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Swedish hockey experience is a different world

The NHL is growing in Sweden, but mostly to follow the Swedish players. Hometown teams still reign supreme.
Djurgården hockey fans, as seen in this 2014 file photo, are known for their singing during Swedish Hockey League games and reflect the passion Swedes have for hockey. [JOHANNA LUNDBERG | ZUMAPRESS.com]
Published Nov. 6
Updated Nov. 7

STOCKHOLM — As Djurgarden took to the ice at the start of each game at its home rink in Stockholm during last year’s Swedish league championship series, the entire arena broke out in song.

Sjung för gamla Djurgår´n nu/sjung av hjärtat sjung!

Sing to old Djurgårn now/sing of the heart sing!

For a less hyped game, the entire arena may not be signing, but there’s always at least a core group of a few hundred to a thousand fans, rounding the corner at the end where Djurgarden shoots twice, leading the songs.

MORE LIGHTNING: Just why is the team in Sweden? It has to do with marketing, bonding and life experiences

The atmosphere at a Swedish game isn’t comparable to one at an NHL game. The best comparison might be an SEC football game, but even that isn’t quite right.

Djurgården fans are known for their singing in championship series. Some compare the fanaticism over hockey in Sweden to the United States' passion for college football. [JOHANNA LUNDBERG | ZUMAPRESS.com]

“(At an NHL game), you eat, you talk, you watch a little bit, and then you get a beer, you come back,” said Jonathan Ekeliw, a Swedish journalist who co-hosts an NHL podcast. “(In Sweden), you have whole sections where people stand up and they have cheers. It can be a thousand people, and everyone knows the chants.”

Lightning Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman has never been to a college football game. He compares the Swedish hockey atmosphere to European soccer. Fans bring passion to the Swedish league games, the national team enjoys an ardent following, and there’s a Swedish women’s league.

“There are bigger arenas here, obviously,” said Hedman, whose team plays games against the Sabres on Friday and Saturday at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. “Back home (Ornskoldsvik), it’s a little smaller, more loud. It’s like soccer with drums and everything.”

Not every team has drums, though Hedman’s hometown team, Modo, and Djurgarden’s Stockholm rival Hammarby do. They all have songs.

Fandoms run deep in Sweden. Hedman wouldn’t entertain supporting any team other than Modo (he joked he’ll list his team No. 1 through infinity on a ranking of Swedish teams). Djurgarden fan Denniz Back said you can have friends who cheer for other clubs but you have to keep it quiet.

Back has season tickets at Djurgarden, but he doesn’t have much interest in games that don’t involve his team and won’t watch the Lightning and Sabres play.

“I would cry if the Swedish league did the same thing (as the NHL), played games in other countries,” Back said. “The NHL is more commercial. It’s a closed league. Here, we have the risk of falling out of the league (the league has a relegation process).”

Back follows the NHL only to see what Djurgarden alumni such as now-retired Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall have done and watching for younger players such as Capitals forward prospect Axel Jonsson Fjallby.

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But the NHL is growing in Sweden.

Tomas Carlsson and his wife, Anica, are Djurgarden fans and Islanders fans. Stockholm native Bob Nystrom played for the Islanders from 1972-86, winning four Stanley Cups, and hooked them on the team. Tomas doesn’t stay up to watch games that begin at 1 a.m. in Stockholm, but he checks the NHL app and Instagram for highlights.

About once a year, Tomas and Anica travel to North America to check out NHL games. They pick cities they’d like to visit. They saw the Panthers on a trip to Miami. They haven’t been to Tampa yet. Next year, they’re planning a ski and hockey trip to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. But they also are not going to the Lightning-Sabres games.

“NHL should be seen in America and Canada,” Tomas said. “If we cannot do it their way, we will not.”

Many other fans feel differently. Tickets for the Lightning-Sabres games sold out in a matter of days, fueled by Swedes’ chance to see seven of their countrymen play, headlined by Hedman and Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman greets a fan in Stockholm during a meet and greet this week. Hedman remains a popular figure in Sweden, his native land, but fans also gravitated toward other Lightning players this week. [Kinsey Janke | Tampa Bay Lightning]

Satellite and pay television brand Viasat Sweden has played a big role in increasing the NHL’s popularity in the country. It broadcasts most games, and the NHL now has a European game of the week, with at least one weekend game airing in Swedish prime time.

“You can see every game now, and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” Ekeliw said. “I think it’s about a million people watching (the prime-time broadcasts), and that’s pretty big in Sweden, a country of about 9 million people.”

MORE LIGHTNING: Some of the Amalie Arena employees made the trip to Sweden as fans

There is something of a generational split in Swedish NHL fandom. Younger fans have grown up with more access to the league, not only through TV broadcasts but highlights online. Ekeliw said interest in the NHL could outpace that in the Swedish league in another decade or two.

For now, Swedish NHL fans mostly follow their favorite players. Detroit is one of the most popular teams because for a while it had the most and best Swedish players. It doesn’t have as many as it used to, but people are used to following the Red Wings.

The Lightning are a more recent addition to the Swedish landscape. Freddy Modin, with the Lightning from 1996-2006, didn’t tip the scales in the era of Peter Forsberg with the Avalanche and Henrik and Daniel Sedin with the Canucks. Hedman has started to, however.

Hedman is one of the best Swedish players currently in the NHL. Ekeliw said the Lightning have moved from not much interest in the country a decade ago to being one of the top 10 teams that get attention. Along with Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Ryan McDonagh have been recognized by fans this week.

“They’re more excited to see the guys that aren’t (Swedes),” Hedman said. “They know Stamkos, (Nikita) Kucherov, (Andrei) Vasilevskiy.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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