Sweden, Hockey, and the Disappointment of a Political Radical

Originally published in the Give 'em the Lumber fanzine #2 (2006).

Sweden seems like it’d be every radical hockey fan’s dream.

Here’s a country that has had an almost uninterrupted run of social democratic governments since the 1920s, is hailed as the epitome of the European welfare state, ranks consistently amongst the nations most generous with foreign aid, and is known as a bastion of such liberal achievements as gay and lesbian pastors and a no-frills approach to public nudity.

And then there is its men’s hockey team. Traditionally one of the world’s very best, with eight World Championship titles and two Olympic gold medals to its record, it secured a historic first this year: winning the gold medal at the Olympics and at the World Championships during the same season.

One might conclude that for a radical hockey fan being in Sweden could be the next best thing to forcing the Blackhawks to change their name. Well. Things just often ain’t what they seem.

I first became suspicious when it appeared impossible to locate any radical hockey fans to being with.

I had heard that there was an anarchist soccer tournament in Stockholm every year. So sure there’d be one for hockey, right? Far from it. I can get exactly one of the radical friends I have here to talk about hockey with at least a hint of interest – he moved to the country five years ago from Austria.

Inquiries into radical hockey teams, fan clubs, or just any individual radical into the game, were met by little more than partly bewildered, partly contemptuous stares. Radical politics and what? Hockey? Get outta here!

When I told my Swedish girlfriend that I was gonna write an article on hockey in Sweden she told me to make sure not to write anything bad about Sweden – I outta feel free, however, to tear hockey into pieces. That just about sums it up, I guess.

Once you delve into the matter a little, you start to get the feeling that the role of hockey in Swedish society is to bring out the worst in the country’s otherwise benign and friendly folk. As one Stockholm paper put it last year in the aftermath of a scandal involving rape charges against three NHL and Tre Kronor players (see below): “While society as a whole has become more and more just, hockey keeps on living in its own world.”

A relentless macho culture is usually the first reason given. Last year’s scandal seemed only the tip of the iceberg. References to other players as “cunts” or “grannies” are as common in the locker room as sexist and homophobic jokes, standard rites of masculinity, and what would go as good old jock values in the States. (Sounds familiar? True. But this is not North America. This is Sweden. That was the point.)

The low figures for female hockey players are staggering. In a country where women account for over 47% of the members of parliament (Sweden has led this statistic for a long time – it was only overtaken by Rwanda in 2003 who now claims a 48.8 percentage for women parliamentarians) and for about 30% of the registered soccer players (not to forget: soccer too is a traditionally very male-dominated sport), the percentage of registered female hockey players comes to barely five (Canada has over ten).

There are usually no all-female youth teams. The girls have to train with the boys. In terms of gender equality, this might have its good sides. However, taking into account the above described locker room scenario, it can also be rather discouraging – the numbers of girls and women playing hockey in Sweden would rather suggest the latter.

Nonetheless – one might say against the odds – the Swedish women’s hockey team won the silver medal at this year’s Olympics in Torino. It was the first time a Women’s World Championship or Olympic final saw a team other than that of Canada or the US compete (Sweden had beaten the US in the semis). Quite an achievement. We can only hope it’ll boost women’s hockey in the land of lakes and forests and make the Sundins and Forsbergs choke on some of their snus! (Swedish snuff, that is.)

The story behind the above mentioned “hockey scandal” goes as follows:

In February 2005, during the Sweden Hockey Games (now LG Hockey Games – part of an annual tournament series comprising Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic) three NHL-probed Swedish players (Kristian Huselius, Andreas Lilja and Henrik Tallinder) leave the team’s quarters for a night out and return to their hotel room with a young woman who they all have sex with. The woman files rape charges the next day. These are soon dropped for “lack of evidence”. The Swedish Hockey Association bans the three players from continuing to play for their Elitseries teams (they are all on leave from their locked-out NHL clubs) but allows them to play outside the country (they all finish the season in Switzerland). These days, all three of them are back in the NHL: Huselius with the Flames, Lilja with the Red Wings, and Tallinder with the Sabres.

The scandal did shake Sweden and the reputation of hockey a fair bit. However, soon everything appeared “back to normal”. And, indeed, judged by the Swedish Hockey Association’s handling of the matter, little improvement seems in sight. For its officials the issue seemed closed with forbidding the three players to finish their season in Sweden and banning them for some time from the Tre Kronor. Asked if he didn’t think that there was any connection between the players’ behavior and a more general attitude problem within Swedish hockey, Michael Englund, the association’s general secretary, is quoted as saying: “I have a really hard time seeing that. … There are no problems with sexism in Swedish hockey.” As of fall 2006, the players are back in Tre Kronor colors.

