Karlskrona celebrates (photo courtesy of Magnus Arwidson)
Imagine an ECHL team moving all the way up to the NHL in the span of four seasons – that's what Karlskrona managed to pull off in Sweden's relegation/promotion system and the town couldn't be more excited for their boys.
Because we don't have relegation in North America, the concept can be a little tough to understand. For example, imagine if the Buffalo Sabres had to play in the AHL next year. It wouldn't work, because the Sabres own the Rochester Americans and they could just flip the rosters.
But for the sake of argument, imagine if a team from the ECHL – say, the Wheeling Nailers or Quad City Mallards – managed to work their way up to not only the AHL, but the NHL in the span of four seasons. That's exactly what has happened in Sweden with Karlskrona HK, aka the Black Bugs.
Not only did Karlskrona beat long odds to earn a spot next year in the SHL, Sweden's version of the NHL, but the team did so with a first-year coach and a history of close calls that could have led to doom.
"The remarkable thing is that just one year ago they had financial problems," said Uffe Bodin, editor in chief of HockeySverige.com. "They almost didn't ice a team."
And back in 2012-13, the team had to win a qualification tournament just to stay up in Sweden's second-tier Allsvenskan; they almost returned to Division 1, a sprawling class of teams below that where Karlskrona had played the year before.
Karlskrona is located in the south of Sweden and the city and surrounding area contains about 70,000 people. It's an old navy town that still houses the biggest naval base in the country and the folks there are crazy about their hockey. So much so, that 5,000 fans jammed the town square the day after the Black Bugs clinched their spot in the SHL with a series win over VIK Vasteras.
"It was crazy," said center Kelsey Tessier. "We knew what to expect, but we didn't know it was going to be that big because we weren't sure if the word had gotten out. We got off the bus and everyone was speechless."
Tessier, who was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche back in 2008, began the season in Finland, but soon left after the ice time he thought was promised didn't materialize. Similarly, former Edmonton Oilers prospect Vyacheslav Trukhno joined the team during the campaign after he parted ways with Djurgarden – a franchise that Karlskrona will now face next season in the SHL. Even coach Per Hanberg had something to prove after he helped Vita Hasten get promoted to the Allsvenskan last season, only to see his contract not get re-upped.
"There was a lot of hunger for revenge on that team," Bodin said. "It was something special."
Tessier cited faith and chemistry as big factors.
"When I came here, the chemistry was some of the best of any team I've played for," he said. "If one guy went to the movie theater, 15 guys would go."
And other than Tessier and Trukhno, the team didn't make many changes to the lineup. That strong core and the confidence that management showed in the team went a long way in Tessier's mind.
Karlskrona's timing could not have been better, either. Next season, the SHL expands from 12 teams to 14. According to Bodin, it will be harder than ever to get promoted from the Allsvenskan, since the financial disparity between teams in the two leagues is so great – and now two more clubs will enjoy the spoils of millions in TV revenue and sponsorships while fending off Allsvenskan teams in the qualification round. That fact is not lost on the players, either.
"This championship and promotion is probably bigger than winning the SHL," Tessier said. "It's such a big accomplishment and it puts Karlskrona on the map. It brings hope to the team."
The franchise actually re-started in 2001 (the year is included in the team's stag beetle logo) after bankruptcy, so it's never been easy for the Black Bugs, but now the challenges are less dire. Karlskrona's arena will need to be renovated in order to meet the SHL's minimum seat requirement of 3,500 seats and 5,000 capacity (standing-room only is culturally much bigger there) so some of the new funds will go to that.
Based on how nuts the Black Bugs supporters go now, it'll be quite the scene when there is space for more of them.
"I played for the Remparts in Quebec City, but it's not the same," Tessier said. "Here, they're right on top of you. When one starts chanting, the whole crowd goes. All the cheers, all the flags, it's unbelievable. You get the chills."
And things are just getting started.