Sports

Hockey’s Growing Cold War

Spooked by Russia, Sweden just reinstated the draft. Could it affect the country’s best young hockey players and the NHL? by Tal Pinchevsky

April 24, 2017

Sweden—neutral land of Volvos, meatballs, and the Nobel Prize—typically takes a back seat when it comes time to discuss international geopolitics. That changed somewhat when President Donald Trump suddenly and without context made a baffling reference to the country as “having problems like they never thought possible” with regard to refugees. Officials across Sweden were mostly confused by the president’s assertion, but that’s not to say there haven’t been stark changes in Sweden in recent weeks. And it may be too soon to tell exactly how that change may affect one of Sweden’s most cherished natural resources: hockey players.

On March 2, the Swedish government announced that it would be reinstituting its military draft. Conscription was first introduced in Sweden in 1901 and proved crucial in assembling the country’s military at the height of the Cold War. The tactic was slowly fazed out—before being dismissed altogether in 2010. But a glaring shortfall in military recruiting and the recent sighting of Russian aircraft intruding on NATO airspace inspired Sweden to bring back its draft.

The 2006 Olympic hockey gold medalists, Sweden has provided a pipeline of world-class hockey talent to the National Hockey League for decades.

Sweden is not a member of NATO, but it has contributed troops to a variety of NATO-led missions, including peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy and the sighting of its planes veering over airspace belonging to Swedish neighbors Finland and Estonia last November ultimately led to the return of conscription.

“The security environment in Europe and in Sweden's vicinity has deteriorated and the all-volunteer recruitment hasn't provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel,” said an official statement courtesy of the Swedish government. “The reactivating of the conscription is needed for military readiness.”

Sweden’s growing concern over regional instability doesn’t end with the draft. The Swedish government also announced in March that it would increase military spending this year by 500 million crowns, or about $55.7 million. That’s a marked increase for a country that continually reduced military spending in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War.

Which naturally leads to the question of Sweden’s ice hockey players. The 2006 Olympic hockey gold medalists, Sweden provided a pipeline of world-class hockey talent to the NHL for decades. Today, many of the league’s biggest stars hail from Sweden, including Erik Karlsson, Henrik Lundqvist, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik.

Washington Capitals' Nicklas Backstrom

The issue of how the draft might affect young hockey players hasn’t been discussed much, but there’s little doubt the recent news could eventually affect some top young players down the road.

“I think it might be a small chance that it could affect some of the players maybe in the future. It’s a little bit early to say, but it’s realistic,” said Peter Wallen, a former Swedish pro player, who as an agent now represents some top Swedish players, including Victor Hedman and Gabriel Landeskog.

Of course, the draft previously existed when top young Swedes were looking to take their game to North America. Wallen expects some players, as they did when the draft previously existed, could perhaps negotiate with the government should they be called into service.

“Back in the day when it was mandatory, there were always possibilities to talk to the organization for the military, maybe to find a common ground,” he said. “It’s a little bit early to say how it will affect, but probably it will affect (players) in some way down the road.”

Twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks

Though it likely wasn’t by design, Swedish hockey officials voiced their own philosophical shift the same week as Sweden’s military announcement.

On March 8, four Swedish hockey officials attended the NHL general managers’ meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, to make their case for allowing their players to stay longer in their home country rather than moving to North America. With the NHL offering the world’s top competition, as well as the salaries to match, greater numbers of Swedish hockey players have been coming to North America in an attempt to pursue their hockey dreams. Today, players as young as 16 and 17 now leave Sweden to play junior hockey in Canada or college hockey in the United States. According to QuantHockey.com, Swedes made up 9.1 percent of NHL players in the 2016-17 season, almost double the figure of the 2000-01 season, when Swedes made up 4.8 percent of the league’s players.

“Maybe every second player that goes too early will never reach their own potential. They will stop developing,” Swedish Ice Hockey Association general secretary Tommy Boustedt said following the Boca Raton meetings. “Of course that doesn't matter when you have big numbers of players to choose from, but we have so few players because we're such a small country.”

It’s unlikely there’s a link between Sweden’s military conscription and this hockey meeting in Florida, but the timing of both events is interesting. At the very least, it all points to a philosophical shift permeating some of the country’s most prominent institutions.

It’s likely too early to tell if the military draft will affect hockey players pursuing their pro dreams, or if perhaps there may be a system of negotiations in place for such world-class players if they choose to pursue their careers in North America. All we know so far is that 4,000 Swedish men and women will be called into service this July after being drawn from a pool of 13,000 natives born in 1999.

And if a Swedish hockey phenom is conscripted into the military? Interesting times, indeed.

Tal Pinchevsky is a writer and author of the book Breakaway: From Behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL--The Untold Story of Hockey's Great Escapes.

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