American Roul La Mat is credited with introducing the game of hockey to Sweden. La Mat was a movie distributor who arrived in Stockholm in 1919. Already familiar with 'Canadian' hockey, La Mat became fascinated by the game of bandy, which had been played in Sweden since 1896. He was impressed with the talent of the local players and believed their excellent skating skills would make them successful in hockey as well. It was La Mat's idea to enter Sweden at the Olympic hockey tournament in 1920 -this was later recognized as the first World Championship. Of note at the time was that he managed to convince the Swedish Olympic Committee to send a hockey team to Antwerp considering no one in the country really understood the game at this time.
Picking Sweden's first national hockey team was not an easy task. The country's only experienced player at the time was Nils Molander, who had been living in Germany since 1908 and played hockey for Berliner SC. Eventually, the decision was made to send Molander to the Olympics along with the 10 best bandy players from the cities of Stockholm, Uppsala and Gavle. They received jerseys from the Swedish national soccer team, while the rest of their equipment remained more suited to bandy. Once they arrived in Antwerp, the Swedes received proper hockey sticks from the American team as a gesture of generosity towards their compatriot La Mat. Despite their inexperience, Sweden made an impressive showing at the Olympics, finishing fourth behind Canada, the U.S., and Czechoslovakia. The gold medal-winning Winnipeg Falcons were so impressed by the Swedish team, they decided to let them score a goal against them. Sweden's goal in the 12-1 defeat was the only one Canada allowed in the tournament.
Hockey found many supporters in Sweden after the Olympic tournament. As a reward for its team's strong showing, the Swedes were named host of the European Championship in 1921. They won the event but unfortunately Czechoslovakia was the only other team to participate. Regardless, this success boosted the development of hockey in Sweden and on November 17, 1922 seven teams from Stockholm founded the Swedish Ice Hockey Union. In 1923, the Swedish hockey union was admitted to the Royal Sports Union of Sweden. Isaac Westergren served as the first chairman of the hockey union, to be replaced two years later by Anton Johansson who occupied the post for 24 years.
National championships have been held in Sweden since 1922, with the first title being won by IK Gota, whose team included several players from the 1920 National Team. By 1925, the game extended across the country from its roots in Stockholm. In 1927 interest in Swedish hockey brought the first visit of a Canadian team to the country with the arrival of the Victoria Hockey Club of Montreal. The first artificial ice rink in Sweden was built into an airplane hangar in 1931 and it remained the country's only indoor arena until 1938, hosting 1,032 games over that time.
The most successful club teams from Sweden have been the Stockholm clubs of AIK and Djurgardens, Brynas Gavle, Farjestad Karlstad, Hammarbry IF, MoDo and Malmo IF. Djurgardens won the European Cup in 1991 and 1992 while Malmo triumphed in 1993.
The Swedish Ice Hockey Union was instrumental in making hockey one of the most popular sports in the country. It also maintained a unique list of the greatest players in the country's history. The 'Stor Grabb' (Great Men) are determined according to a special system of points. Fittingly, the list is headed by Swedish hockey pioneer Nils Molander of the 1920 National Team, who is accorded the title of Stor Grabb #1. Over the years, Sweden's National Team has come to be known as Tre Kronor (Three Crowns) for the emblem on its uniform. To date, Sweden has won the World Championship in 1953, 1957, 1962, 1987, 1991, 1992 and 1998 and won an Olympic gold medal in 1994. Some of the key stars of the national team were goalies Lennart Haggroth, Leif Holmqvist, Goran Hogosta and Peter Lindmark, defensemen Lasse Bjorn, Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Borje Salming and forwards Sven Tumba, Nisse Nilsson Ulf Sterner, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.
During the 1973-74 NHL season Salming and Inge Hammarstrom excelled for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their success paved the way for future Swedish stars such as Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Kent Nilsson, Pelle Lindbergh, Hakan Loob, Mats Sundin, Niklas Lidstrom and Peter Forsberg. In 1996 Salming became the first player born and trained in Sweden to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
HOCKEY TODAY: Sweden's Elite League (Elitserien) was created in 1975. In 1997-98, the Elitserien featured 12 teams playing 50 games each. The eight best teams qualify for the playoffs, which are played in best-of-five series. The two bottom clubs play off in a double round-robin promotion/relegation series against the four best teams from Division I, with the top two teams from this series promoted to the Elitserien.
Division I consists of four groups (North, South, East, West) with eight to 10 teams in each. After a double round-robin regular season, the two best teams from each group advance to play in another round-robin series to determine which four teams will move up to the promotion/relegation series. Division II has eight groups (two each in the North, South, East, and West) with 10 to 12 teams in each group. Top junior players in Sweden compete in the Junior Elitserien, which is broken up into age groups of under 20, under 18, under 16, and under 14.