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By Szymon Szemberg
ON A MISSION: Head coach Torgny Bendelin wants to bring Sweden back to U20 respectability on home ice in Leksand and Mora.

Sweden has not won an IIHF World U20 Championship for a quarter of a century as the proud hockey nation's juniors have not even secured a medal in the last ten "World Juniors".

It is a stunning record considering that Sweden are the reigning World and Olympic champions. The men's national team is furthermore the superior leader in the IIHF World Ranking with 4095 points, 110 points ahead of the Czech Republic and 205 points ahead of Canada.

Since the IIHF's introduction of the playoff system in 1992, Sweden is by far the most consistent hockey nation over that 15-year period with two Olympic gold medals, four IIHF World Championship gold, six silver, four bronze and thirteen "final four" appearances.

How is it possible, and what is the reason behind this remarkable discrepancy between Sweden's junior and senior programs? After all, isn't a top national team a reflection of the junior program? In the case of Swedish, apparently, it's not.

"This is not an easy thing to analyze," says Torgny Bendelin, the head coach of the Swedish U20-team. "Right now, our men's national team has enjoyed outstanding success while the junior program is on its way up from the worst period ever. We had huge problems with our junior development in the early 2000s where our young players were poorly educated, they had bad attitude and played without passion."

How much worse can it get? And the problems Bendelin recognized were clearly reflected in the performance of the U20 team in the most prestigious event. Things were so bad at the 2003 World Juniors in Halifax, Canada that Sweden faced relegation. Only a narrow 5-4-win over Belarus saved them in the top pool as the junior Tre Kronor finished an embarrassing eighth.

Bendelin took over the next season and the program started to make slow, but steady progress, improving one place in each of the last three seasons:

++ 2004 in Finland: 7
++ 2005 in USA: 6
++ 2006 in Canada: 5

Last year, for the first time in four championships, the young Swedes were competitive in Vancouver. They played a very good game against the Finns in the quarterfinal, only to lose 1-0 in overtime, despite outshooting Finland by a large margin. At the post-game press conference Torgny Bendelin called it the "most disheartening loss of my career." But he knew that the game proved the Swedish U20 program was rebounding, and it was no fluke.

"When things were very bad four years ago, we invited everyone with passion for Swedish youth hockey to a one-day junior summit," recalls Bendelin. "We identified what had gone wrong with our game and established a ten-point plan to address the problems. But this was like turning a huge ship around. Things were slow in the beginning, but now we have not only turned the ship around, we have set it on a new course and things have started to look better."
"Today, we have a deeper pool of players and our top players can compete with the best. After the fifth-place finish in Canada last year, I feel that we finally can start thinking about winning a medal again."

Sensational forward Nicklas Bäckström from Brynäs is already one of the best players in the Swedish Elitserien and was, at 18, member of the gold medal team in Riga last spring. Nicklas was picked fourth overall in the 2006 NHL-draft by the Washington Capitals. Bäckström is on top of the Elitserien scoring with 34 points in 30 games, despite suffering through a ten-game goalless streak in early December.

"Nicklas has the potential to be the main attraction in Leksand and Mora," says Bendelin. "He possesses great individual skill, he has sophisticated understanding of the game and has very a very good attitude. Already at this age, he is a role model."

But the head coach is very quick to add:

"You don't win this tournament with individual stars as Canada again proved last year. Russia had Evgeni Malkin and other super individuals, but the Canadians just outworked and outhustled them in classic fashion in the gold medal game."

So, who are favorites in Leksand and Mora according to Torgny Bendelin?

"I consider Canada and USA as gold medal favorites. They again have very strong groups. Finland has a somewhat weaker team on paper than last year, but the Finns are always competitive until the end. Both the Czechs and the Russians are difficult to evaluate. I believe that the Czechs could have more than half the team from the Canadian junior league and you never know how that works out in the end."

So, this should be the World U20 Championship where Sweden's juniors finally are competitive again. And if not, at least one can always admire the scenery around beautiful Lake Siljan. As far as the setting for the World Juniors, the Swedish entry is tough to beat.

Damberg hopes that Bendelin can repeat his 1981 feat

Kjell Damberg sincerely hopes not to be the answer to the following trivia question after January 6, 2007: Who was the last coach to lead the Swedish junior team to an IIHF World U20 Championship gold medal?

"I believe that this could be the year," says Damberg who coached the 1981 team to Sweden?s first, only and last World Junior title 25 years ago. "This team is capable to reach the gold medal game."

Damberg not only wants to get rid of the questionable distinction of being the last successful Swedish U20 championship coach. The veteran official and board member of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association is also the chairman of the Sweden 2007 World Juniors organizing committee.

And there is nothing an organizing committee wants more than home team success. Not necessarily for patriotic reasons, but a home team that goes all the way generates interest and ticket sales. Rewind a quarter of a century and you know that it's been a while when the record books tell you that the 1981 World Junior event took place in a country that no longer exists, West Germany.

Damberg's boys (born '61 and '62) toured through the Bavarian winter sport towns of Füssen, Augsburg, Kempten and Oberstdorf and were in pole position before the final game against the favorite Soviet Union. Unlike today's format with a winner-takes-all gold medal game, there was a four-team, round-robin and tie was enough the Swedes, as the Soviets surprisingly lost to Finland on new year's eve.

"I don't remember details, but I recall that we were the better team and beat them 3-2," says Damberg. "Patrik Sundström, who later became an NHL-star, was our leader. Jan "X-et" Erixon was another great forward, but the key was our mobile defense. I really played my top four defensemen hard."

The quartet Damberg refers to are Michael Thelvén, Peter Andersson, Hakan Nordin and Roger Hägglund. Thelvén, Andersson and Hägglund all made it to the NHL, while Nordin became a national team player and an outstanding defenseman in the Swedish league. Hägglund, who had a stint with the Quebec Nordiques in the mid-80s, died in a car accident in 1992.

But the leader was Patrik Sundström who went on to star for the "big" Tre Kronor and had a fine 10-year NHL career (Vancouver & New Jersey) where he collected 588 points in 679 games. 19-year NHL-veteran Brendan Shanahan named Sundström as likely the best player he ever had on his line.

"The special thing with Sundström was that he was so good both ways. 'Sunny' was Peter Forsberg before Peter Forsberg," said Shanahan in a recent interview for the New York Post.

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