When Sweden took on Canada Monday night in the gold medal game of the World Junior Hockey Championships, all eyes were on two players: John Tavares of Canada and Victor Hedman of Sweden.
by Chipp Reid
The pairing had all the hallmarks of a movie. Tavares is a crafty, speedy forward who has the odds to be first pick at the upcoming National Hockey League draft. Hedman is a big, strong defenseman who is also an odds-on favorite to become the No. 1 pick in the NHL.
Canadians expected Tavares to lead their team to a fifth-straight junior title while Swedes counted on Hedman to stop him.
For the Swede, it’s simply the latest set of expectations fans have heaped upon him.
“He’s a good one,” said Göran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting. “When a guy is rated that high, No. 1 in Europe, people expect too much from him. I’m 100 percent satisfied.”
Hedman is the latest hockey prospect to emerge from the tiny city of Örnsköldsvik. The small factory town is home to MoDo Hockey, one of the top teams in the Elitserien and arguably the top producer of hockey talent in all of Scandinavia. MoDo, in the past decade, has produced more NHL players than any other team in Sweden and Hedman is ready to become the next player to swap the red-and-black of the Elitserien team for the big green of North American money.
“In the beginning I didn’t know about the NHL, but in the last five to seven years, I’ve followed the NHL and seen how many players from my town have played there,” Hedman said. “It’s produced very good players like (Peter) Forsberg and Markus Näslund. They’ve helped me a lot and I really look up to the guys from my town.”
Näslund, Forsberg, twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin are all Örnsköldsvik natives playing in the NHL. Hedman keeps tabs on the Detroit Red Wings, because of the number of Swedes on their roster, and the Vancouver Canucks because of the Sedins. His hero is Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidström.
“He’s a two-way defenseman and very good on the power play,” Hedman says. “He can kill penalties a lot. He’s a guy I look up to and every Swedish defenseman is looking at him.”
Hedman turned 18 on Dec. 18, yet he’s already six foot six and 220 pounds. He can skate, shoot and pass the puck. His long reach and size make it hard to strip the puck from him. He’s already in his second season with the first team at MoDo, where he battles former NHL players such as Kristian Huselius and Tommi Kallio. Looming in the junior championships was his matchup against Tavares.
The Canadian had a stellar first-round scoring eight goals, including a hat trick in Canada’s 7-4 win over the United States in group play. Hedman, on the other hand, had just two assists in his first four games, a low tally for an offensive-defenseman,
“I can be better in creating offence, but I think I’ve played a good defensive game,” Hedman said. “It’s not every game you can play at your top level, but I’m trying to.”
Hedman suffered a separated shoulder in November. He played four games with Modo prior to the world junior championships and said the injury hasn’t affected his performance in this tournament. Hedman has three goals and seven assists in 25 games for Modo this season.
On the surface, it appeared Tavares was tightening his grip on the first overall selection. NHL scouts are less concerned with a player’s statistics, however, and more interested in a prospect demonstrating what kind of NHL player he can become in four or five years.
The club that picks first overall may decide a beefy, skilled defenseman with the potential to add more power to his game is too good to pass up. It would make Hedman just the second Swede to be drafted first overall after Mats Sundin (1989).
“You will see a guy who is six feet six tall and he has a fantastic reach,” said Stubb of Hedman. “With that height, he doesn’t really have to play that physical even if he has the body for it. He’s living on his reach, on his understanding of the game. He’s a very good passer, playmaker and he also has a good shot.”
Hedman doesn’t see the world junior as a duel with Tavares for draft day glory.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of good players. We have players on our team who are performing well, so I think it’s more than just two players to compete for the first pick.”
Tavares and Hedman were on opposing teams at last year’s world junior hockey championship in Pardubice, Czech Republic, where Canada lost to the Swedes in the preliminary round, but beat them in overtime in the final.
“Obviously he’s a good player and he’s scored a lot of points in this tournament,” Hedman said. “I knew before the tournament he was good on the power play and good with the puck and has good playing sense. You have to stay alert when he’s on the ice.”