Mårts believes in Tre Kronor

National team still relevant to young players, says new coach

13.08.2010
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Unusual role for Pär Mårts: The head coach of the Swedish national team interviews Niklas Hjalmarsson during his Stanley Cup presentation. Photo: Risto Pakarinen

EKSJÖ, Sweden – Niklas Hjalmarsson had walked, or run, the 250 metres from his parents’ red house to the playground so many times before. Hundreds, thousands even. But this was the first time he had walked the distance carrying the Stanley Cup over his head.

Russnäs, his home village in southern Sweden is about as far from Chicago you can get. With a population of about 80, Russnäs is a collection of about twenty houses on both sides of a narrow road that ends abruptly at the edge of a forest.

Hjalmarsson sat on hay bales, with a Chicago Blackhawks number 4 sweater – once worn by Bobby Orr – hanging behind him, and answered to a few questions. About being back home, about his new contract, and about his day with the Cup.

“You’re 23 years old, you’re a Stanley Cup champion – what career goals do you have now?” asked the interviewer.

Hjalmarsson didn’t hesitate.

“I’d like to play the national team. It would really be huge to win something with Tre Kronor,” he said, evoking big cheers from the crowd.

That must have pleased Pär Mårts, the new head coach of Team Sweden, who had come to Russnäs to witness Hjalmarsson’s day.

“I’m here partly because it’s my job, and partly out of curiosity. It was nice to see where he’s from, and to see that his roots are so deeply buried in that village. We all come from somewhere, we all have our past, and I hope his story can inspire kids that you don’t have to come from a big club in a big city to make it,” said Mårts as he watched Hjalmarsson write autographs at his next stop, the Eksjö hockey rink.

“Niklas has always been a player who’s ready to pay any price to win. He’s also been able to use his capacity to one hundred percent,” he added.

There has been a lot of talk in Sweden about the NHLers’ lack of interest in the national team – especially since the 2010 World Championship, when practically the entire Olympic team declined invitation to play. Mårts himself has also addressed the issue this summer by organizing a meeting with the Swedish NHL players.

“I think communication is key. We’d like to be in touch with the players earlier by e-mail, text messages, and phone, to make sure they know our plans. Now, the rules make that difficult, but we’ll try to find a way,” he said.

But the players do want to play for their country, said the 57-year-old coach.

“Absolutely, if they’re available and healthy. I think a part of the negative image is simply about media being black and white, there’s no gray zone at all. If there are 60 available players and you pick 22 to the team, it doesn’t mean the rest had said no,” he said.

“Hjalmarsson is a good example. He’s played in the junior national teams, and he’d like to play for Tre Kronor. We have a lot of excellent players born between 1987 and 1991 who feel like that,” said Mårts, who coached Hjalmarsson both at HV71 Jönköping and in the 2007 World U20 Championship.

An hour later, Mårts and Hjalmarsson shared the stage in front of over a thousand people at the town’s main square. Mårts congratulated Hjalmarsson, asked him about his mental toughness, and then, with a smirk on his face, got ready for his last question.

“Niklas, I assume, you have a mobile phone so, let’s say the Hawks are out of the playoffs, and that you’re healthy, and I, as head coach of Team Sweden, call you in about the World Championship, what would you say,” he asked.

Hjalmarsson bowed closer to the microphone, and in a determined voice, albeit hoarse from all the festivities, replied:

“Ja, tack.”

Mårts smiled, the crowd cheered.

Notebook:
  • Färjestad Karlstad signed Alexander Salak as their goaltender after Robin Rahm’s July 28 doping test was found positive. Rahm’s sample contained traces of anabolic steroids, something the 23-year-old goaltender doesn’t dispute.
    “I’ve made a huge mistake, and I wish there was something I could do to get it undone,” he said in a press release published on the club’s website. Rahm had a hip surgery in May, and he says he used the illegal substances hoping they’d help him recover faster.
    Rahm made his Elitserien debut with Färjestad last season, playing 19 games, and posting a 90.7 save percentage. Salak spent last season in the Florida Panthers organization, playing two games in the NHL, and 46 with the Rochester Americans in the AHL.
  • Djurgården Stockholm signed Daniel Widing to a one-year contract. Widing spent last season with Davos in the Swiss National League A. He’s slated to replace Marcus Nilson on the roster, as Nilson is looking to get another opportunity in the NHL.
  • Linköping now has two Finnish goalies when they signed Tero Leinonen to a seven-week contract, to backup Fredrik Norrena while Christian Engstrand recovers from a knee injury.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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