A picture from the Swedish Bandy league final in front of 26 000 people in Uppsala. March 2005.
Yesterday in Moscow was the first day of World Championship matches in what is Sweden’s second most popular sport played on ice.
Canada opened the Bandy World Championships with a convincing 6-0 win over Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia!
Today was another convincing win over Holland, 6-1.
Along with Canada in the "B" group (tier 2) is the aforementioned Mongolians and Dutch, as well as other powerhouse nations (sarcasm) like Estonia, Latvia, Hungary and the US of A.
Bandy is a sport that, equipment-wise, looks like hockey but, rules-wise, is much more like soccer. Eleven players, in positions similar to soccer, skate on a playing surface, akin to a soccer pitch, while carrying sticks and chasing a little orange ball.
My uneducated guess would be that Bandy was invented by the crazy nomads of Siberia. In truth it was the Brits. It is certainly a refreshing winter sport, if today we were living in 1908. Nowadays though, there are few places where people will willingly stand outdoors for 90 minutes in the dead of winter squinting after a tiny, fast-moving orange dot. In fact, Uppsala's team, IK Sirius rarely draws more than 500 spectators.
That said, I like bandy. It is like watching Woody Allen films; it employees a lot of technique (sometimes beyond the eye of the casual observer), is often of high quality and intelligent, and is enjoyed by a small, but unique group of aficionados. However, that comparison requires two corrections: it is outdoor and it moves fast. So, to summarize, bandy is like watching Woody Allen films in fast forward, standing outside, at a drive-in, in winter. And therein lies why it will not catch on.
Nevermind the fact that it is a poor spectator sport, Bandy has too much disparity. It has the goal of becoming an Olympic sport, but the gap between a Group A team, like Sweden, and a Group B, such as Canada, is cavernous. It would be like Canada facing Mexico or Iceland in hockey. Parity is many developmental years away. Olympic competition would seem a bit ill-conceived, or rather pre-conceived if one were to predict a winner - Russia, Sweden or Finland (much, I would note, like the US, Canada and Sweden in women's hockey).
When it comes to sport in general, whatever the sport, I will cheer for Canadians. More to it, cheer for Canada extra loud when they are the underdog. In this case, a bunch of Winnipeggers have travelled around the world with one main goal: beat the US. If they do so, and can win Group B, we will have a chance to get annihalated next year in Group A.
Like Woody Allen's 30 years of undergoing psychoanalysis, Bandy too will continue to feel undervalued as an illegitimate little brother to ice hockey. I would enjoy seeing Canada, or some other nation, make in-roads internationally and jump into Group A with some authority, but that is unlikely. For now we are left to achieve moral victories over those mongrels from Mongolia or tulips from Holland.
Hockey Notes: Jonas Almtorp has scored a point! Break out the champagne... or maybe just some Ginger Ale. He assisted on a Tim Sestito goal in a game (his 17th AHL game) versus the Worchester Sharks last Saturday.
For Björn Bjurling it came as a complete surprise when, at age 24, he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, 274th overall in the 2004 entry draft. At the time he was quoted, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, as saying: “Oh wow, am I that good?!” He was playing with Stockholm’s Djurgården (which included a short time paired with former Oiler goalie, Joaquin Gage) and when he learned he'd been drafted he commented that it was “a confirmation that I’ve had a good season and I look forward to the future”. Little did he know how quickly his hockey future would change.
Three and a half years after draft day, and after having bounced around Europe with his goal pads in tow, Bjurling is, statistically, the best goalie in Swedish Elite Series hockey.
Yesterday, Aftonbladet (Sweden’s biggest tabloid “evening” newspaper) dedicated the front page of its weekly Elite Series supplement to Bjurling. With a save percentage over 93%, the headline about Bjurling was The Year’s Biggest Surprise.
It comes as a surprise because Björn Bjurling was practically chased out of Stockholm and the Elite Series after a disastrous playoff series in 2004. While playing with Djurgården, his team was beaten in 4 straight by Gothenburg's Frölunda and outscored 25-6. Many in the media and fans cast blame at the goalkeeper and with the forthcoming NHL strike, his days in Djurgården were all but done.
What came next was a journeyman’s story of hockey perseverance. Tomas Ros’ article in Aftonbladet touches not only on his expulsion from Djurgården but also a serious concussion, severe eye injury and his ethnic background as ½ Serbian that all give his hockey perspective.
Akin to Mathieu Garon’s story, Björn Bjurling has learned that being a professional hockey goalie is a lot about being in the right place at the right time and taking the chance.
After leaving Djurgården, Bjurling had club addresses in Austria’s Red Bulls Salzburg, Switzerland’s Geneva (Oiler connection: coached by Marty McSorley's brother Chris), and last year in Norway’s Vålerenga, where he won a league championship.
In a match while playing for Geneva, he was bulldozed into his own crossbar and the resulting concussion resulted in a 3 month stint on the injury shelf. In Norway, a high shot cracked his facemask and did severe damage to his left eye putting not only his career at risk, but also his eyesight.
Today, Björn Bjurling is playing for the Södertälje SportKlubb (SSK) and has adopted the helm as number 1 goalie, thanks in part to the World Juniors. It was actually young prodigee Jhonas Enroth that started the year brilliantly in SSK’s net, but during the World Junior tournament, Bjurling took over the job and his poise and experience has helped him hold the job since.
Currently with a save percentage (after Thursday’s match) of 93.32% and facing on average 34 shots a game, Bjurling is best in the Elite Series. His goals-against is a respectable 2,29 (good for 3rd overall). Bjurling’s fellow goalkeeper, Enroth, is 3rd in sv% 92.46% and 2nd in GAA 2,26. Together this tells quite a story about why SSK is even still involved in the 2007-08 Elite Series. Offensively they are stagnant or, perhaps better put, inconsistent. Thanks to the Enroth/Bjurling duo, they are still among the fight for the eighth and final playoff spot (currently 10th – 3pts, or one win, out of 8th).
