They came. They saw. A few have managed to conquer.
North American players in the Swedish Hockey League were the talk of hockey at the start of the season as Swedish teams snapped up more than 40 U.S. and Canadian skaters. With the end of the regular season in sight, some of those players have lived up to their hype—and hefty paychecks—while others have been a complete bust.
Canadians or Americans playing in Sweden is nothing new. Many North American players who are fringe players in the American Hockey League or the East Coast Hockey League, the two principal minor leagues to the NHL, often try to latch on in Europe.
This year, however, was different. Swedish teams openly courted established AHL or ECHL stars. Even Modo, once called Sweden’s “hockey factory,” jumped on the North American bandwagon, bringing three Americans and three Canadians.
The problem for SHL fans and teams alike comes when those players simply don’t produce. The North American players earn as much as 40 percent more than their Swedish counterparts. Some, like Skelleftea star Bud Holloway, have become legitimate superstars in Sweden. Then there are the players teams would like to forget.
Farjestad, which has failed to reach the finals in the past two seasons, brought in five North American players. The Wolfpack released three of them in January as they sent Garrett Stafford, Devin DiDiomete and Dave Liffiton back to Canada. Defenseman Chris Lee, an Ontario native and Jack Connolly, from Duluth, Minn., remain with the club and are important contributors as FBK makes its push for the playoffs.
Canadian Aaron Gagnon, who spent parts of four seasons in the NHL, signed with HV 71 but never found the form that landed him on five Western Hockey League All-Star teams. The Blue Bulls cut Gagnon on January 17. He is currently playing in Finland. MoDo recently released Sean Sullivan, a Boston native and an All-American with Boston College. Sullivan is now playing in Germany.
Several new North American players have proved more than worth the risk.
Linköping right wing Chad Kolarik of Abington, Penn., is currently second in the league in goals with 19 and his 30 points is good for third on the team. Brynäs center Greg Scott (11 goals, 16 assists) is a major reason why Brynäs is battling for a playoff spot. Both players are adjusting quickly to the differences of SHL play from the North American style, and sitting third in their respective team’s internal point scoring standings.
Tim Wallace has also impressed since his move from North America to Sweden. The former Carolina Hurricane has 12 goals and 12 assists so far in his debut season in the SHL as Örebro battles to remain in the top flight.
The Växjö Lakers have nothing but praise for their North American contigent as the league newcomers are in third place in the standings after getting off to a slow start to the season. The club’s management came under heavy criticism after it spent much of the budget on North American players during the offseason, signing Rhett Rakhshani, Cory Murphy, Ryan Lasch, Liam Reddox and Colby Armstrong.
Patience paid off for the Lakers and although their transatlantic stars may not be at the top in the league’s individual standings, they all have done their share on and off the ice to create the winning culture that currently fills the Växjö change room.