At the beginning of every Hockey Factories story, there is a launching point.
For the best hockey programs in the world, it may have happened five years ago. For those just starting to build the foundation of that success, it could be 10 years from now.
The story of Djurgårdens goes back nearly 100 years and success has followed them throughout.
Established in 1922, the hockey section of Djurgårdens IF – which encompasses everything from football to boule to beach soccer – has been playing in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) throughout its history.
It’s important to note, Djurgårdens hasn’t just been competing for 100 years, it’s been winning.
As the most successful program in Swedish hockey history, the club prides itself on 16 LeMat Trophies and 12 second place finishes.
Most recently, the club scored back-to-back championships in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons.
If we’ve learned nothing else through these articles, it’s that development can breed winning and winning can be a result of development.
There is no denying Djurgårdens’ success and ability to develop players, with nearly 50 athletes from the club having been drafted into the National Hockey League – that’s the second most in Sweden and the fourth most in all of Europe.
But, with all that lure and grandeur, decades of trophies and a streamline of players moving to the pro level, perhaps one of their brightest periods of time came to the surface only three years ago.
THE NHL DRAFT
The NHL Draft has almost always had a Djurgårdens influence.
The first player taken from the club was Soren Johansson, who was taken by the Kansas City Scouts in the 11th round in 1974.
Two years later, Kent Nilsson, the first player to play in the NHL from Djurgårdens, was drafted in the 4th round, 64th overall by the Atlanta Flames.
Nilsson moved with the club to Calgary in the 1980-81 season and played five years with the Flames before adding a few more seasons in Minnesota and Edmonton.
It wasn’t until 1996 when Djurgårdens had their first player taken in the 1st round, when Florida snatched up Marcus Nilson with the 20th overall selection. He would go on to play over 500 NHL games, most for the Panthers.
Michael Holmqvist went in the 1st round (18th overall) to Anaheim in 1997, Niklas Kronwall to Detroit in 2000 at 29th overall, and Jacob Josefson was the 20th selection of the 2009 NHL Draft, by New Jersey.
Look up any NHL Draft list and you’ll see Djurgårdens peppered throughout it.
In the last few years, the draft rate has actually increased.
In 2020, Alexander Holtz was selected 7th overall by the New Jersey Devils, beginning a string of draft success the club had never seen before.
2022 was the most successful draft year yet.
Five players from the club were taken, all in the first three rounds, and three in the 1st round.
Jonathan Lekkerimaki (15th by Vancouver), Noah Ostlund (16th by Buffalo) and Liam Ohgren (19th by Minnesota) had been touted as 1st round picks all season long and nearly marched one after the other onto the stage in Montreal.
For a club that has had sustained success in its century long history, how did two draft classes create such an impact in the NHL, like never before?
You can first ask the players themselves.
NOAH OSTLUND: SHOOTING STAR
“It’s a little bit of everything.”
Noah Ostlund has been a star for the Djurgårdens program since his U16 season.
When asked what makes the program stand out, he’s nearly out of breath rhyming off all the reasons the program has helped him.
“The coaches are really good and have a lot of knowledge about the game, but also about strength off the ice, which is important when you’re young, so it has had a huge impact on my game, I have improved a lot with the Djurgårdens program.”
In Sweden, the hockey hungry country that it is, options are something the best players in the country have plenty of.
For Ostlund, Djurgårdens was always at the top of the list.
“It was a plan of how I was going to train for my four years here that I really liked,” Ostlund admits. “We talked about what I needed to improve on, what I needed to keep working on so I could get better at everything and it’s been a big help for me and my development.”
KG Stoppel, Club General Manager, praises his star centre.
“Noah Ostlund is one of those players that really makes him unique is he can see what’s happening on the ice before it happens,” says Stoppel. “Today, the game is so fast and there are not enough players who have the IQ to see what’s going to happen, they are all very reactionary, where Noah has that ability.”
Ostlund admits the two-a-day practices and off ice work outs can be tough, but as he says, hockey is all he knows and Djurgårdens will be remembered as where he really grew up.
“It’s the professionalism, to get to the rink every day with a smile on your face and wanting to improve, that’s something they focus on, and they will tell you that,” Ostlund shares. “You have to work hard every day if you want that success to come and this place motivates me to do my best.”
DRIVE RUNS IN THE EKLUND FAMILY
Djurgårdens is in William Eklund’s blood stream.
His father, Christian, spent nearly his entire hockey career with Djurgårdens, amassing well over 500 games with the club.
“I’m just trying to develop more every day, not anything specific, but I do work on my shot a lot,” says William. “The most important thing for me to improve is on my strength so I’m ready to take the next steps and be ready to plan in the NHL in the next couple years.
“I grew up in Stockholm and my main goal was to stay in the town,” Eklund explains as we discuss his hockey journey so far. “My dad played there too, so my dream has always been to play there and hopefully get into the NHL. He enjoyed it a lot, he played there a few years and its home for him too, so that was a big part of it.”
