The only way is up

Swedish record champion Djurgården aims for instant return

13.09.2012
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Coach Charles Berglund wants to bring Djurgården Stockholm back to the Elitserien. Photo: Andreas Sandström / Pic-Agency Sweden

STOCKHOLM – "Be part of one of Djurgården's most important seasons" is the plea of the announcement flashing up on the giant screen greeting the hord of bronze skinned capital dwellers escaping the late summer sunshine for the Hovet Arena to get a curious glimpse of a new look Djurgården team.

With over 3,000 season tickets sold, supporters have duly answered the call in remarkable numbers. Now only the hard part remains; for the players to follow suit and get back to winning ways on the back of a lacklustre last season which saw the 16-time Swedish Champions plummet to HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden's second tier.

"We have the goal and the determination to try and get back to Elitserien, but it won't be easy," says Charles Berglund, the club's joint head coach and general manager when speaking to IIHF.com following a recent pre-season game. "You only have to look at last season when the hockey experts in this country predicted Djurgården to reach the final of the Swedish championship. Instead we ended up in HockeyAllsvenskan."

It had been with high hopes the illustrious Stockholm club had entered last season. Hardy Nilsson had during his second spell at the helm of the club led his troops nail-bitingly close to a Swedish championship in 2010, and followed it up with a narrowly fought but disappointing quarter-final defeat against Luleå the year after. But with the nucleus of the team still intact and a crop of highly-promising home-grown juniors added to the mix, the glory days looked like they could once again come knocking in 2011/2012.

Instead it was to be a season of two halves; going from bad to worse. An attempt to halt the alarming downward slide meant the back of Nilsson at the end of January this year. An interim replacement, Tony Zabel, recruited from the club's junior system briefly stepped in, before Berglund was drafted in ahead of the relegation play-off series in a last gasp attempt to rescue the season.

Changes that all proved to be in vain, with the effective nail in the coffin coming with two games to spare, on March, 31, 2012, courtesy of a 2-0 loss on the road at Leksand, meaning Djurgården were out of the top domestic division for the first time since the 1976/1977 season.

Fast forward five months and the times they are a-changin' at Djurgården: "Getting relegated can never be a positive thing. Its direct consequences for the club has been redundancies and being forced to tighten things up financially a bit here and there," says Berglund.

"However, there are also smaller things that could turn out to be positive in the long run. We now had to take a good look at the organisation of the club, which you might not do as long as things are going the way they normally do. Also looking at it from a player perspective, it could help some of them to develop in a lower division, but having said that, on the whole a relegation is not positive."

With his number 2 jersey hanging from the rafters inside the faded ice palace that is the Hovet arena, Berglund evokes fond memories in the hearts and minds of Djurgården supporters. Having won five league championships during his playing days at the club, the 47-year-old is a proven winner out on the ice and an affable man off it.

Now his task is to try and emulate the success from the Djurgården bench. Having previous worked at the club as an assistant coach between 2005 to 2007, he then ventured north for four seasons as head coach in Elitserien for Timrå and MODO before being released by the latter in the spring of 2011.

Having been touted for the Djurgården job in the past, Berglund was now unanimously chosen by the club's board as the right man to steady the ship and turn the tide and was contracted until the end of the 2013/2014 season.

With Elitserien and HockeyAllsvenskan being miles apart, at least financially, Djurgården has seen its annual budget dwindle drastically and be cut to half ahead of this season. For Berglund, in his combined role as the club's head coach/GM, the implications have been to keep an even firmer eye on the financial books, as he rolled up his sleeves to begin the rebuilding process of the team, carefully trying to avoid the pitfalls from last season which he believes played a part in the club's downfall.

"I thought there was a gap between two sets of players in last season's roster," Berglund says. "We had an older generation and a younger group of players but we were completely without the middle generation. I do admit that I have been struggling to try and get it right myself, but to my defence the players who are in the late teens or between 20-22 already have quite a bit of experience, which should compensate the fact that I don't have as many players as I'd wish in my roster between the ages 24 to 26."

