BOCA RATON, Fla. – They came an awfully long way for one meeting.
The journey included a couple of flights, roughly 12 hours in the air and spanned six time zones.
That fact alone said an awful lot about the four-man Swedish delegation that addressed NHL general managers here on Wednesday morning. The group – featuring Tommy Boustedt (CEO) and Peter Forsberg (vice-president) from the federation, and Jorgen Lindgren (CEO) and Johan Hemlin (head of hockey operations) from the Swedish Hockey League – wanted to make it clear just how important it is for prospects to remain in Sweden if they aren’t playing in the NHL.
“The distance is not a problem,” said Lindgren. “We’re more or less losing a (team’s worth of players) every year. It’s important that we have really good relationships and really good co-operation in developing the hockey program.”
There are roughly 75 players from Sweden currently playing in the NHL and another 50 in the AHL – the third-highest total behind Canada and the U.S. For context, it is basically twice as many as come from Russia and four times as many as come from the Czech Republic.
Maintaining solid relations with the Swedes is good business for the league.
That’s why deputy commissioner Bill Daly extended an invite, giving the men a chance to share specifics about the different methods used to develop players in Sweden and attempt to convince them about the benefits of leaving prospects at home longer.
“I don’t know if Swedes are a bit different than other people in the world, but Swedes are a little bit homebound,” said Boustedt.
There was also a financial angle to their message.
The 14-team SHL uses a club-based system, with teams assuming the cost of players as they come up through the junior ranks and funding it with profits from their pro outfit. Essentially, they’d like to see more of the top-end players graduate to those pro teams for a few years rather than spending time in the American Hockey League.
“The main thing we’re aiming for is to be able to keep the Swedish players a little longer in our system,” said Boustedt. “Because if we don’t do that we will lose the incentive of putting lots of money into the programs. … You don’t make any money from junior hockey, it’s just big costs in Sweden. And why should Swedish clubs and the Swedish federation put money into the junior system where you’re never going to see the players play in Sweden?
“So I think that’s a very important question for us, to have the incentive to put all this money into the system.”
It should be noted that they do receive development fees from the NHL when players are drafted and come over to North America.
Still, the message seemed to be well-received.
“The point they’re making is true,” said New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton. “They’ve developed a lot of players over there that stayed over a couple of extra years and when they came over went straight to the NHL and were pretty impactful players.”
The biggest issue is control.
For example, there was no debate inside the Buffalo Sabres front office when it came to deciding where eighth-overall pick Alexander Nylander would play this season. He was assigned to AHL Rochester, where the organization could take a more active role in his development.
“There’s still one or two teams that are at the bottom (in Sweden) and have a chance to be relegated and if ownership and/or the fan base is not approving of that, it’s easy to sit kids,” said Sabres GM Tim Murray. “My coach in the American League may not like some of my young guys some nights, but I have the ability to tell him to suck it up and play them. So there’s that.”
And yet, Murray also acknowledged that he’s even considered sending a few non-Swedish prospects to the SHL in the past.
Perhaps teams will take a different view on these decisions in the future after hearing from the Swedish delegation.
“We’re trying to open the discussion – sending some questions, kind of open questions back to the teams saying: `What kind of possibilities do we have to keep the players?”’ said Lindgren.
“We want to send NHL-ready players to North America and if they go too early they aren’t NHL-ready,” added Boustedt. “Maybe every second player that goes too early will never reach their own potential. They will stop developing.”