Here's why Euro trips are still worth it
STOCKHOLM -- In the United States, it's a big deal to be given the keys to a city. Here in Sweden, the wooden horse is the big deal.
Nicklas Lidstrom, the Detroit Red Wings' captain and one of the best players of all time to hail from this Scandinavian country, was feted by the mayor of Dalarna, the municipality about two hours outside of Stockholm where Lidstrom grew up.
"You know, I don't know the history behind the wooden horse, but it's something famous for Sweden, that wooden horse and the colors on it," Lidstrom told ESPN.com on Wednesday shortly before the Wings boarded a train for their final preseason contest against the Swedish Elite League team in Karlstad. "That's the county or something similar to the province where I grew up. It's quite an honor to get something like that."
(According to Wikipedia.com, the Dala horse was originally a toy carved out of wood left over from clock cabinets. Over the decades, the glossy, brightly colored horses have evolved into a cultural icon. The world's biggest Dala horse can be found in Dalarna.)
The local mayor also named Lidstrom an ambassador for the region, an honor that has previously been bestowed only on singer Kris Kristofferson, although no one could explain the musician's connection to Dalarna.
The connection between the Red Wings and Sweden, though, is plenty obvious.
For years, the team has been well-stocked with some of the best Swedish players in the world. Scout Hakan Andersson is from Stockholm and has gained the reputation as one of the shrewdest judges of hockey talent in the world. The Wings rarely draft high in the proceedings because of their annual placing near the top of the NHL standings, so finding diamonds in the rough is vital to the franchise. Andersson has been instrumental in that effort, delivering players like Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and Jonathan Ericsson, whom the Wings have drafted deep in the players' respective drafts.
Now, for the first time, Andersson will see those players playing regular-season games in his hometown.
"It's great, just a great feeling. To know that they're going to play here is great," he said.
Is it exciting to be able to see "his" guys, the ones he scouted and helped?
"Not really. I'm glad to have my team here ... because I scouted some of them and got to know them a little closer than I would have had if they were a whole Canadian team," said Andersson, who lives a few hundred yards from Globe Arena, where the Wings will play St. Louis on Friday and Saturday night. "But still the most exciting thing is to have my team here and they get to show people how they can play good hockey. Hopefully."
Over the years, many NHL teams have traveled abroad for parts of training camps and to play preseason games. But two years ago, the league first played regular-season games in Europe when Los Angeles and Anaheim played in London. It is now an annual event with games being played this weekend between Detroit and St. Louis in Stockholm, and Florida and Chicago in Helsinki.
There will always be a debate about the merits of coming to Europe.
It is a long way to go to play two games. That is undeniable. Some teams have struggled after returning from Europe. All four coaches who started last season in Europe were fired before the end of the season. Coincidence? Perhaps, but certainly the benefits of playing these games across the Atlantic are sometimes difficult to quantify.
All of the regular-season games have been sold out thus far, starting with the first two in London. Last season, the games in Prague and Stockholm were also sold out. But does the league actually gain something from having its teams here? Does the NHL sell more merchandise? Do more fans log onto the league's Web site? In short, is it worth the cost and inconvenience?
Those debates will live on as it appears the NHL will continue its annual European invasion. Clearly, though, seeing how much it means to the Red Wings to be in Stockholm, and the connection they have with the local journalists and fans, reinforces that there is merit in being here.
Some 30 percent of the NHL's players come from outside North America. Trips like this one are a rare chance for those players to not just play at home, but also play meaningful games in front of fans they have left behind to pursue their careers. Watching the Swedish Red Wings players graciously sit through interview after interview with the local press, it is clear this visit is a touchstone for them, a reminder of where they came from and a chance to show what they've become.
For the fans, the experience is different from watching NHL games on their televisions, or even watching games live in North America for those lucky enough to make the trip.
Detroit GM Ken Holland said the Wings jumped at the chance to come to Stockholm even though there are drawbacks. For these players, and especially the Swedes, Holland said, "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Although there are currently eight Swedes on the Wings' preseason roster (not all will stay with the big club once the regular season starts), Niklas Kronwall is the only regular who actually hails from Stockholm.
"It's going to be awesome," Kronwall said. "Obviously, I never thought I would ever have a chance to play with an NHL team at home again. It's going to be a tremendous feeling. It feels great to be back here. At the same time, for friends and family who haven't had the time or the opportunity to come over to the states to watch an NHL game, I'm excited for them to be able to watch an NHL game here."
The rugged defenseman played for four years at Globe Arena, so walking into the building with his Red Wings teammates brought back a host of memories.
Is it all a bit surreal?
"Yeah, a little bit," he said. "I thought about it last night at dinner, just the fact that, once again, you're back home in Stockholm and you're sitting here with your friends from over there [the U.S.]. It's a pretty neat feeling actually."
Lidstrom also acknowledged feeling a bit strange boarding the team plane in Detroit, preparing for a road trip that in reality meant going home for so many of the players.
"At first, it was actually kind of awkward when we left Detroit," said Lidstrom, who left Sweden for good in 1991. "It's something that when I first started I never thought was going to happen. I was playing in the NHL and I was over there playing, and family and friends came over there to watch me play. Now, I get a chance to play here in Sweden and have family come here instead."
Defenseman Andreas Lilja, who is from Helsingborg, in the extreme south of Sweden near Denmark, joked that people have been asking him where to go to eat.
"It's like, I don't know. It would be like me asking you where to go in Florida if you've never been there," he said.
Still, he understands that the chance to play in his home country is a rare one, and his parents and in-laws, among others, will be making the 5½-hour journey to Stockholm for the games.
"I think it's a great thing. Personally, it's a great thing," Lilja said. "To sell the game, we've got so many Detroit Red Wings fans here in Sweden. It's ridiculous. Not only because we have so many Swedes on the team, but I think the Red Wings are a likable team."
Just ask the man with the shiny new wooden horse.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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