Enter the next political problem that Swedish hockey is facing: whiteness.

Sweden has long been a fairly welcoming haven for refugees, migrant workers and those looking for a safer and more promising home than the one they’ve left behind.

This is reflected in the country’s current demographics. Around 20% of Sweden’s population are first or second generation migrants. This shows in many aspects of Swedish society, also sports. For the last few years, the Swedish soccer team’s offense (one of the best in the world) has consisted of one player with a Cape Verdean father (Henrik Larsson) and a player of Bosnian and Croat descent (Zlatan Ibrahimović).

In hockey, blue eyes, blonde hair and names like Alfredsson and Lundqvist still rule supreme. There is no Grant Fuhr of Swedish hockey. Sure, there are prospects – a few players of ethnic minority background have been drafted in recent years by NHL teams: Yared Hagos by the Stars and Johnny Oduya by the Capitals in 2001, Dragan Umicevic by the Oilers in 2003. But none of their stars has really begun to shine.

Maybe the biggest hope came with this year’s draft: Daniel Rahimi, hailing from Sweden’s north (Umeå), was a third-round pick for the Canucks. He had a contract offered when he was eighteen. Rahimi’s dad is Iranian. Maybe he will go on to change the status of hockey within the country’s migrant youth. So far, soccer has their almost exclusive attention.

Not unrelated to the above is Sweden’s third main problem in regard to hockey: nationalism.

It might come as a surprise to some but soccer is a much bigger and more popular sport in Sweden than hockey. It is played and followed by many more and always has been. However, the country has without doubt been much more successful in hockey. Coming in second at the 1958 and third at the 1994 Men’s World Cup, and second at the 2003 Women’s World Cup, are Sweden’s biggest successes as far as soccer goes – compare this to the hockey records quoted above.

This leads to a situation where one sport might very well be the nation’s most popular – yet another is much more ingrained in its identity and notions of pride.

Before a Soccer World Cup game against Germany or Italy, Swedes have to diplomatically talk about “chances we might have against these teams”; before meeting the same countries at a Hockey World Championships, Swedes can sneer at them. And they often enough do, even when it comes to far more serious opposition: the arrogance of the Swedish press before this year’s Olympic final against Finland was preposterous enough to make headlines all around Europe.

Furthermore, the complications of symbolism aren’t on Sweden’s side either. The Swedish national hockey team is known as the Tre Kronor, the “Three Crowns”. These have served as an emblematic representation of the Swedish nation for centuries. Their origins are unclear. Yet one theory holds that the crowns refer back to a time when Sweden dreamt of uniting the monarchies of Sweden, Norway and Denmark – under Swedish rule of course. True or not, the story unsurprisingly does not go down so well with the country’s Scandinavian neighbors.

Expected to live up to general notions of open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism in their everyday lives, certain Swedes seem to look for outlets in which vulgar nationalistic sentiments can appear somewhat acceptable. Hockey offers one of the best excuses the country has to lend. Of course this does not make the game look pretty. What a bummer.

When radical sports fans desperately look for a straw to hold onto in order to justify their liking of a game that seems beset by redneck idiocy and bigotry, the joker usually always is class culture. In this case, we would be claiming that – after and despite all – hockey is an integral part of the Swedish peasantry and working class, and that it is hence still somewhere, somehow valuable and respectable. If we were very bold, we would claim that criticizing it would be an expression of middle and upper class elitism.

Leaving the question aside whether the supposedly low-class character of any social arena (sports or other) could ever justify sexism, racial homogeneity or nationalistic swagger, the argument has empirical weakness too.

As far as peasant culture is concerned, there is simply very little ground to it. There’s never been an idyllic time of Disney-like quality when little Svens or Björns took their sticks near the arctic circle to play a game of hockey on frozen ponds with reindeer watching. (The winters are too dark to play games of hockey near the arctic circle to begin with – you’d need a fluorescent puck or something.) The development of hockey in Sweden has always been predominantly urban. In fact, in its beginnings, hockey was very much centered in and around Stockholm. (It took until 1957 for a non-Stockholm team to take the national title.)

There is much more depth to the part of the argument that claims hockey as a working class sport. The game’s development was indeed very much tied to the country’s industrial development. Almost all the hockey centers that emerged outside of Stockholm were based in industrial towns: like in Gävle (where the GIK took that 1957 title) or in the northern coastal cities of Örnsköldsvik, Skellefteå or Luleå. (The small town of Leksand in Dalarna might be the most prominent exception to this rule. But Dalarna too was once – due to heavy mining – one of the most industrialized regions in Sweden.)

