Michael McCarthy is an American and former goaltender for the University of Massachusetts Boston, now living and coaching in Gävle, Sweden. Knowing Mike experienced plenty of US-style youth hockey growing up in the suburbs of Boston, we thought our American Youth Hockey readers would enjoy a comparison with youth hockey in Sweden.
On the surface youth hockey in Sweden would seem as it does in the United States, and likely as it does worldwide. As you enter the rink (or as they say here in Sweden, the ice hall), you will see glad faced children hovering over the puck like a group of bees over their hive. Very little on the surface of the hockey here seems different; one could even believe they are walking into the rink of their very own neighborhood. Perhaps only the language difference of the kids would stand out.
Once you are more immersed in the game and culture here though, the differences become more apparent, and of course I mean more than the obvious difference in the size of the ice surface.
Of course hockey is a very complex and multi-dimensional animal. There are countless variations of every aspect of the game, and nothing is as simple as it looks. There have been various strategies, concepts, ideas, and methods used throughout the history of the game, and in most cases from team to team, or coach to coach. I will be speaking more of the constant or more broadly accepted of these differences on a large scale as opposed to the minute details.
Some of the differences in the youth hockey here are very positive, while others, at least in my humble opinion, are very negative. I have been a player, coach, and scout at various points, and while my personal opinion will be clearly obvious here, each reader can take away their own opinions.
Perhaps one of the most charming aspects of the game here is that outdoor rinks still exist, and are widely used. These are largely reserved for youth hockey teams, as do to the business of the game, the older players and professionals are of course in modern stadiums, but most are open to public skating, and lower level adult teams. Normally at the end of September or very early October these rinks are opened. Of course the down side to this is that the teams who use them must make arrangements to play and train at an indoor rink early in the season, and of course in the middle of winter it is extremely cold for those watching. To me though, the picture of kids skating around doing what they love in a light snowfall conjurs the image of a Norman Rockwell like painting. This is unique to this part of the world, of course, due to the early onset of the cold weather, and the very long, dark winters.
Tied into the outdoor rinks is the early start to the hockey season here. Teams of all levels and ages kick off what they call the ice season, in the first week of August. This is preceded by the kids usually attending one or two weeks of “hockey school”, which to us in the States is like hockey camp during the month of July. Hockey camps here are usually packed, as not many rinks put down their ice in July, and therefore there are far too many kids on the ice at once, sometimes as many as forty, for only two or three coaches to work with. Meaning that any child on the ice would receive less than one minute of direct attention from a coach on average per hour of ice time. Some camps (like the ones I used to run) actually do limit the number of kids in a group at one time, and bring in several extra coaches to maximize the amount of attention per player, but these are hard to find, and even harder to get a spot in. With the seasons starting in August, teams generally have a solid month of practices on and off ice before the games begin. The season stretches into May in most cases, and there are numerous tournaments to join, so the kids here enjoy a tremendous amount of playing time.
One of the largest differences here is financial. Not so much in the way of fees paid to a club to be a member (although those can be substantial in some regions), but in the cost of equipment. Even for young children the cost of equipment compared to the USA/Canada can be 600% more expensive (if you really want to imagine how that can hurt your wallet, just think about your child being the goaltender). There are few pure hockey stores here (although they do exist, they’re hard to find, and usually lead to significant travel to get to one). Most establishments need to sell outdoor clothing, equipment for other sports, and various other items to be successful. Therefore, when you walk into a “hockey store” you will not be overwhelmed by the selection. Stores carry more or less a sample of what is available and will need to order your items from a manufacturer. This can take weeks to accomplish a simple task of buying a specific item. About the only thing you can hope to leave a store with in hand is maybe a stick. I make a trip to my hometown of Boston, MA every summer, and am absolutely inundated with requests from players and parents to return with gear for them. Many of them are so desperate for an item in time for the season, or to save money, that they offer significant money (although I’ve never accepted it). This expense has of course chased away many potential players, and in turn given a huge boost to the sport of innebandy (or floorball), which is basically a hockey like game played on a gym floor and using a ball very similar to a whiffle ball, with the only expense is a stick and a pair of sneakers.
