Swedish Hockey League: The Most Balanced League on Earth

Image courtesy of Max Zachs.

A Long Standing Tradition

Sweden is, hands down, a quintessential place for hockey.  A tremendous amount of NHLers and players in other leagues around the world have made their long lasting marks on the game.  Two of my all-time favourite Swedes, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, hail from the small Northern town of Örnsköldsvik, home of one of the countries most storied programs – MODO Hockey.

So many clubs in this breathtaking Scandinavian nation have immense, rich history and I was really looking forward to writing this piece when I began, just itching to get to know some new facets of the SHL, what many refer to as, “The most balanced league on earth”.

So, have a seat and get ready to go way, way north!

League Alignment

Image courtesy of paczemoj.blogspot.com.

The SHL, known as the Swedish Elitserien until 2013 and founded in 1975, and HockeyAllsvenskan, the two top-tier leagues in Sweden, utilise a promotion/relegation system.  The SHL has twelve participating clubs and HockeyAllsvenskan has fourteen members.  The two bottom teams in the SHL play in a series with the top four teams from HockeyAllsvenskan; this relegation series is called “Kvalserien” (the literal translate of which is “qualification”).

The two top performers in Kvalserien are promoted to the SHL while the bottom four are demoted to HockeyAllsvenskan.  In the right circumstance, mathematically, two new clubs could enter the top-tier in the same system. As a fan, I really, really enjoy the idea of a relegation series. It could do wonders in North America, but I’m afraid the NHL and AHL would have a way to go until that is even a possibility.

Though the teams change annually, the lineup for 2013/14 is as follows:

1.) AIK (Stockholm) – Hovet Arena (8,094)

2.) Brynäs IF (Gävle) – Läkerol Arena (8,585)

3.) Frölunda HC (Gothenburg) – Scandanavium (12,044)

4.) Färjestad BK (Karlstad) – Löfsberg Arena (8,647)

5.) HV71 (Jönköping) – Kinnarps Arena (7,000)

6.) Leksands IF (Leksand) – Tegera Arena (7,650)

7.) Linköpings HC (Linköping) – Cloetta Center (8,500)

8.) Luleå HF (Luleå) – Coop Arena (6,300)

9.) MODO Hockey (Örnskoldsvik) – Fjällräven Center (7,600)

10.) Skellefteå AIK (Skellefteå) – Skellefteå Kraft Arena (6,000)

11.) Växjö Lakers (Växjö) – Vida Arena (5,700)

12.) Örebro HK (Örebro) – Behrn Arena (5,150)

Season Structure

Image courtesy of dirtydangle.com.

Beginning in late September, through early March, SHL clubs play an uneven, fifty-five match schedule en route to the Le Mat Trophy; five times against each other team. Winners earn three points, two points for an Overtime or Shoot-Out victory and of course, zero for a losing effort. The team with the most points at the conclusion of the regular season earns the title of “League Champion” and winnings of 1,000,000 SEK (SEK = Swedish Krona, equal to 152,680.00 USD or 113,160.00 Euros).

The eight top-seeding teams enter the playoffs and as in the NHL, play a Best-of-Seven series until a champion, “Svenska mästare” in Swedish, is crowned. Not before, however, the 7th-10th ranked clubs playoff for the final two spots. #7 plays #10, and #8 plays #9.  The higher of the two hosting the games and the two winners entering the playoffs.

Before I go on, can I just say how much I think Sweden has perfected this?  Why, oh why, in our competitive culture, have we not yet adopted a pre-playoff, playoff?  Exceptional.  I vote “Yes” to this, always and forever.

Swedish Success Stories

Image courtesy of HHOF.com.

A plethora of SHL and HockeyAllsvenskan alumni have gone on to achieve fantastic success in professional leagues around the world, and hundreds in North America’s NHL. To name a few, current Detroit Red Wing, Daniel Alfredsson, from the city of Gothenburg, was a member of the Ottawa Senators from 1995/96, when he was drafted 133rd overall in the 6th round of the ’94 NHL Draft.  The only exception being during the 2004/05 lockout, when he travelled back home to Sweden to play for his home-town club, Frölunda HC.

One of my current favorites, New York Rangers net-minder, Henrik Lundqvist, was born in 1982 in  Åre, Sweden.  Like Alfredsson, Lundqvist played for Frölunda HC and during his time there developed into an exceptional goaltender, winning the Honken Trophy in 2004, 2005 and 2006; the SHL’s top honour for the league’s top performing goalie.  In addition, he earned the Golden Puck (Guldpucken),  (Equivalent to the NHL’s Hart Trophy) and Golden Helmet (Guldhjälmen – the players’ MVP) awards in 2005.

