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Commentary: Sweden Doing Something Right With Hockey Development

Over the last decade, Sweden has become more and more of a hockey power, and the data doesn’t just back it up, it might blow your mind.

What if I told you that, in 2015-16, Sweden is putting players in the NHL at almost double the rate of Canada and more than triple the rate of the United States? You might think I’m crazy, but the numbers don’t lie.

Sweden had 60,408 registered hockey players for the 2015-16 season according to the IIHF. There were 85 players who appeared in NHL games last season that come from Sweden. Granted this data is very raw, but that means that last season, Sweden was putting one out of every 711 registered players in the NHL. Canada was putting one out of every 1,319 players and the U.S. was dragging behind, placing just one out of every 2,226 registered players in the NHL.

In fact, the U.S. also trailed Finland and Switzerland.

DATA BASED ON 2015-16:

Country IIHF Reg. Players NHL Players NHL %  Players Per NHL Player
Canada 639,500 485 0.08% 1,319
USA 543,239 244 0.04% 2,226
Czech Rep. 109,103 39 0.04% 2,798
Russia 102,179 41 0.04% 2,492
Finland 74,150 39 0.05% 1,901
Sweden 60,408 85 0.14% 711
Switzerland 26,898 14 0.05% 1,921
Germany 25,430 9 0.04% 2,826
Country Players Points GP Pts/GP Pts/Player
Canada 485 8477 22823 0.37 17.48
USA 244 3907 11035 0.35 16.01
Sweden 85 1925 4588 0.42 22.65

Sweden’s influence isn’t just at the NHL level, either. College teams are seeing more Scandinavian players than every before and Merrimack hasn’t missed that boat. The Warriors have three Swedes on the roster right now (Hampus Gustafsson, Alfred Larsson and Ludvig Larsson) with one recently graduated (John Gustafsson) and another on the way (Simon Loof).

This is worth a longer examination on another day, but USA Hockey must be wondering if the development model can’t be better here in the U.S. To me, a relatively new hockey parent, there seems to be far too much focus on games and less of a focus on developing skill. I’m really interested in finding the core differences between what Sweden does and how we run our youth programs here in the U.S.

From what I understand, Sweden brings youth players up together, as part of the same program. They progress together, as a team, and they don’t start playing games until much later.

Even at the mite level, I’m getting asked “which tournaments is your son playing in?”

He’s six.

I’ve mentioned this on Twitter, but my son’s mite season began the same day as Week 1 of the NFL regular season. … It will end about one month after the Super Bowl and the kids don’t have a single bye week.

My suggestion to any new hockey parent is to find a program you like and a coach you trust. It’s why I like the program at Micro Ice  so much.

But this is something that USA Hockey should be looking more closely at. Why is Sweden doing such a better job, per player, it seems? There are probably multiple reasons why they’re having so much success, but it’s something we here in the U.S. should be paying attention to. Less of a focus on games and more of a focus on developing stick skills and skating.

A few years ago, I was talking to a very successful Division I coach about recruiting and how over-saturated the market has become with “showcase” tournaments and “elite” teams. I still saved the quote. It was off the record, so I’ll leave the name out, but he said:

“Every team is a (expletive) elite team now. Guess what? There aren’t that many elite players. Everyone asks me all the time, ‘where should I have my kid play to get seen,’ and I feel like saying to them, ‘go ahead and have your kid get seen, but if we see him, and he sucks, we’re not recruiting him.’ Everyone thinks their kid is the next Bobby Orr, and all that needs to happen is someone needs to notice them. No one wants to know how to really become an elite player. Everyone thinks they are already, and just need someone to see them.”

In addition, read this Player’s Tribune piece from Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Viktor Hedman.

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