We, the hockey faithful, clearly are living in the Era of Ovechkin. Years from now, young fans will ask in awe whether you saw ‘The Great Eight’ play…much as I recall asking about ‘Mr. Hockey’ – the incomparable Gordie Howe. Both of them bold, brash…the hero who lifts his team to new heights.
But no team soars just by one star. Thus we in DC are privileged to also be witness to the Age of Backstrom – one Lars Nicklas Bäckström to be exact.
If you ever needed convincing of this, our current play-off series with the New York Islanders makes the case abundantly. In the dot, he’s quiet brilliance. During the PP, he’s the effortless conductor and composer of play. If there’s sustained fore-check and scoring possibilities, he does what’s needed to see the team gets it done.
And when you are just about to collapse waiting for that last-minute goal that keeps you in the game, or sets you over the top, quietly, like a Nordic snowfall, 19 will make it happen.
Nick Backstrom, in his nine years with the Caps, has entered into the already crowded Swedish Hockey Hall of Heroes – standing, though often in the shadows, of legends as Henrik Lundqvist, Peter Forsberg, Henrik Zetterberg, the Zedin twins, and Niklas Kronwall, to name only a few. Just this year we saw him, without much comment, become the Capitals’ franchise leader in assists – 60 so far this season.
As Ovi exemplifies the best of Russian hockey, so does Nicky 19 show off the very best of what we might call the Swedish Style of Hockey. Elegant, speedy, cerebral, and always ready to help his teammates, Nicklas Backstrom is today the pre-eminent model of everything that’s best about Swedish hockey: he’s quick, powerful, and beautiful.
As part of our recent discussions with ambassadors of the Great Hockey Powers, we recently had the great luck to speak with His Excellency Björn Lyrvall, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Sweden to the U.S.
Amb. Lyrvall, to no-one’s surprise, has spent much of his career in high-profile assignments, from the former Soviet Union to present-day Russia, Bosnia, London and Brussels, among others. He graciously took time with us to discuss another matter of great international importance – hockey.
Amb. Lyrvall, what does hockey mean for, and in, Sweden?
This is the game in Sweden. It’s clearly the most popular sport, along with soccer. If you look at statistics, this is the sport that draws the highest number of spectators. Our players there are superstars – very much in focus. Swedes love hockey; they very much love their national team – the “Tre Kronor” [or “Three Crowns”] – they’ve been doing very well over the years. They’re one of the top teams in the world at the World Cup and Olympic Games. And add to that, we have a very popular women’s national team – the “Damkronora” [or “Ladies’ Crowns”] – doing well over the last few years, and won a couple bronze and silver medals at recent Olympics.
Why so many great players from such a small nation, population-wise?
Well, I think it goes back to the culture of organized sports in Sweden. There are lots of local clubs and teams and district ice hockey associations that organize the training – they start early. We’re a Nordic country and people love their winter sports. The tradition was established a very long time ago, back in the early 1920’s, and has been built over the years and by now is very well established. And of course, we have a very, very good set of coaches – notably at the local level, where young players learn very early fundamentals of the game.
I think you see that here, when Swedish players come to play in the NHL, they’re pretty good on the ice. They’ve got a good tactical view, good at skating and good behavior on and off the ring. We are pretty pleased with the kind of players we have; after Canada and the US, Sweden is now producing the most players for the NHL.
Are there particular teams or players you follow here in the U.S.?
Well of course back in Sweden we all have our local favorite teams in the Swedish Hockey League – mine is Leksands which is seen as one of the most interesting teams to watch. In the NHL, well, I’m here now so I follow hockey with the Capitals.
Nicklas Backstrom of course I like a lot; Marcus Johansson and Burakovsky I watch with great pleasure. Another great player I like to watch a lot, although he’s injured right now, is of course Henrick Lundqvist, the King with the Ranger. I haven’t been following the Wings all that closely now, but of course I admire Henrick Zetterberg, the Zedin brothers out in Vancouver. There’s a lot of Swedish players that not only I follow but many others as well.
How closely do Swedes follow NHL hockey?
They have a really great following in Sweden. People stay up at night watching the NHL. I know for sure a number of Swedes are actually staying up following the NHL games live when they are broadcast – there’s a six hour difference remember. We also have newspapers covering the on-going games, live-blogging going on while the game’s are being played, interviews with the players are given lots of space in Swedish media. There’s considerable interest, and those Swedes who love hockey, they really know their NHL teams really quite well.
What would you say are the hallmark of Swedish-style play? The Finnish Ambassador Koukke-Ronde told us that there’s something in the Finnish soul that makes them excellent goalies.
When it comes to goal-tending, of course, we’ve had some of the very best goal-tenders in the world, so I wouldn’t say the Finns have a lock on goal-tending. But I do have to say the Finns have sisu– they are real fighters in the best sense.
I think our hockey is characterized by great versatility, good skating, good passing. Look at Peter Forsberg for example; he’s a master of that, and the Zedin brothers as well. Nicklas Backstrom is one of the best in the NHL in my view.
Good vision for the game, good skating is what characterizes Swedish players in the NHL. Our players behave very well on the ice as well as off. They are pretty disciplined team players. They’re good at the passing game – not necessarily the guys who want to take the shot by themselves, but they’re very good at passing game.
Who are the Swedish father figures in modern hockey new players look to?
I would mention three immediately, Börje Salming a great player in Toronto many, many years. Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg are there. And also of course Zetterberg.
But the player who really had impact, was really a success story in the NHL, at least for the Swedes, that was Salming. He kept playing in Toronto year after year, I don’t know how many seasons he actually played at the end of the day,but he was a star there, and an example of someone who made it. Forsberg, of course, rates also just because of the number of points he scored.
Do Swedish players maintain contact with the homeland, and help Swedish youth hockey?
That’s very much the case. Of course when we had the strike you had all the NHL players coming back, taking part in the Swedish hockey league But these guys are playing here, in rather challenging circumstances – lots of games, lots of travel – they love to go back to Sweden to be with their families but also be with the young players coming up.
And there are some very interesting young players coming up in the NHL – we’ve seen some very promising young players this season alone. Peter Forsberg in Nashville, John Klingberg in Dallas, Hector Carlson …
Forsberg is still a touchy subject here in Washington…
(laughs) Yes, well…but he’s still doing well!
Do you have the chance to meet with the players?
I’ve met with a few of them. Most recently I was up in New York with my prime minister; we watched the game and afterward met with Henrik Lundqvist and also Carl Hagelin, who’s also doing very well. Occasionsally we’ve had some of the Capitals visit the embassy for one occasion or another.
Did you play hockey as a youth, or even now?
I don’t really play now but of course I did attempt to play a bit whne I was younger in school. I was goalie for a few years there, but I can’t say that was my strongest sport, although I enjoyed it very much. And of course I skate, and continue to do that with my children now, and play hockey with them. And I still watch a lot. I grew up in a part of the country that had real hockey culture and some good players from my own village made it into the NHL as well.
Is stopping pucks good training for diplomacy?
Ha! Yeah, I think part of the job here is to try and avoid catastrophe!
Lastly, what is it about the game that you enjoy so much?
It’s a game where there’s a lot of energy in it. There’s a beauty in a good passing game and the quick movements you see on the ice with skaters, with all that energy and commitment you see in hockey. I keep coming back to it: it’s quick, beautiful and powerful.