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Bill Meltzer | correspondent
Jan 3, 2007, 12:00 PM EST

During the course of the regular season, there is sometimes a midseason lull. The novelty of the new season has waned and the playoffs are still a little too far away for each game to hold the sort of intensity and intrigue that mark the stretch run and playoffs.

But every once in awhile, a midseason game turns out to be one of the most memorable nights of the season. When Modo Hockey recently took on Färjestads BK Karlstad at the sold-out new Swedbank Arena in Örnsköldvik, Sweden, the atmosphere was nothing short of electric.

Teams throughout Sweden’s Elitserien circle any meeting with Färjestad on their calendars. FBK is the defending champion, a playoff finalist six years in a row and the most successful team in Sweden over the last decade.

For this time of year, there was a lot at stake in this game. Modo had gone nine-straight games at home without a loss. Another victory would propel the team past FBK for second place in the elite league, and keep the northerners hot on the trail of league-leading HV71 Jönköping (four points off the pace).

“I’m really pleased with the way we’ve played since late autumn,” Modo head coach Harald Lückner told local newspaper Allehanda. “We’ve played with a lot of speed and drive.”

Both Modo and Färjestad feature a host of players with NHL experience. On the Modo side, there’s longtime NHL checking forward Nicklas Sundström, former Atlanta Thrashers right wing Per Svartvadet, defenseman Mattias Timander, onetime Toronto Maple Leafs backliner Pierre Hedin, and former Pittsburgh Penguins Robert Döme and Hans Jonsson. Along with Sundström, Modo’s top forward line includes former Vancouver Canucks farmhand Justin Morrison and Norwegian power forward Per-Åge Skröder. Slovakian goaltender Karol Krizan mans on the nets.

Färjestad boasts former NHLer and Tre Kronor fixture Jörgen Jönsson, two-time NHL 20-goal scorer Jonas Höglund, onetime Boston Bruins left wing Peter Nordström, former Los Angeles Kings center Esa Pirnes, and former Calgary Flames and Penguins winger Mathias Johansson.

On FBK, there’s also onetime Flames first-round draft pick Jesper Mattsson. Mikael Johansson, a lower-round Detroit Red Wings pick in 2003 also skates for FBK, as does the league’s most controversial player, the trash-talking Per Ledin.

In goal for FBK, veteran Daniel Henriksson is the incumbent starter from last year’s championship, but 21-year-old Christopher Heino-Lindberg (a Montreal Canadiens draftee in 2003) has opened eyes in his second Elitserien season. Heino-Lindberg, incidentally, is a product of the Hammarby IF junior program, the same team that once produced Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Pelle Lindbergh.

A community happening

Fan support for Modo in and around hockey-crazy Örnsköldvik has always been strong. With the breakup of the paper company that originally gave the hockey club its name (and, for decades, was the municipality’s biggest employer), Modo Hockey has become the small city’s biggest claim to fame. When you arrive at the tiny airport in Ö-vik, the first thing that greets you when you step into the terminal is a large cutout of Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, welcoming you to the city.

“The support at home is just unbelievable. You’ll see what I mean,” said Forsberg when I told him that I would be making a side trip during the World Junior Championships to take in the Modo versus Färjestad match.

In central Örnsköldsvik, there are about 28,000 residents. If you include the surrounding suburbs and villages, the total population for Örnsköldsvik municipality is around 55,000 people. On some nights, a significant chunk of that population is either attending or working at (or perhaps playing in) a hockey game. Entire families come out to root on Modo and the fan club is loud and energetic, especially when the opponent is the likes of Färjestad.

“Our supporters are mostly from the Örnsköldsvik municipality,” says Fredrik Östman, Modo Hockey’s media relations and marketing manager. “We also have fans from small nearby towns such as Sollefteå, Kramfors, Nordingrå and Härnösand. We’re now working to extend the radius of our fanbase out to Östersund and Umeå, which are within about 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Övik.”

Apart from the recent winning streak, this has been a big season for Modo Hockey, because it’s the inaugural year for Swedbank Arena.