Heading for the exit door were 16 players, such as forward Marcus Nilson, goaltender Gustaf Wesslau and the Tjärnqvist brothers, Daniel and Mathias, as well as up-and-coming starlets such as the 2012 World Junior champions Fredrik Claesson and Mika Zibanejad. They have been replaced by a motley crew of recruits where Dustin Johner became Berglund's first signing and a fellow Canadian, 22-year-old goaltender, Chet Pickard, a 2009 World Junior champion were to be his final piece of the jigsaw.

In-between his foreign acquisitions, Berglund's active pursuit of characters with a hunger and pride to don the dark-blue jersey of Djurgården has seen the return of previously familiar faces, such as former-NHLer Michael Holmqvist, grinder Henrik Eriksson, veteran defenceman Timmy Pettersson and Fredrik Bremberg, whom at the ripe age of 39 will be a fine creative asset if he manages to shake off a persistent foot injury.

Add to that the 18-year old prospect Pontus Åberg, who decided to shake of his suitors and remain at the club and four promising juniors promoted up to the seniors from the conveyor belt for hockey talent that is the Djurgården's junior system, all whom will be very well looked after on and off the ice by a trio of bona fide Djurgården stalwarts, Christian Eklund, Jimmy Ölvestad and Kristoffer Ottosson, with a combined total of 1603 regular season Elitserie games for the club, who decided to stay put and play their part in helping the club bounce back to Elitserien at the first attempt.

Recent history has taught that a new Djurgården dynasty arrives roughly every decade. Djurgården's three consecutive championships and two European cup victories between 1989-1992 and the two straight Swedish championships won in 2000-2001 were both groundbreaking victories in their own tactical sense. The former with the neutral zone trap, the "1-3-1" honed by Lars Falk and Ingvar Carlsson, while the latter was remembered for Hardy Nilsson's highly-effective torpedo system. For Berglund, a Djurgården player under both systems, the question that springs to mind is what ace the current head coach himself will be pulling out from his sleeve for this season?

"Mats Bäcklin," replies Berglund. "He together with (Tony) Zabel, are both up-and-coming coaches picked up from junior hockey who both are used to the modern style of the game," he says about his two assistant coaches, where Zabel comes with a wealth of experience from Djurgården's junior system, while Bäcklin was hand-picked from the junior set-up at Brynäs.

For Bäcklin, who spent the last seven years working with the Brynäs juniors where he experienced tremendous success bringing through Nicklas Bäckström and more recently guys such as Calle Järnkrok, Jakob Silfverberg and Johan Larsson, coming to Djurgården was the next step in his development as a coach.

Having been keen to try and spread his wings into Elitserien, he signed a pre-contract with the Stockholm club in January this year when they were comfortable in mid-table. Now with drastically changed circumstances, the newly appointed assistant coach of Djurgården admits that despite the disappointing end to the season, there were still highlights which must be honed ahead of the current campaign.

"If you look at last season, we were controlling the puck a lot, but often ended up around the boards and in the corners as we were missing that little bit of extra in our offensive play," Bäcklin says. "So for this season, there is a feeling we will be having a lot of the puck, which is also our aim. But we definitely also want to turn the play as quickly as possible into offence," says Bäcklin, who expects a very long and winding road for Djurgården on their way back up to the top.

"I cannot emphasise this more, that this will be a very tough journey for us. HockeyAllsvenskan is a much, much better league than people would think and in my opinion it is better than ever this season. So our aim is first and foremost to become a top team in the division and in the longer run become an team for Elitserien," Bäcklin says.

Djurgården who start their HockeyAllsvenskan campaign at home versus Almtuna on 13th September, hope that the valuable experience gained from participating in the European Trophy, playing against top-quality opposition as a second-tier team will help the club to hit the ground running. But there are many cautionary tales of recent times to remind high-browed players and supporters that it will be far from easy to roll in to HockeyAllsvenskan as city slickers used to having bigger fish to fry.

One such comes from across the city, where Djurgården's fierce archrival, AIK, spent eight long years in the doldrums of the lower leagues.

Since their return to Elitserien for the 2010/2011 season they have came to second life reaching two semi-finals on the trot and are a fine example of that you don't need big names on the roster to guarantee you success. Just one of the many things Djurgården fell foul for last season, and now quickly need to amend if they still wish to keep their self-imposed moniker as Stockholms Stolthet, "the Pride of Stockholm" intact for years to come.

HENRIK MANNINEN


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