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Swedes looking for redemption

8/27/2004

Think Bill Buckner with a puck and you have some sense of the demons that dog the Swedish national hockey team.

In this case, it was a long, fluttering slapshot at 17:36 of the third period of the quarterfinal elimination game at the Salt Lake City Olympics. It drove a stake through the heart of the Swedes' gold-medal hopes, reinforcing their international reputation as big-game chokers.

Can you remember who hit the ball that scooted through Buckner's legs? On this February 2002 afternoon in Salt Lake City, it was Vladimir Kopat, a hitherto unknown forward from the hitherto unknown hockey backwater of Belarus.

Kopat's harmless 70-footer seemed to mesmerize veteran Swedish netminder Tommy Salo. Salo's glove hand came up awkwardly, but the puck hit him in the head and then danced slowly across the goal line. Defenseman Kenny Jonsson made a desperate effort to sweep the puck clear, but it was too late.

Belarus 4, Sweden 3.

The ragged former Soviet republic had defeated a star-studded Swedish team that had legitimate designs on gold. The Swedes had dominated Canada in the first game of the tournament. They were ready to put years of being paper contenders and flesh-and-blood disappointments behind them.

And then it was over, unless you consider the two years of recriminations and regret that has followed.

Until now.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure. It's a small country, and hockey is a huge sport," said assistant coach and longtime national team member Ulf Dahlen. "But I would like to say this team is putting a lot of pressure on themselves.

"There's pressure from the media, there's pressure from the people, there's pressure for ourselves. Our players are used to that. We have a lot of high-profile NHL players who are used to that."

So far Sweden is 2-0 going into its final World Cup exhibition game Friday against the Czech Republic. Some in the Swedish media are calling this World Cup group the best national team ever, and even before the first whistle of training camp, you could almost hear the expectation meter rising.

Click. Click. Click.

"It seems to be on everybody's mind right now," said Tampa Bay forward Fredrik Modin, who has a rare chance to win a Stanley Cup and a World Cup of Hockey championship in a three-month span. "Obviously, here in Sweden, there's high expectations. They talk about it a lot, about what happened in the previous Olympics.

"It's almost like it's time to redeem ourselves a little bit. I hope people realize it's going to be a tough tournament. There's a lot of good teams out there."

If the aftermath of the Belarus debacle is any indication, understanding doesn't seem to be on the Swedish hockey fans' agenda. The Swedish media was merciless in the wake of the Belarus loss, accusing the team of betraying the country. One paper ran all of the players' pictures and their NHL salaries as though they were international criminals.

Another publication ran a second-by-second breakdown of the goal, a kind of hockey Zapruder film. Salo, not unlike Buckner, was excoriated.

Now the moment is at hand to blot out that stain.

"This is what people are talking about," said goaltender Mikael Tellqvist, who shut out Slovakia in Sweden's first World Cup tuneup game. "It's the Olympics, and it's the World Cup of Hockey. This is the one you want to win for your country."

Tellqvist figures to play a significant role in this Swedish hockey opera. The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect has considerable international experience and will push Salo for the starting role. It was Tellqvist who relieved Salo two years ago when the Swedes fell behind Finland 5-0 in the World Championships, only to come back and advance to the final where they lost in overtime on a controversial goal by Canada's Anson Carter.

Although Tellqvist's development has not come as quickly as Maple Leaf management had anticipated (he was the heir apparent to Curtis Joseph's job in Toronto, but now stands as the heir apparent to Ed Belfour), he filled in ably in 11 NHL contests this past season and now has two seasons of AHL hockey plus international play on his resume.

At 25, he is old enough to understand the significance of the task ahead and young enough not to be overwhelmed by it.

"Of course there's going to be a little bit of pressure," Tellqvist said shortly before the start of training camps in Europe. "If we all do our jobs, of course, we're going to be successful. I'm just going to try and block out the pressure.

"Right now I don't feel any pressure. If I'm going to have the role, I'm just going to try and have some fun and learn from it."

Tellqvist will battle Salo and New York Ranger prospect Henrik Lundqvist for the starting role.

"I'm going to give Tommy and the other guy, Henrik Lundqvist, a shot for the No. 1 job," Tellqvist said.

Dahlen will give nothing away regarding the team's goaltending plan.

"It's pretty much going to be based on performance," Dahlen said. "We're going to let it flow a bit. It's going to be interesting to watch them in practice and then in the early games."

Looking at the lineup that may be playing in front of him, Tellqvist said this Swedish team is different in that it's not simply a collection of the most talented players.

"We have two really good scoring lines and two lines that can defend," he said. "Usually the Swedes don't have any players that crunch."

Now, there is Marcus Nilson and Tomas Holmstrom, Tellqvist said.

"Those are players you really need, too," he said. "This team is more a team I think."

Dahlen, who played on the last two Olympic teams for Sweden as well as the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the 1991 Canada Cup, believes this team has the right mix.

"We have a lot of good players," he said. "And we have some young players that are going to push the older players hopefully."

Unlike other nations, the Swedes have not been beset by any defections or late "'injuries" to disrupt their lineup. It is a testament to the importance of this tournament that those who were called will play.

Although he is too young to remember the history of the tournament dating back to its Canada Cup days, Tellqvist recalls watching the 1996 World Cup of Hockey on television, dreaming some day of skating alongside the game's best. And he understands what it would mean to play in a championship game in Toronto, alongside Leaf captain Mats Sundin.

"It would be an incredible feeling," he said.

As for the Belarus goal, Tellqvist figures it might serve this current team well to remember the moment.

"It's going to be good for us because we don't want the same thing to happen again."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.