While with the Rangers, he won the Vezina (Top Goaltender) in 2012 and was an All Star participant in 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2004/05, he also played alongside Daniel Alfredsson during the NHL Lockout at Frölunda.  Who could forget the countless other Swedes who’ve forever made an impact on the NHL, including Mats Sundin, Markus Näslund, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Bäckström, Tomas Holmström and the aforementioned Sedin twins.

It seems to be a trend that many Swedes return back their homeland after their hockey career to coach or manage professional teams. You’ve got to respect that, it’s refreshing to see greats who could stay this side of the pond and make NHL dollars, maintaining loyalty to the home nation. In my eyes, its a sign of integrity; in ones’ self and in the game.

Swedish Hockey Culture. The Best in the world?

Image courtesy of 25stanley.com

When it comes to stand out fans, Sweden’s got them.  I’ve heard many claims the country has the finest hockey culture around.  Those of us living elsewhere in this big world are fortunate enough to witness this every four years at the Winter Games.  Flags.  Face paint.  Horns.  You name it, Swedish hockey fans have got it.

The SHL is the most-steadily and well-attended league in Europe, with an average of 6,000+ in the seats. This is all nothing new, pro hockey in Sweden dates back to the early 1900’s and many clubs were founded in the late 19th and early 20th century.

A simple YouTube search will turn up plenty of highlights…of fans.  I was impressed to see how many of them hardly showed any game-play, but were simply reels of crowds, chanting, jumping, waving banners and flags, brawling, setting fires etc. They leave no passion to be desired.  I am still seriously impressed.

Competitiveness

Image courtesy of CTVNews.ca.

The Swedish Hockey League is viewed by many in Europe as sub-par talent wise, when compared to comparable leagues in Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Russia’s vast Kontinental Hockey League.

I’ve read plenty of articles and posts in international ice hockey forums where people spare no expense to berate the Swedes and claim the SHL is where players who were never good enough for the NHL end up, how it serves as a “Minor League” for the rest of Europe.  Personally, I’m going to dispute those claims.

You could say, any other league but the NHL is where players who were never “good enough” go to play, you could argue the lack of financial opportunity for the league to grow and retain its talent etc. At the end of the day however, what I look at as a fan is the spirit. Cheesy? Maybe.

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that what matters most to me is the game. Wherever people can sit and watch a great match, find that common thread of the love of the game, back their favourite players and teams, that’s where I want to be, and it would be a complete experience of a lifetime to attend a Swedish Hockey League (or HockeyAllsvenskan…) event.

A Look at Sweden’s 2014 Olympic Roster

Image courtesy of standingosports.com

The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi give us all a fantastic opportunity to start delving into international hockey.  I thought rounding this piece out with a look at Sweden’s roster would be a nice bridge between the SHL and this tournament. An overwhelming number are from the NHL, only one SHL player made the cut.  Yet another example of Sweden’s dominating presence in North American hockey.

I’m looking for Sweden to make it out of group play, though it won’t be a breeze. Group D includes not only Sweden, but Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia (who’s roster most notably includes the famed San Jose Shark and current Dinamo Riga star and hockey legend, Sandis Ozolinsh in what should be his last games.)  They’ve got to get off to a strong start and beat the Czechs, that will be their most needed victory.

Goalkeepers:

Jhonas Enroth, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

Jonas Gustavsson, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers (NHL)

Defencemen:

Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes (NHL)

Jonathan Ericsson, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)

Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators (NHL)

Niklas Kronwall, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Johnny Oduya, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)

Henrik Tallinder, Buffalo Sabres (NHL)

Forwards:

Daniel Alfredsson, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (NHL)

Patrik Berglund, St. Louis Blues (NHL)

Jimmie Ericsson, Skelleftea AIK (SWE)

Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins (NHL)

Johan Franzen, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

Carl Hagelin, New York Rangers (NHL)

Marcus Kruger, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche (NHL)

Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)

Henrik Sedin, Vancouver Canucks (NHL)

Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues (NHL)

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings (NHL)

*Sweden opens up their run in Sochi, Wed. the 12th of February against Czech Republic at the epic new Bolshoy Ice Dome.

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Follow Dylan on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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