a résumé from an American, they assume that it's 30 percent overinflated," she says. "When an American manager at, say, Ericsson gets a résumé from a Swede, they know they're not seeing the whole person on paper. [Swedes] don't know how to sell themselves."

There's a rule in Swedish culture – "Jante lagen" – that says "you shouldn't think you're more important than anyone else," adds Ms. Carr. "It's really kind of a downer: The nail that pops up gets hammered back down."

Thus hindered from talking up their own stuff, expatriate Swedes have little choice but to show what they're made of. After former Red Wings Coach Scotty Bowman told Holmstrom in his prospect year that he'd probably be gone by 1996, Holmstrom took 96 as his number and established himself as a force in front of the net. He was integral to the Red Wings' Stanley Cup run in 1997 and helped change the stereotype of European players from flashy to gritty.

"Guys like Kronvall and Holmstrom kind of blur that line [between the European and North American styles]," says Mr. Schwartz in Detroit. "They go in front of the net like a good old Canadian boy would do."

For all their Nordic aloofness – Lidstrom, for example, is a captain of remarkably few words – the Swedes have proved to be adaptable. Their success can be traced in part to Sweden's focus on youth athletics, in which every kid gets equal playing time in an overall "system."

But their drive also comes from a darker place. Some Swedish expats say it's at least in part owed to a kind of national insecurity and overcompensation dating back to when Sweden sat out of World War II, allowing the Nazis to commandeer Swedish trains to sack Norway.

"We have a little bit of an identity problem from that," says Swedish sales consultant Christian Wirsen, who follows the Red Wings from Oslo. "You're not really allowed to be proud of your country, and maybe that's why you can celebrate individual sports stars or individual big Swedes, and you can be proud of that instead of your country."

That pride-by-proxy is now directed to Hockeytown and its little Swedish satellite of Novi. "There's probably no other NHL team that is more connected to the Swedish mind as Detroit," says Johan Kaijser of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce in New York.

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