STOCKHOLM – Hockey without fans is nothing. Never has this been more fitting than at Bajen Fans IF, a Stockholm based hockey club that wouldn't exist had it not been for its faithful supporters.
At the end February this year, as the harsh winter kept the Swedish capital under its thumb, temperature was rising inside the city's main ice hockey venue Hovet arena. But while two of its more illustrious tenants, AIK, back in Elitserien after eight years in the doldrums, and traditional powerhouse Djurgården stole most of the headlines, it was a lesser known team, Bajen Fans IF, that truly turned up the heat inside the legendary hockey barn, inaugurated in 1962 and just beside the more modern Globen Arena what will be used in the next IIHF Ice Hockey World Chamiponship.
A vast sea of green and white supporters singing their hearts out welcomed the players of Bajen Fans IF as they stepped out on the Hovet arena ice on 27th February for their top of the table clash in Division 3, the fifth tier of Swedish hockey. The game, headlining Bajenkvällen, an annual get-together of supporters sharing their unequivocal love for their team, had drawn a bumper crowd of 5,085 that witnessed Bajen Fans IF steamroll their opponents Östervåla IF 12-4.
Crowds in the region of 5,000 are far from the staple diet in Sweden's fifth tier, but then again isn’t Bajen Fans IF your average lower division team. Its brief history dates back to April 22, 2008 when Hammarby IF's ice hockey section filed for bankruptcy after years of scraping by on financial life support.
Hammarby IF, a Stockholm multi-sport club formed in 1897, founded its ice hockey section in 1921. With eight domestic ice hockey championships between the years 1932 and 1951, 42 seasons in the top division, and schooling players such as Vezina Trophy winning netminder, the late Pelle Lindbergh, and current NHLers Kristian Huselius and Johnny Oduya, Hammarby played an integral part in Sweden’s ice hockey history. They made their final appearance in Elitserien during the 1984/1985 season and were in the second tier of Swedish hockey, Allsvenskan, in 2008 when their roller-coaster existence reached the end of the road.
But a set of fans refused to let the supporter culture surrounding Hammarby's ice hockey die out altogether; and ahead of the 2008/2009 season, a new team was registered to play in Division 4, bottom of the pile of what is the Swedish ice hockey league structure. From the ashes of Hammarby rose a newly formed club, formed by supporters for supporters, fittingly called Bajen Fans IF, with its name taken from the oldest organised supporter group of Hammarby IF. Bajen, the most commonly used nickname for Hammarby now lives on, this time around as the part of the official name of the new club.
Wishing to re-create the positives that once existed, but too often played second fiddle to continuous boardroom mismanagement during the latter years of Hammarby's existence as a hockey club, Bajen Fans IF quickly managed to create a buzz around the newly formed team, thanks to a little help from nostalgia.
Ahead of their first season, former Hammarby veterans such as cult-hero defenceman Bruno Ohlzon and forward Jan Lindberg, both in their early 50s, were recruited as players, while Tommy Boustedt, the current director of player development at the Swedish Ice Hockey Association and once a freshly faced head coach of Hammarby during the 1984/1985 season of Elitserien, joined up as part of the coaching staff ahead of Bajen Fans IF's league debut played in front of 1,500 vocal supporters.
Fast forward three seasons and the club’s ascent up the divisions has considerably reduced both waistlines and average age of the roster as Bajen Fans IF are now gearing up for their debut season in Division 2, the fourth tier in Swedish hockey.
Meanwhile as the first team is going great guns, one eye is kept on the future. A U20 team, two U18 teams as well as teams for kids born 2001-03 will play in next season’s junior leagues as the club are aiming to make Bajen Fans IF the number-one choice for youngsters from the club's main catchment area of southern Stockholm, an initiative that one day should bring more home-grown players through to the first team of what is a special club according the current Bajen Fans IF club captain, Tomas Lindgren.
"I dare to say that there is no other hockey club where the players are so close to the supporters, the boardroom, the coaches and our junior teams," Lindgren told IIHF.com. "We are not just ice hockey players; we do this for the supporters and with the supporters. We are playing a cup tournament together with the supporters, we will have a barbecue together with them, so we can get to know each other, which is so much more than just any normal club where the board are sitting in their offices and the players are doing their bit. So this certainly is something unique and something I have never experienced before."
After an initial bit of soul-searching for a place to call their own Bajen Fans IF now play most of the first team home games in MB-hallen, an arena in southern Stockholm, while continuing their tradition to spice up their season with an annual game played at Hovet Arena during the aforementioned event Bajenkvällen, as well as a home tie played outdoors at Kärrtorp where a sea of flares from the supporters light up the dark Stockholm winter nights. Both events part of a positive supporter culture surrounding Bajen Fans IF where the energy is directed at their own team, quite different to when Lindgren played for Hammarby IF in Allsvenskan between 2006 and 2008.
"I was playing derbies for Hammarby against AIK when there were 5,000-6,000 at the games and often a very hostile atmosphere. During Bajenkvällen we have 5,000 all supporting the same team and it's just like an enormous green mass that just carries the team forward," says Lindgren.
With the foundation of Bajen Fans IF in 2008 there was a notion, still very much lingering on to this day, that they one day would be joining up with Hammarby IF with ice hockey making a return to the multi-sports club. A prospect team captain Lindgren admits feeling split towards with memories of past and present still being fresh in his mind.
"I am not sure how I should feel about that one. Hammarby’s ice hockey section for me is associated with debt and mismanagement, while others see it is a classic hockey team that won eight Swedish championships," says Lindgren. "At the moment Bajen Fans IF is something very positive, as we are winning games and are a strong club on the rise, so I hope the club will be in Allsvenskan in five years’ time and that I will be able to sit up in the stands with a cup of coffee to cheer the boys on."