Not even a cheating scandal in the Allsvenskan or the start of the domestic Elitserien hockey league could overshadow the arrival of some of the biggest stars in all of Sweden, and they aren’t rock stars or actors.
They’re hockey players.
by Chipp Reid
The arrival of the Detroit Red Wings caused mayhem throughout Sweden as the NHL powerhouse drew packed crowds to every practice and exhibition game they played in the run-up to their season opener Oct. 2 in Stockholm against the St. Louis Blues.
The Wings were one of four NHL teams that held preseason camps in Sweden, but none of them could rival the celebrity status of Detroit. The Wings, who reached the Stanley Cup finals last year, have eight Swedish players on their roster, including icon Nicklas Lidström and fan favorite Henrik Zetterberg.
"A lot of people back in Sweden have stayed up late over the years to watch the Red Wings play," Zetterberg said, "and now they get a chance to watch us play live. It's very special to do this."
The Wings boast a Swede in every position: Lidström, Niklas Kronwall, Andreas Lilja and Jonathan Ericsson on defense; Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen up front; and newcomer Daniel Larsson may soon be part of Detroit's goaltending.
Tickets for the games at Globe Arena sold out within an hour.
"That happened last year, too," said Johan Esk, a sports columnist for Sweden's largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, "but I think at that time people just wanted to see an NHL game. This year, they have bought tickets because they want to see Detroit. A lot of people in Sweden are proud of what the Swedes are doing for the Red Wings."
Zetterberg is a regular in the gossip pages. There are times a simple trip to a café with his famous fiancée becomes an exercise in stealth. He is that popular. His fame in Sweden shines outshines even that of football legend Henrik Larsson. In his hometown of Sundsvall, he is royalty.
"In our city, and in our county, he is more than a rock star," said Christer Jonasson of Swedish Radio, who has covered Zetterberg since he was 18. "People here just call him Z. That's all. He is very, very famous."
The Wings played a pair of games against the Blues in Stockholm to open their 2009-10 campaign. For Lidström, it could well be the final season in his storied career. He said if it was, it was the perfect way to start.
"Never, even when I first came over (to the United States), could I have imagined that this would happen," Lidström said. "A few years ago, the league started opening up in Europe and I thought, maybe we would have a chance one of these days and here it is."
Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said in many ways, the Wings’ reason for opening in Sweden was as a testament to Lidström.
“We wanted to make this trip for Nick and we felt, even though we hope he's with us for a few more years, if we didn't do it now we might miss an opportunity for the guy,” Holland said. “If you figure Bobby Orr is the best defenseman ever, then Nick ranks anywhere between second and fifth among the best that's ever played. We wanted to reward him for such an incredible career."
Holland said Detroit also saw it as a way to increase its branding in Sweden.
"We just thought it was something we should do for a lot of reasons," general manager Ken Holland said. "We are in the winning business, for sure, but we are also in the entertainment business and we are trying to grow our brand and create some excitement for the fans.”
The reasons for the trip tickled Lidström.
"It's nice to hear, you know," he said. "I've been with the Wings for a lot of years. It's great to hear that coming from your boss, you know, that they're thinking of me as a player and being a Swede and everything. It's really nice."
Lidström is three points shy of 1,000 for his career, and he could reach the milestone in his homeland.
"You know, it would be nice for it to happen over there," he said. "I'm going to have a lot of friends and family at the games, both games, over there. So it would be nice if it happens there but if not, might as well do it for the fans in Detroit."
Lidström, from Västerås, is the oldest of the eight Swede Wings. The others, Holmström, Zetterberg, Ericsson, Franzen (Vetlanda), Lilja (Helsingborg), Larsson (Boden)—the third goalie who will be sent to Grand Rapids when the team returns home—and Kronwall (Stockholm) are from cities scattered throughout the country.
Since he was the only one from Stockholm, Kronwall served as the default host.
"I told Nik, the only thing I am bringing is my passport," Kris Draper said. "No money. He and Hank are in charge."
Kronwall, who grew up playing at the Ericsson Globe arena and has had to come up with 120 tickets for the two games, said he won't be leading too many tours.
"It's not going to be too bad," he said. "The way the schedule is set up, playing three games (exhibition in Karlstad) in six days, there's not going to be a lot of time to do things. Our focus has to be on the games. We're not there for me to be a tour guide and for the guys to be tourists. We're there to do a job."
That said, the non-Swedish Wings are looking forward to the trip almost as much as the natives.
"It's going to be a great experience," said forward Chris Draper. "We've got a bunch of world-class Swedish hockey players and for them to have this opportunity to play in their home country is special for them and a good feeling for us to be part of, as well. I grew up in Toronto and I still get excited going up there and it's something I've done 50-60 times. To bring the Red Wings over there is something I'm sure they never thought possible."
Certainly it was something the pioneer Swedish players—ones like Börje Salming, Håkan Loob, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson who helped build the bridge to the NHL for the Swede Wings—never thought possible.
"I can remember in the '80s watching Håkan Loob, Mats Näslund and those players," Lidström said. "Börje Salming, he wasn't the first Swede but he was the guy who really stood out and made it over here. He paved the way not only for Swedish players but for all Europeans. The way he played, he took a beating his first couple of years here being the first European to make a name for himself. He was my boyhood idol growing up."
So, as much as this trip to Stockholm is a gift from the Wings to Lidström, it also is a tribute from Lidström to those who first charted his course.
"It's just another thing that you can look back at when you're done playing, that you had a chance to play with the Wings and over in Sweden and in Stockholm in front of your home fans," he said. "It's something I thought never would happen. It's tough to compare it to winning Stanley Cups or winning Olympic gold, but it's something that will be a good memory for me and my family."
Wire stories from AP and Reuters contributed to this report.