With the title of “How Swedes Develop World-Class Defencemen,” it may have seemed like Rikard Gronborg was spilling some state secrets to the rest of the world, but that just follows his philosophy of promoting an open exchange of ideas.
Gronborg, who coached Sweden to two consecutive IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medals, most recently seven weeks ago, spoke to a room full of about 400 coaches, ranging in level from the NHL to junior hockey to youth organizations, at the 2018 NHL Coaches’ Association Global Coaches’ Clinic in Dallas.
It was fitting timing, too, with a record-tying six Swedish players chosen in the draft’s first round, including two defencemen among the top eight selections – Rasmus Dahlin first overall to Buffalo and Adam Boqvist eighth to Chicago.
Gronborg was the only European presenter at the conference, which also included speeches by new Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery, former NHL goalie coach Jim Corsi (the creator of the Corsi analytical statistic), Nashville Predators assistant coach Dan Muse, former NHL defenceman and AHL Laval coach Sylvain Lefebvre, as well as a presentation co-hosted by former NHL defenceman Andrew Ference and AHL San Diego Gulls coach (and former Edmonton coach) Dallas Eakins.
“I think it’s excellent that the CA actually went outside and had a little different perspective on things, I think I can bring a little different perspective on how we do things in Sweden,” Gronborg said of his involvement. “And by doing that, I think we can open up communication between North American and European thinking, like we’ve done in Europe. By me coming over here, I think it’s a great step for the CA.”
If anyone is well-qualified to speak on coaching practices in both North America and Sweden, it is Gronborg. After growing up in Sweden, Gronborg came over to the United States and played college hockey at St. Cloud State, and after his playing career was over, he got into coaching. He had stops at various NCAA Division I and Division III schools, as well as multiple junior hockey outposts.
Gronborg was an assistant at the WHL Spokane Chiefs in 2005 when he was lured back to his homeland to help implement a new Swedish development program. As he pointed out in his presentation, at that time there were 20 defencemen from Sweden playing in the NHL, and now there are 40.
He spoke about some of the initiatives he helped apply, including dividing the country into 11 regions and hiring full-time, experienced coaches to oversee all youth players in those areas. They also established 31 different hockey academies for kids 16-18 to focus on individual skill development, as well as launching more detailed coaching education programs to improve the quality and consistency of coaching throughout the country.
Overall, the objectives were long-term development, by enabling the players to have more of a say in the style of play and forcing them to develop better decision-making skills, with further emphasis on puck possession.
Gronborg didn’t believe talking about Sweden’s development vision was revealing any cherished secret formula. That’s because he is a strong advocate of sharing ideas with everyone (“a rising tide lifts all boats”), and welcomes a back-and-forth dialogue about what practices work and which ones don’t.
“To me, it’s the interpretation of everything, how you work on the little details, and it’s working with people, so to me, it’s people skills, too,” Gronborg said of his coaching philosophy. “It’s one thing to have everything on a piece of paper or a video tape, but then you actually do it and have the players do it on the ice – that’s, to me, the secret of everyone. Not necessarily if you do a 2-2-1 or a 1-2-2 or whatever, it’s more of a journey, how you develop the skills, how you work your people, how you’re working with this generation compared to the last generation, and it’s a moving thing. I love it, because you’re working with people.”
Gronborg was therefore the perfect addition for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association to bring aboard over a decade ago because he was well-versed in both the previous Swedish model of development as well as the North American setup.
“They actively came over and visited me when I worked at Spokane and then brought me over and started out with me working different World Championships, to offering a full-time job, so I was obviously a little outside but at the same time, I was part of the family because I grew up in that culture, but I also had an outside perspective on things,” Gronborg recalled. “I think, from 2002, what’s for us, looking outside the box, that’s the biggest thing. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result. No, we got to do something different. And by inviting me back, I think you got a little bit of an outside perspective on things.”
That also accurately describes why NHL Coaches’ Association executive director Michael Hirshfeld wanted Gronborg to speak in Dallas, to expose the coaching conference to new ideas and different viewpoints.
“When I talk with our membership, the 200 NHL coaches that I represent, it’s a very incestuous business, they steal each other’s ideas, and I think, just in talking to them and making decisions about this conference, a lot of the feedback that I heard from our NHL guys was, ‘Let’s get some new ideas in here.’ They want to come here and learn, just like anyone,” Hirshfeld said. “They all said, ‘We know what other teams are doing, we look at that 82 games a year, we want to hear some outside perspectives, different ideas, different ways to approach the game or different ways to approach power play and penalty kill.’
“So I took that approach away and I got an opportunity to connect with Rikard at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo this year. I had lunch with him for an hour and a half, and obviously, had seen his resume and his track record, which is incredible. And I thought, ‘This guy is a really special coach and he thinks about things differently. I think our NHL guys will really get a lot of value from hearing his perspective on things.’ It’s all about that quest to continue learning and to continue building skills and continue improving.”
Gronborg’s resume is quite impressive, even beyond the back-to-back World Championship gold medals. He has also served on Swedish national team coaching staffs at the U18 World Championships, the World Juniors (gold in 2012), not to mention the team that earned an Olympic silver medal at Sochi in 2014.
After his success coaching Sweden at the Worlds, could Gronborg be on the radar to become the next European NHL head coach? It has been a long time since the late Ivan Hlinka (Czech Republic) and Alpo Suhonen (Finland) stood behind the benches of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, in 2000/01, but if there was ever someone qualified to be the next in line, Gronborg is rumoured to be the candidate. Is he interested?
“Absolutely,” he said. “At the national level, I’ve worked all kinds of levels, I’ve worked Olympics, World Championships, we’ve been fortunate to have some success there. I’ve also worked quite a bit of U.S. colleges, U.S. juniors, and the Western Hockey League, so that’s kind of the next step. What the next challenge is, I don’t know. I have a year left on my contract [in Sweden], but I’m sure it would be an organization kind of curious about their team, how would they fit my philosophy of coaching. [My mindset is] just keep doing a good job and hopefully someone’s going to recognize that and see what the next step is.”
As for his back-to-back World titles with Tre Kronor, Gronborg is proud of the fact that Sweden made it despite just three players that suited up for both teams.
“Of course it’s a challenge,” he said of the vastly different rosters from year to year. “It makes me a better coach by having a challenge like that. It’s not a routine kind of gig, ‘We did this last year, it’s going to work this year.’ No it’s not. It’s a new journey, it’s a new team, it’s new circumstances, new tournament. So for us to go 17 games straight in winning two World Championships in a row, it’s an amazing feat, considering we had the turnover in players. But we also show that we have quite a bit of great players that are willing to come and represent Sweden. So hats off to our development, it’s a great pleasure for me, and obviously, for me to coach these players that I’ve been with since they’ve come into the program at 17, 18 and see them being World Champions, is pretty special to me.”
Gronborg pointed out that the two gold medals help demonstrate that the development model he spoke about in his presentation is working. The approach that emphasizes skill development and dialing back a bit on team structure (letting players use their instincts to solve dicey situations on the ice instead of turning them into robots who just follow the system) paid off at the Worlds.
“We call it the common thread that they recognize that all national teams are working together,” Gronborg said. “We have a common theme how our development’s going to be, so when (players) come into the organization, it’s not a shock. Most of these guys have been through it before. And the relationship-building with these individuals really started at an early age, and I think it’s going to be a lot easier to have them work together in tough situations a lot quicker than not.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time, and the expectation is hard work, but we can’t settle down and be satisfied, we got to keep moving and that’s one of the reasons why we have guys over here (in North America) watching players and working different coaches association’s clinics and stuff like that, to get new inputs and new ideas.”