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Michael Petrie, CanWest News Service; Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, December 24, 2006

STOCKHOLM - While his hockey team is rounding nicely into form, Swedish head coach Torgny Bendelin still needs to tweak his own game.

If he insists on sand-bagging his way into these world junior championships, he should at least be realistic.

"I can't talk about winning medals," Bendelin said in the wake of Friday's 3-2 exhibition win over Team Canada. "First of all, we look to be one of the three teams (in Group A) to make the playoffs. If we do that, you take it game by game.

"If we can take fourth place, we're still increasing (improving) and that's the most important thing. If we do, then in a couple years, Sweden's going to be winning a medal."

Forgive Bendelin for his underwhelming posture on this tournament. His country hasn't been on the world junior podium in an astounding 10 years silver in Boston in 1996 and hasn't won since 1981 in West Germany.

The screws are beginning to tighten in his homeland, as the event starts Boxing Day when his side faces the Canadians.

"We have nothing to lose," shrugged forward Fredrik Pettersson, who plays with the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen. "We haven't won a medal in 10 years so there are no expectations.

"We have a good team and obviously we want to make something good out of it, but I don't feel any pressure at all."

If Pettersson is telling the truth and the team truly doesn't feel urgency, that means Bendelin is serving them some potent Kool-Aid. Because once this tournament begins and the skeptical Swedish media hunches over their keyboards, they will be held accountable.

Junior hockey is largely ignored in this country, and when it does get acknowledged, the attention often is unfavourable. A few years back, Sweden shut out Canada in an exhibition game, and the gist of one major newspaper's recap was: Once again, Sweden beats Canada in a game that means nothing.

During this 10-year medal drought, the world junior tourney hasn't even been broadcast on Swedish television.

"I was in the press conference last year in Vancouver when we lost to the Finns in overtime (in a quarter-final)," said Bendelin. "I think it was 20, maybe 30 media people there. None from Sweden. We really played a great game, and we could feel like we were in the right spot, but nobody knows."

This year, they will. The games will be televised, and the event already is receiving decent media coverage.

A 32-page newspaper previewing the tournament is available at local rinks. Swedish star Nicklas Backstrom adorns the cover, and the headline reads, "Backstrom on Medal Hunt!"

It mentions nothing about fourth-place finishes or trying hard, although feature stories on Backstrom and Bendelin downplay their team's chances.

Happy to fuel this fire, Canadian head coach Craig Hartsburg declared Sweden as the tournament favourites.

"Canada and USA are the best teams, they're the favourites," Backstrom, taken fourth overall by the NHL's Washington Capitals last June, rebutted after Friday's win. "They have more pressure on them. I don't feel any pressure."

While their fortunes have been grim since 1996, this is a prime opportunity for the Swedes to reassert themselves on the junior scene. They've gone from seventh to sixth to fifth under Bendelin's guidance, and a 53-save shutout by Finland's Tuukka Rask kept them out of the semifinal last year.

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