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Originally thought to not be an option for locked out NHL players, the Swedish Competition Authority's anti-trust ruling may have opened the floodgates to Elitserien, the Swedish Elite League.
A large contingent of players are set to seek employment overseas as the NHL lockout stretches into its second week -- with no foreseeable end in sight -- and Sweden could be one of the more desirable destinations for locked out players should it appear the work stoppage is set to go on for months.
Along with the KHL and Swiss A-League, Elitserien -- or the Swedish Elite League -- is regarded as one of the premier hockey leagues outside of the NHL, with an extremely high level of talented players. After all, the country had produced such elite NHL players as Borje Salming, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Naslund, Pelle Lindbergh, Markus Naslund, and Peter Forsberg, to name but a few.
The SEL was founded in 1975 as a 10-team organization, before adding two more clubs in 1987 to form the current 12-team composition. Those teams are: AIK (Stockholm), Brynas IF (Gavle), Frolunda HC (Gothenburg), Farjestad BK (Karlstad), HV71 (Jonkoping), Linkopings HC (Linkoping), Lulea HF (Lulea), MODO hockey (Ornskoldvik), Rogle BK (Angelholm), Skelleftea AIK (Skelleftea), Timra IK (Timra), and Vaxjo Lakers (Vaxjo).
Despite the difference of playing on an international sized ice surface, SEL games work much the same way as in the NHL -- three 20 minute periods (of course), a five-minute overtime period in the event of a tie after regulation, and a shootout if the overtime does not provide a winner.
The playoff system sees eight of the 12 teams qualify for a three round best-of-seven series postseason. The club that finishes first overall gets to select between the seventh and eighth place finishers as to which team it will face in the first round, then the second place club picks from the next two, etc.
One of the more interesting features of the SEL is that the member clubs may change from year-to-year. The bottom two teams in the regular season standings participate in a round robin tournament against four teams from Allsvenskan -- the Tier 2 league in Sweden -- with the top two teams in the tournament qualifying to play in Elitserien the following season.
The SEL almost wasn't even an option for players during this latest round of labor strife, as the league had decided not to sign any NHLers to short-term lockout contracts during the ongoing CBA turmoil. That all changed late last week, when an anti-trust ruling by the Swedish Competition Authority overturned the ban on importing North American players.
While that decision could still be appealed, the floodgates to play in Sweden seem to have been blown wide open -- and some players are rumored to be close to signing since that decision was handed down. Reports in the Swedish Expressen say that St. Louis Blues forward Alex Steen and the Winnipeg Jets defender Tobias Enstrom could be two of the first players to join a SEL team, as the pair are rumored to be headed to MODO as a result of the lockout.
Some of the NHL's top Swedish-born stars -- New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, Ottawa Senators Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Vancouver Canucks Sedin twins -- Henrik and Daniel -- Detroit Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg, and Dallas Stars forward Loui Eriksson -- all could be heading home to play in their native land while they're denied NHL employment. Zetterberg led the SEL in scoring during the 2004/05 lockout, and the Swedes excelled, as well.
A couple other noteable Swedes that are likely on hockey Sweden's radar are ironically at opposite ends of their respective career paths: last season's NHL Calder Trophy winner, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, and Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson.
Landeskog is just 19 years old and played with such maturity and intensity last season, he was given the "C" to wear on his Avs jersey heading into next season -- whenever that may eventually come about. Unconfirmed reports have Landeskog ready to sign with Djurgarden of Allsvenskan.
Alfredsson is a Swedish icon, having recorded 416 goals and 1,082 points in 16 seasons with the Sens. The 39-year-old decided to come back for one more NHL season, a kind of farewell tour as the veteran leader on a young and improving Ottawa club. That was until Gary Bettman and the owners locked the players out on September 15. Now it appears as if Alfredsson's time in North America may end up being a thing of the past if the lockout were to wipe out the entire season, as it did in 2004/05.
It could be that Alfredsson could be in line for several months in front of an adoring, truly "home" crowd in Sweden, but it's unclear if the cancellation of the NHL season would affect Alfredsson's decision regarding the 2013/14 NHL campaign.
As players continue to become disenchanted at merely practicing on their own in an attempt to stay in shape -- while it becomes less and less likely that the ugly CBA situation will be settled any time soon -- overseas options will look better and better.
And Sweden will be one of the more attractive destinations.