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THN at the World Junior Championship: A noticeable new attitude from Sweden

Anton Lander skates away from Brett Connolly. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

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Anton Lander skates away from Brett Connolly. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

BUFFALO – As the Swedish world junior team was preparing to take to the ice for the third period of its game against Canada, one of the players was overheard yelling, “Who the (expletive) is Canada anyway?!”

Not exactly Bruce Boudreau material, but if you know anything about Swedish hockey players, that should come as a huge surprise. Generally speaking, Swedish players normally wouldn’t say expletive if their mouth was full of it.

But as evidenced by the Swedes’ impressive 6-5 shootout win over Canada in the final round-robin game of the tournament Friday, we’re clearly dealing with a far different Swedish player these days and the guy has a pretty impressive swagger both on and off the ice.

Need more evidence? Well, consider that during his post-game news conference, with Canadian coach Dave Cameron sitting a couple of feet away, Swedish coach Roger Ronnberg managed to even wipe the loss in Canada’s face, not once, but twice.

“I think actually we had tougher games against the Czechs and the Russians,” Ronnberg said when asked his assessment of the game.

Even when he was given the opportunity to clarify, Ronnberg did not back down from creating more bulletin board material.

“I think if you look at the scoring chances, it was tougher games against the Czechs and Russians,” Ronnberg said. “I think they played better offensively than Canada did tonight. I think those games were tougher for us controlling, but tonight we did a very good job of that.”

This is enormous stuff. There was a time when the Swedes would come into international competition and talk about what an honor it was to play against the Canadians. There were times in the past when the Swedes would give up an early goal the way they did Friday; get knocked around the way they did Friday; face a hostile crowd the way they did Friday; and get terrible goaltending the way they did Friday from Robin Lehner.

And they would fold. When that particular observation was pointed out to Swedish defenseman Tim Erixon, he couldn’t help but agree.

“I should know,” said Erixon, who is playing in his third WJC, “I’ve played for a couple of those teams.”

This corner has railed against the recent format for this tournament and what a huge advantage it represents for the Canadians. But maybe, just maybe, having been exposed so many times to that kind of adversity is beginning to teach teams such as Sweden a couple of valuable lessons. The most impressive thing about Sweden in Friday’s game was that it didn’t get sucked into playing a game it could not possibly win. Instead of trying to match Canada hit for hit, the Swedes instead turned the game into a track meet and were far quicker, more creative and better on faceoffs than the Canadian team.

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In short, they took the game to Canada instead of allowing the Canadians to dictate the pace of the game.

Much of the new Swedish attitude can be attributed to Tommy Boustedt, who heads up the coaching department for the country’s national program. Between ear-to-ear grins after the game, Boustedt pointed out how big a game it was for the Swedish program.

“When you always have so much respect for a team, it’s very difficult to beat them,” Boustedt said. “If you feel you’ve lost the game before it has started, it is tough. And I think there were times that the Canadians felt the game was won before it even started.”

So what does all of this mean? Well, Sweden gets the bye to the semifinal and Canada has to play in the quarters. Canada will now have to call on all its reserves of resilience and character if it hopes to win the tournament. Should Canada lose the quarterfinal game Sunday and limp home without a medal we can all move onto the public inquiries into what is wrong with Canadian hockey.

And should that happen, the first one identified will be that Canadian goalies apparently can’t stay on their feet. Olivier Roy, who was torched for five goals in regulation and let in two of three goals in the shootout, seemed to drop to his knees every time the Swedes emerged over the red line with the puck. Should the Edmonton Oilers draft pick ever play in the NHL, he’ll be picked apart in a hurry if he doesn’t learn to incorporate some variety into his game.

In fact, Canadian coach Dave Cameron all but acknowledged he is considering pulling Roy in favor of Mark Visentin, who plays for the nearby Niagara IceDogs.

“I don’t think either goalie was the player of the game,” Cameron said.

While Sweden’s road to the gold medal just got a lot easier and Canada’s got much more difficult, all is not lost or won. In fact, the gold medal winners in two of the past three tournaments – Canada in 2008 and USA last year – had to play in the quarterfinal.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear every Monday throughout the season.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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