At the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, Tobias Bjornfot won a bronze medal. But the young Swede has taken another step at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
Here in Edmonton, Bjornfot is the lone returnee from now-retired coach Torgny Bendelin’s team in Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk. Not only is the 17-year-old defenceman serving as team captain, but he’s also led this U18 team to the gold medal game.
The Swedes edged Russia 2-1 in Friday’s early semi-final on Karl Henriksson’s short-side goal with 44 seconds left. They will face Canada in Saturday’s final after the hosts claimed a controversial, crazy 6-5 overtime win against the United States.
“It’s amazing,” Bjornfot told IIHF.com. “We played very well out there. There weren’t too many goals, but we have a good defensive game. And you know, a good defence wins the tournament. It would be amazing if we won the final. We will go out there and play a good game.”
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is the new incarnation of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which has existed in various forms since 1991. The summer exhibition series was co-hosted by the Czech Republic and Slovakia from 1997 until this year. Edmonton’s Rogers Place is hosting for the first time, with the tournament name now honouring both Czech great Ivan Hlinka and all-time Edmonton Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky. The tournament will also be played in Edmonton in 2020 and 2022 and in Europe in 2019 and 2021.
Regardless of the name, Sweden rarely makes it this far in the August showdown. The Swedes have only won the Hlinka once, a 3-2 overtime decision over the Finns on Victor Hedman’s goal in 2007. They settled for silver in 2011 and 2015, and took their sixth bronze all-time last year. Bjornfot is doing his best to provide leadership as the challenge of defeating the vaunted host nation looms.
“It’s an honour to be a captain for your country,” he said. “It’s a childhood dream.”
Sweden’s success in this tournament has stemmed largely from the strong play of its top line with Frolunda’s Henriksson (2-0-2) and Lucas Raymond (4-2-6) and Djurgarden’s Alexander Holtz (1-4-5). Also important has been the goaltending of HV71’s Hugo Alnefelt. After posting 34 saves versus Russia, Alnefelt boasts a tournament-best 0.50 GAA and 98.0 save percentage.
Bjornfot’s game is more low-key and steady. He put up six goals and 16 assists with Djurgarden’s U20 team last season. The 183-cm, 85-kg teen is positionally sound and a fine skater who’s reaped comparisons to Jonas Brodin. That’s not bad company to be in. Brodin, now 25 and playing for the Minnesota Wild, won the 2012 World Junior gold and the 2017 IIHF World Championship gold.
“I am happy with my game,” said Bjornfot, who also admires Swedish Oilers defencemen Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom. “I think I’m playing a good defensive game, staying disciplined and trying to join the rush.”
He’s also trying to embrace the moment and appreciate the privilege of playing in one of the NHL’s most spectacular new arenas. Rogers Place opened its doors on 8th September 2016, and the 18,347-capacity venue is the centrepiece of the new Ice District that has revitalized downtown Edmonton.
“It’s not every day you play in Rogers Place,” said Bjornfot. “It’s a dream to play here. We were in Edmonton’s locker room yesterday. It’s huge.”
Getting that U18 bronze medal in Russia in April was also huge. Sweden’s junior success is driven heavily by defencemen. In fact, Sweden had five blueliners drafted in the first round this year, including Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo, first), Adam Boqvist (Chicago, eighth), Filip Johansson (Minnesota, 24th), Nils Lundkvist (New York Rangers, 28th), and Rasmus Sandin (Toronto, 29th). So Bjornfot and his fellow Hlinka D-men, who are not quite that star-studded, have some great recent inspiration.
Coach Magnus Havelid’s squad will have to come out stronger in the final after being outshot 12-2 in the first period of its last two games, including a hard-fought 4-3 round-robin loss to Canada.
In his spare time, Bjornfot enjoys playing golf with teammate Oscar Bjerselius and the popular video game Fortnite. If the Swedes can upset Canada, which has won 21 of the 27 Hlinka gold medals, this young defenceman will have earned the right to celebrate as if he’s a successful video game character.