As you become more familiar with the actual day to day things that happen around a team, you will see more stark differences, that have led to North American coaches struggling here. And can probably also explains why there are no European coaches in the NHL (aside from a handful of former NHL players who have spent the larger part of their lives in North America). One of the first things you might notice is how quiet the coaches are. Yelling at a player is almost forbidden. And although I agree with this for the younger players, it can be part of a coach’s strategy for dealing with his team when they become older. To me, when the players reach age twelve, a coach can and should be a little more blunt and aggressive. But then, I digress. Even professionals here will seldom hear the coach raise his voice in their direction. Beyond that, and to me, what is absolutely ridiculous, is that it is almost considered as bad yelling at player, as it is to say he has done something wrong. Coaches here very seldom will attempt to correct a player’s behavior if he is out of position, making poor decisions, or even has fundamental flaws with something as important as skating or passing. This is a massive fundamental flaw in the game here, as most players are left to their own devices to figure out what is right and wrong. If you were to watch a game here, you would see coach or coach do little more than tell the kids when to change, and this is not limited to the little kids either, as it is clearly visible within the junior level, and beyond into the pro ranks. Of course, with any rule comes an exception, as there are coaches who do everything they can for their players, but it is not often seen.
If the skaters see little direction from their coaches it is even more troubling when it comes to goalies, as they are largely ignored altogether. Most coaches have no experience with the position, and therefore do not know what to do or say. So they simply leave the goalies alone. This is inherently dangerous, as goaltending is the most important key to any team’s success, no matter the level. Again though, there are exceptions, while very few, where a coach will arrange at least part-time for someone with some level of familiarity to help the goalies at practice.
Much like in North American hockey, hitting is forbidden until the age of twelve. Unlike the North American version of the game, even at the very top levels, it is not a big part of the game. Forwards have more room to work on the big ice surface, and most of the strategic play makes being physical difficult. The reason I mention this though, is that when the rules allow for the physical play to begin, the young players coming to face it for the first time are not in any way instructed in how to do so. Neither the art of delivering the hit, or more importantly the steps on how to prepare yourself or accept a hit are taught. This leads to some serious injuries as the players get bigger and stronger. The most glaring aspect in this, and it absolutely affects a person’s ability as a player on the whole, is that kids are not hammered with the idea of keeping their heads up. I still can hear the coaches when I was young (even though I was a goaltender), incessantly repeating this to everyone.
At the team level a massive difference is present here. Teams are run by a board that controls all aspects of an organization — from what they call the A Team (adults) which can play in the highest professional league, all the way down to the lowest level available, to the youngest kids team. Unfortunately, in most cases, this leads to the older players or adults getting the most attention and resources. Imagine the Boston Bruins having all their farm teams in-house, all the way down to those learning to skate.
Within the idea of the in-house developmental system, there is another problem posed. Once a player turns sixteen, his future is basically decided. Clubs that have their A Team in the professional series will have their sixteen year old team in what is called the U-16 Eliteserien. This is the first great separation of talent in Sweden, and the first time a player will be faced with not being guaranteed a spot on his team. Clubs at the highest levels obviously can therefore recruit, and in many cases these teams take the best players at this age from around the region, forcing many of the players who have grown up in their club to find a new organization within which to play. While having to find a new team at a certain age might not be anything too unusual, it is what this means that is alarming. Not making an elite team at age sixteen is the deathblow to ever becoming a player at the highest professional level. Players who are not in the eliteserien at this age are almost entirely ignored for their future, and forced to find teams that play at a lower level, therefore damaging their development and placing them further behind. It does happen that a player gets a second chance at age eighteen, and rarer still at twenty, but in my ten years here I can count on one hand the number of times a player has gotten a second chance. This truly makes it difficult for the “late bloomers” to become hockey players. The real tragedy is that many who don’t make it at this stage are emotionally devastated and simply quit the game. With the total absence of high school or university hockey here, and leaving the club team as the only outlet to play, a player who is determined must find another club that provides him a chance to move up to the elite level to gain any type of attention.
As with youth hockey world wide, at the beginning of any player’s career, it is simply about learning and having fun. Systems, strategy, and all the advanced tactics are absent so the focus can be on learning to skate, pass, and shoot. Here in Sweden though, as the players grow and get older, little of that changes. Most teams do not go further into developing systems, or strategies, as even at the pro levels most teams have only one system, and most of the teams use it. Pure talent counts for more than anything else as you grow up. You see this displayed throughout the game. Defensemen will not just try to clear the puck in a stressful situation, but instead try to skate with it, or pass it out of their zone. Goaltenders will rarely stray from their crease to play a puck, and even when they do, most are visibly uncomfortable handling the puck (and mostly they’re incapable).
Upon first arriving in Sweden, I was hanging around the rink watching a game between two teams of eight year olds. It was intensely fun to watch them play, and it reminded me a little of the joy of the game itself. But there was a difference in the game that made me ask a Swedish friend who was with me, and I later learned it’s a little of a joke even here. I asked why none of the kids would shoot. It was pass after pass after pass, until the moment when someone was right in the slot with the puck, before they would shoot. The answer I got is, “That’s typical Sweden hockey”.
If you’re a hockey coach, and interested in possibly coaching overseas, have a look at the new post in our Coach to Coach forum.