Niklas Edin, skip of the Swedish men's curling team, never expected his young team to burst on the scene the way it has.
In the world of curling, most fans and players would say older is better. The more experience a team has on the ice as a rink (curling-ese for a team), the better that team will be. That’s why older players long dominated the sport.
Niklas Edin, skip of the Swedish men’s curling team, has something to say about that. “Youth is king,” he says, “and younger players are now going to dominate the game.”
Edin should know. The 24-year-old from Ornskoldsvik, and his youthful teammates, sent the curling world a warning at the Vancouver Games as Sweden finished fourth in just its second international tournament. Just prior to the Olympics, Edin led Sweden to the crown at 2010 European Championships.
Sweden faced Switzerland in both the European Championship final and the bronze medal game in the Olympics. Edin topped the Swiss at the Euros but lost a tough match in the Olympics. Like the Swedes, the Swiss fielded a young squad.
“We felt pretty good going into the playoffs,” Edin said, “but losing that bronze game with such a small margin and playing that team, too. We beat the Swiss in the European final and felt we had the game, but (the Swiss skip) made some good shots. It was a close game. We just had a tough break there.”
Their youth guides
Edin and his teammates, Oskar Eriksson, 18, Viktor Kjall, 24, Sebastien Kraupp, 24, and Fredrik Lindberg, 24, let their youth guide in every tournament they played. The Swedes came out aggressive, a stance Edin admitted more experienced players probably wouldn’t endorse. Edin often used a guard stone—a “rock” left well up ice from the scoring circle—to force opponents to react more to what the Swedes did than follow a pre-set game plan.
Sometimes it worked, other times—such as the matches against legendary Canadian skip Kevin Martin—it backfired. Edin, however, said the failures wouldn’t change his style.
“I like to stay aggressive and make the key shots ourselves,” he said. “If we put up an early guard, it can create a deuce of our own (a two-point scoring opportunity). We hope for teams to make mistakes and try to keep our play offensive.”
Guard stones force opposing teams to decide whether to knock the guard out of the way or play around it. Guards give the team using it the chance to curl a rock into the scoring circle without worrying about an opponent knocking the rock out of the circle. Edin said he thinks his tactics worked, especially against the Canadians in the Olympic semifinals.
“It was a really tight game,” he said. “Both teams played well. There were a number of tough shots both in tactical calls and sweeping calls.”
Sweden lost to Canada 5-4 in the semis after conceding a match to Martin earlier in the tournament. Edin said it was the team’s youth that allowed them to bounce back.
“We knew we just had to stay aggressive,” Edin said. “Martin made some great shots the first time we played him.”
The Swedish skip also said keeping the game young affected just about everything that happens on the ice.
“It’s all about how you play the rock,” he said. “It all depends on the pressure and what kind of player is going to play the stone. A lot of decision making has to be perfect but it’s also just for that situation. In another game with less pressure, maybe we would have done things differently.”
Curling made headlines during the Olympics, and not just for rocks and rinks. The Norwegians gained fame, on and off the ice, when they showed up at matches wearing red, blue and white checkered pants. Although they looked more like pajamas than sports apparel, the way the Norwegians played made their funky pants an instant hit.
“We thought that was great,” Edin said. “It helps if you’re a small sport. Everything that can help attract people to curling is good.”
,b>No need for gimmicks
The Swedish men and women didn’t need any gimmicks. While the Swedish men were the youngest team at both the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February and the Grand Slam Championships in April, the Swedish women’s team was among the older squads. Behind skip Annette Norberg, the blue and yellow recovered from a rocky opening to top Canada in extra ends to win the gold medal for the second-straight Olympics. Nordberg and her team was, on average, 12 years older than the men.
“It’s really inspiring,” Edin said. “It shows you might have four, five Olympic tournaments if you start young enough. The women played great and it was incredible that they could come back and win the gold again.”
Edin also said the women’s performance was proof of the importance of youth.
“It used to be that a lot of people starting curling when they were older and maybe not so fit,” he said. “That doesn’t work anymore. The new generation now has to be very fit and athletic. You have to live curling.”
The men and women are full-time curlers. They receive stipends from the Swedish Curling Association as well as sponsors that allow them to train four to six days a week; Edin said much of that training is off the ice—strength and stamina training he said is just as important as learning how to curl rocks.
Women's team will follow men's example
The men aren’t the only team going through a youth movement. The women, despite the back-to-back Olympic gold medals, are also looking to the future, with 22-year-old Cecilia Östlund set to become the women’s new skip.
Norberg suggested during the Olympics in Vancouver that she would retire if there was a good enough team behind her in Sweden to help maintain the country's excellence.
"We're ready to take over the throne from Annette," Östlund said. "We want to be her and do what she has done."
Norberg bowed out of the world championships in March due to her Olympic commitments. The Swedish Curling Federation decided this year's event would be an opportunity for some of its younger players to take part.
Östlund's squad, which averaged 22.5 years of age, made its debut at the worlds. "For these guys this is very important," said Östlund's coach, Peja Lindholm, who is a three-time men's world champion as a skip. "They are working really hard at every practice just like they want to be the next top team. They have also proven that it's OK to put that kind of pressure on them."
Combined, the young squads could mean a bright future for Swedish curling.
“I think curling is going to grow some in Sweden,” Edin said. “A lot of small kids watched us at Olympics. I think with us being a younger team we’re more fun to watch. If we can get some of those kids to come out and play while they’re still young, that will be very good for Swedish curling.”