Eklund’s rise through the hockey ranks has been meteoric to say the least.
Selected in 2021 by San Jose, Eklund already has nine NHL games under his belt, posting four assists. He’s spent this season with the club’s AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracudas, notching 11 goals and 28 points in 40 games as of late January, 2023.
“We have a great program in Djurgårdens,” Eklund explains. “Morning practice Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays and they would be skill based. Then we would do a lot of off ice training with lifting and stuff like that.”
“The amount of practice at that age was really good, so we could see what a professional workload was like. Somewhere in there I got better and better every day.”
The physical training is something Djurgårdens prides themselves on, which both Stoppel and the club’s Director of Player Development, Tobias Pehrsson, will attest to.
“One of the big reasons for our success, we feel, is because of our conditioning coaches,” Pehrsson says. “We introduce the physical part to build their strength, speed and injury prevention. Whether its on ice or in the gym, it’s all preparing them for a higher intensity game as they get older.”
“It’s a little bit old-school with working out and hockey,” Stoppel agrees. “It’s important for them to have the physical part because we know that can help prevent injuries, so when we get players into the club when they are 15 years old, we’ll check on the physical aspect and have a program for the players to start building on that right away.”
At the end of the day, keeping the players on the ice as much as they are at those ages is a huge separator from their competition in the draft.
KG Stoppel has seen it all at Djurgårdens.
He joined the club as a U16 coach in October 1991 and has been with the club ever since, rising the ranks to Development Manager, Operations Manager, Director of Hockey Operations and now General Manager – a post he has held for over a year.
The changes he’s seen would be an article on its own, but he says something has come around recently that stands out.
“We’ve always tried to work to develop really good team players,” Stoppel begins. “In the last 10-15 years, there’s a lot more individual focus, with different people looking to make money to work with kids.”
It’s been huge business, according to Stoppel, and that means there are a lot more people involved with each player, especially when they are top prospects.
“In the end, I think it’s important for the player to hear the same thing from all different parties,” Stoppel proclaims. “The worst thing for everyone is if an agent is saying one thing, the club is saying a different thing and their personal trainer is saying a third thing.”
Stoppel says the dialogue with the players and his environment is really, really important.
“In the end, to have good cooperation between the clubs, the coaches and the players, we have to share ideals that are pretty close,” Stoppel exclaims. “If the distance between the coach’s and the player’s pictures are too big is going to be very difficult to find the cooperation and that’s where things break down.”
“That’s the easiest way to fail is when the pictures are too far apart.”
Stoppel has had a key hand in developing the philosophy of the Djurgårdens program, one that he believes is not just about skating and skill.
“Every player these days has that,” Stoppel says poignantly. “We work a lot with core skills, but also the individual IQ, to help them understand the game because in the end, that’s the most important thing to be a good hockey player.”
Pehrsson is an even greater proponent of the hockey IQ teaching.
“We do a lot of read and react for our players,” Pehrsson tells us. “We can give players structure and instruction on how we want to play with the puck and without the puck but at the end of the day it’s a read and react game.”
The read and react is not just an observation, it is one of the core beliefs and philosophies of the program.
They avoid the stand-here-do-this mentality because in a game, at game speed, that window opens and closes so quickly, or may never open at all.
Emphasis is not just put on the skill and what they can do with the puck, but what a certain organ can teach them about the game.
“We teach a lot about moving their eyes,” Pehrsson states. “How they are moving their eyes before they have the puck and when the puck hits the blade how are they moving their eyes to get information about their teammates, space, time and opponents and then have them make the best decision.”
The strategy is simple.
The hope is the player will move their eyes three times when they are first about to get the puck and move them three times again when they have it to see where everyone is now.
That, according to Pehrsson, is one of the most important theories of their player development.
“I learned a lot about the brain and decision making and how a coach can impact that vision and that read and react, so that is something I brought with me to Djurgårdens and I work with our coaches on every day.”
“When we look at the players, it’s pretty easy to see the player who is really good when he’s 15,” Stoppel explains. “But you have to see if you have the things because you’ll need to be successful when you’re 20 or 25. Ultimately, what we are looking for is how they act, their hockey IQ, how they see the ice and if they make other players better.”
The other part Pehrsson (below) credits the most is the club’s scouting staff.
The Swedish capital of Stockholm is also the country’s largest city, with around a million people in the municipality and around 2.5 million in the metro area.
That’s a lot of ground to cover and a lot of decisions to make very early in a player’s career.
It’s also the primary stomping grounds of scouts for a reason.
“There are many clubs in Sweden that are really good, to be honest,” Stoppel admits. “A big part of our success is that 25% of players in our country come from Stockholm. We also try to only recruit from the Stockholm area so they are close to family and friends because it’s pretty difficult when you are 16 or 17 taking care of school and food etc.”