The generally close relation of hockey and industrialization/urbanization is also the most probable reason why – compared to Sweden and Finland – the historically mainly agricultural Norway has not developed a big hockey culture. (Just in case you ever wondered.) Anyhow, today the ties between working class culture and hockey have become somewhat complicated in Sweden too.

For one, hockey can not be as easily defined in terms of class anymore as it used to be. These days, it is not the working class alone that provides the talent. The main reason is simply an economic one. In the course of ever increasing educational regulations, tightened control of public space and technological development, playing hockey has become very expensive. Access to rinks is harder to come by than many would think, and raising the money for today’s equipment does pose challenges for low-income families. One has to be a very dedicated working class parent to send one’s kid to a hockey club – leave alone two kids or more.

An even bigger problem for the working class character of hockey is its commercial co-optation by the middle and upper classes. Even if a lot of hockey players and spectators still have strong working class background, the game is ruled and exploited by a capitalist bourgeoisie. Luckily, no angry quarrels between millionaire owners and millionaire players leave the Swedish hockey fan (and non-millionaire player) without a season yet, but of course the sport is corporately run here as well. This threatens to destroy a lot of its working class character the same way that similar developments have already destroyed a lot of the working class character of soccer in many places. (Concerning the latter, see for example the AAP Collective’s “Anarchist Football (Soccer) Manual” available through AK Press. – Okay. There is a vested interest in this reference. I am part of that collective. I still think it’s worth checking out the manual though if you have an interest in radical perspectives on sports.)

As a proof to hockey’s commercial co-optation, Sweden’s Olympic victory this year was marred by one of those ultimate uglinesses of the corporization of sports: a sponsorship controversy.

The Swedish Olympic Committee has its sponsors, and so does the Swedish Hockey Association. These sponsors do not match. When the Tre Kronor arrived in Sweden from the Games to an overwhelming reception at Stockholm’s Medborgarplats, they were still under auspices of the Swedish Olympic Committee – yet they were sporting the Hockey Association’s sponsors’ logos. The Olympic Committee was to endure so much pressure from their own sponsors that it publicly had to consider stripping the team of its medals (which of course never happened).

Working class sport? Give me a break.

So, what does all this mean other than that we should have supported the perennial European underdog Finland in the Olympic final and the bohemian Czechs in that of the World Championships? Not much really. Other than maybe finding someone else to root for at the next tournament.

Despite the absence of almost all their NHL- and AHL- players (well, there are just about a handful), Austria came out on top of their 2006 Division I tournament in Lithuania with straight wins and will be back in the main group next year. So the author of these lines has his ticket. Others? Why not root for the Ukraine? Orange Revolution and all. (Even makes a good name for a hockey team.)

Speaking of Austria and World Championships, here comes one of my favorite memories as far as Swedish hockey is concerned: After years and years in what was then the Group B of Hockey World Championships, Austria qualified for a group A tournament in Germany in 1993. Their first game was against Sweden. Everyone expected a blow-out. It didn’t happen. Sweden won all but 1-0 from a first-period goal. The main reason for Sweden’s low scoring was that my best buddy from junior high, Claus Dalpiaz, was goaltending for Austria. He was voted Austria’s MVP after the final siren. I was very proud. (If you’ve read Give ‘em the Lumber 1 you’ve already heard about Claus. Sorry, but I refuse to talk or write about hockey without mentioning him.)

Finally, I did come across an encouraging aspect of Swedish hockey culture. Hockey is pretty popular with parts of Sweden’s lesbian community. (Then again, so is singing schlager. But let’s leave that aside for a moment.) An insider source tells about HBO-worthy relationship dramas and promiscuity between lesbian hockey aces in Sweden’s women’s leagues. I considered pursuing this lead for a while. However, given North American stereotypes, I was worried that stories about Swedish hockey-playing girls hooking up with each other might fuel ill-conceived male fantasies much rather than doing the lesbian community any good. I dropped the idea.

In the end, I feel I have to resort to what often is the last means for the radical sports fan to save the day: the realization that sometimes we have to contend ourselves with the fact that it is not possible to turn a simple pleasure into something noble – upon which we might be able to allow ourselves to focus on the joy we derive from watching (for example) an exciting game of hockey and its display of dazzling skill: that swift move, that no-look pass, that flick of a wrist. Once it is this we are talking about, then go no further than Sweden. It’s all here. In quite the best way the world has to offer. Especially this year.

Gabriel Kuhn