From 1964 to the end of the 2005-2006 season, Modo played its home games at a small arena called Kempehallen. The 5,200 capacity building is a local institution – the place where players ranging from Anders Hedberg to Peter Forsberg got their starts and where the club from tiny Örnsköldvik became Swedish champions in 1979.

But the small building had become badly dated and Modo’s revenues – crucial to fund its world-famous hockey development school and keep its Elitserien team competitive – lagged behind those of FBK and other small-town teams. Now that Swedbank Arena is open, Kempehallen is home to Modo’s youth teams.

Building a new arena was a major financial challenge. The regional budget is already strained by a railway line project that is running well behind schedule and over-budget. Swedbank Arena cost 195 million SEK (roughly $31.4 million) to build, while the infrastructure outside the arena cost an additional 50 million SEK (about $8.1 millon).

According to Östman, Modo secured the funding for the arena through bank loans and in partnership with the Forspro Company (owned by Peter Forsberg and his father Kent). The exterior infrastructure was financed by Örnsköldsviks Kommun, the county administrative board and the European Union. The naming rights to the building were sold to Swedbank for 10 years.

The completed arena is an excellent venue for hockey. There are good sightlines around the building, training facilities for the Modo players that nearly rival those of NHL teams and a remarkably good artificial ice surface (a chronic problem in many newer, multi-purpose buildings). One of the luxury suites is reserved for the players’ wives and families. The Modo youth players have their own section in the stands and can attend the games for free.

For the public, there is a beautiful concourse with lovely waterfront views that almost give the appearance of being on a cruise ship. There are six sports bars, and a light show in the entrance area that is modeled on an exhibit at London’s Museum of Modern Art.

Finally, the arena has a private club called Club 21 (so named because Modo’s hockey team was founded in 1921, not because it’s Peter Forsberg’s uniform number). However, the Forsberg family, which also built a local golf course and country club called Väckefjärden, bought a large suite in the new arena for its clients.

Rumor has it that Forspro also plans to build a large hotel in Övik to make it better a better hockey tourist destination and a stronger competitor for international tournaments such as the IIHF World Championships or World Junior Championships.

“One day, Peter is going to own this whole city,” said one reporter with a wink.

So far, the new arena has been an immediate financial boon for Modo Hockey, according to Östman.

“Last season our average attendance was 4,128 and so far this season it is 6,714 in a building with a 7,600 capacity. For European hockey, that is a very solid attendance average, because fans are rather selective about the games they will spend money to see,” he says. “Our team revenues from all sources have more than doubled, so we’re very pleased so far with the results. Long term, we want to add a new scoreboard and make other improvements, but we’ll have to see how our long-range finances develop first.”

On this night, with FBK in town, the arena is jammed to capacity and the crowds in the Modo fan shop are elbow-to-elbow just 20 minutes before the opening faceoff.

Sending the locales home happy

The Modo players are clearly jazzed up for the game. Right from the opening faceoff, they out-skate and out-hustle their illustrious visitors from Karlstad. Amazingly, Modo maintains a similar intensity throughout the game – one of those rare 60-minute efforts coaches always talk about but teams rarely achieve.

Only the spectacular goaltending of Heino-Lindberg, who makes 44 saves on the night and no chance on the three goals scored against him, keeps Färjestad close. For their part, FBK manages just 22 shots against the acrobatic (and somewhat volatile) Krizan.

Mikael Pettersson gets Modo on the board first, collecting a turnover to go in alone on Heino-Lindberg, make a nice move and beat him cleanly at the 3:19 mark. But FBK survives the rest of the period (despite a 15-8 shot disadvantage and territorial domination by Modo) to trail just 1-0 at intermission.

Early in the second period, Sundström showed why he was one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL, breaking up a would-be scoring chance for Färjestad on a great backchecking play. The knowledgeable Modo fans roar their support as the puck dribbles harmlessly into the corner, where defenseman Hedin corrals it. It was just one of many excellent plays Sundström made throughout the game.

“He was outstanding in every zone on the ice. He didn’t make a single mistake,” said Lückner at the post-game coaches’ press conference, as he sat next to FBK coach Roger Melin.

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