One can only speculate what inside info or motivatation led to the Oilers in selecting Björn Bjurling. As the blog Coming Down the Pipe suggests, he might have been seen as another potential Jussi Maarkanen. A proven 24 year-old goalie is a much safer wildcard pick than the many unknowns of any young 18 year-old. Developing a goalie is as much about character as it is about technique.
Bjurling has displayed tremendous fortitude and character over the last 3½ years. He will likely never wear the Oiler silks, but given his recent run, there could very well be another right-place, right-time in the near future.
Linus Omark was drafted in the 4th round (97th pick overall) of the 2007 entry draft. He did not take part in the Oilers' rookie camp, nor has there been much talk about him in the Oilogosphere.
This past Saturday, his Luleå Hockey played in Stockholm and I had the chance to scout him, so-to-speak.
Omark is listed as 175cm (5'9") and 76kg (168lbs) so by no means does he dominate the play. That said though, he has built his game to counter his size. He was often in good position, creative and made solid passes.
He led his team in scoring after 14 games, but has since tailed off. His team is not that strong offensively, and on this night his linemates were journeyman Finns Tommi Miettinen at center and RW named Jussi Tarvainen.
Johan Harju is another young Luleå player who has received more prime ice-time together with Luleå's marquee player, Lubos Bartecko and even some national attention when he was selected to play for Sweden in the recent Channel One Cup (Russia). What's more, Harju was also selected in the 2007 Entry Draft, going a full 2 rounds and 70 players later than Omark, to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Omark's style and play reminds me of the likes of Mike Comrie or Theo Fleury. He doesn't mind being a bit scrappy, in fact he often has to, as was the case in this match. The ice seemed in bad shape and led to a lot of missed passes, turnovers and choppy plays.
The above video is some powerplay time and shows a short but clever series that led to a shot at goal (though was blocked).
I don't know what to make of the Oilers' selection of Omark. He certainly could be an interesting fit some day à la Martin Gelinas, Todd Marchant or Ray Whitney style. His spot amongst a mediocre Luleå team in what was an uneven, scrappy game make it hard to evaluate who Linus Omark is as a player. I would've rather had the Oilers draft Harju, but hindsight is, as they say, 20-20.
In the very least, now the Oilogosphere has a short clip to see what young Omark looks like.
SCOUTING NOTES: Good news on the Willie Quister front. The big boy from Tingsryd scored two goals while playing on the fourth line in a 7-0 rout of Örebro.
Last night, sitting two rows behind the Brynäs bench in Gävle, the enchanting waft of hockey equipment made me nostalgic for my worn and torn CCM gloves. Every so often, moist glove sweat mixed with a hint of TigerBalm would breeze by us sitting in the first few rows behind the players' bench of the Läkerol Arena.
The picture above is of Pavel Brendl (#28) and Fredrik Bremberg (#23 white). Brendl's Brynäs absolutely clobbered Bremberg's Djurgården 8-2 in what was a thoroughly enjoyable goal-fest.
Bremberg had a cup of tea with the Edmonton Oilers in 1998-99, appearing in 8 games and registering zero points and 2 penalty minutes. Last year, Bremberg won the Swedish league's scoring race (23G+41A), beating Brendl (34G+23A) by 7 points.
Last night, with his hockey club being savaged, Bremberg 17:27 of ice time amounted to no points and not much more than a nice breakaway. It is perhaps Bremberg's hockey attitude which makes him such an interesting phenomena. I heard his former coach Nicklas Wikegård speak at a conference in late March 2007, where he called Bremberg (paraphrasing) "a lazy floater". One can see why based on last night's presentation. According to Wikegård (who I might add, since having moved to TV, is quickly becoming Sweden's answer to Don Cherry), Bremberg rarely did much of a warm-up, nor did not adhere the team's training regimen, but still, to his then coach's chagrin and amazement, would consistently racked up the points.
His style reminds me of Petr Nedved or Josef Beranek, or even Mario Lemieux could be known to do a good deal of floating during his illustrious career. But if career statistics say anything, it is that hockey sense is certainly more than just skating hard every shift and going hard into the corners, it is being in the right place at the right time. Bremberg's point totals in recent years show that his right place and time happen to be in the Swedish Elite Series and not the NHL.
Brendl on the other hand is a big, wiley, creative player with a hard shot. Pavel played his junior hockey with the Calgary Hitmen and then about 70 NHL games with the Flyers (50), Hurricanes(26) and Coyotes(2). He's a bit above average in size 187cm (6'2") and 92kg (203lbs), at least for the Swedish Elite Series, and is often all over the ice. I would say that he displays a typical Czech-style, yet with a Canadian pedigree. Why he never hung on in the NHL is tough to fathom.
Brendl's Brynäs had full control of last night's contest. He had 2pts (1G+1A), but it was his 8 shots, many of which from the point on the PP, which tell the story about his sense of smell for the net.
One final note: above is Tommy Sjödin (standing). He is Sweden's answer to Chris Chelios. Sjödin was born in 1965 and like a bag of old hockey equiment, he is still lugging around the league. He is hardly a fast, nor smooth skater, though he is one of those stabil and reliable defensemen. More to it, he is perhaps the soul of the Brynäs team; seen here chatting with Andreas Dackell (#12 on his helmet). He is one of those invaluable elements in hockey, like a good pair of gloves: worn, but have just the right smell.