The scouts will start looking at players around U14 and the conversations those representatives have are not just about hockey IQ and skating ability.
Djurgårdens’ philosophy goes well beyond the body of work on the ice; it starts at the dinner table.
“We have a lot of conversations with the player and their families about their lives,” Pehrsson explains. “We learn about their personalities, where they come from, what their thoughts are about life and themselves and just get to know them a little deeper.”
The club wants players who will grow with the club, who understand the club’s values and want to learn as much about being a good person as they do about being a good hockey player.
“When players don’t get ice time or they are not successful, they think the way to fix the problem is to change the team. It’s a big problem in Sweden,” Stoppel admits. “You have to work through your problems to become a better player, it’s not just changing teams that is going to fix everything for you because that problem might be there too if it’s not addressed.”
Stoppel says he’s seen a big difference in the personalities and behaviours of players in general over his time with the club, something he notices because of influences at home.
“My wife is a teacher and we are always talking about the new generation who seems like we do everything for them instead of letting them make a mistake and handle their own mistakes,” Stoppel states. “Now when you see a player make a mistake or come up short in success, they can’t handle it.”
Mistakes are part of the game – many call it a game of mistakes.
It’s how you handle those mistakes that can turn your game, season and even hockey future around.
That’s why behaviour is something that is discussed every week as coaches within the club meet to share ideas.
“Behaviour is something we talk a lot about,” Pehrsson reiterates. “Things every player can do, whether they are tall or strong or short or slow, every player has the ability to put pressure on an opponent, every player can block shots, every player can compete. Those are nonnegotiable, that is our identity.”
“Over my 30 years, when you see the guys who go all the way, they have the grit and they don’t start blaming their environments or other people around them for their shortcomings,” Stoppel comments. “They look to themselves, and they take care of it. They know what to do and they know when things are not so good and they deal with it, those are not long conversations.”
IRON SHARPENS IRON
The 2004 age group at Djurgårdens will go down in history as one of the club’s best.
With three 1st round picks, Calle Odelius going in the 2nd round and Adam Engstrom being picked in the 3rd, Djurgårdens is sending a group of kids to the next level who have been around each other most of their lives.
“It’s been very fun to play with the others – we’ve been playing together since we were 12 years old,” Ostlund says. “It’s been a great journey to share that with them. They are my best friends off the ice. We took the same steps to Djurgårdens together and I’m very excited for their success as well.”
The fact that all of them were just so good at the same time brewed a competitive advantage that did not have to be manufactured in any way.
The kids brought it themselves.
“We wanted to beat each other at everything,” Ostlund laughs.
“The ’04 group is super skilled and talented but it’s really difficult when you have so many of those players together at the same time,” Stoppel says. “There’s a little bit of luck because it’s pretty unique, but for us, we know they chose our club, and they knew what they were getting from us and trusted us to get them ready for the next level.”
“Those players (the ’04s) are just so strong, and they have such a belief in themselves,” Pehrsson gushes. “They have such a power when they are working every morning, working out in the afternoon, every moment, every drill, every day.”
“Their motivation and ability to push themselves and each other to a new level is extremely impressive and it’s been really interesting to see them and how they carry themselves.”
Part of that work ethic, Ostlund says, comes from getting to play with the older players throughout his career.
It’s something many European clubs get the advantage of, one Eklund was able to learn from and then, before moving on from the club, was able to mentor.
“When you come up in age you always respect the older guys, you listen to what they have to say and you look up to those guys,” Eklund remembers. “In that case you always mature a little bit as a person, not just as a player. I think that helped me a lot. You listen to those guys, and they will respect you if you respect them and I was happy to do that for the next group.”
“It’s helped a lot playing with older groups,” Ostlund continues. “When you’re a younger guy on the team you’re looking at the older guys to see what they do. You want to play up as high as you can, so just watching those guys on a daily basis and see what they are doing and trying to emulate that.”
The goal for the kids is always the same: they all want to play in the NHL.
Getting there is not easy, but draft day is one that always makes it worthwhile.
“I had no clue where I would go,” Eklund recalls. “It was funny because I had no idea. But it was a great day, one of the best days of my life with my family and friends and I was really happy for San Jose to pick me. It’s been a great experience.”
Ostlund was no different.
“I spoke to all 32 teams, but it was a bit of a surprise the Sabres drafted me,” he says. “I spoke with them at the combine but that was it, but I’m very proud and excited to be part of the Sabres organization.”
He also speaks highly of his first NHL training camp experience.
“It was very cool to hang around in the dressing room and see the NHLers like Owen Power, Peyton Krebs and Jack Quinn,” he comments. “We were all just trying to prove we are good players and can play in the NHL, so it was a great experience.”
PATIENCE IS KEY
Producing nine draft picks in the last three years is a culmination of many years of hard work and development.
Yes, you have to be lucky. Yes, you have to have a good system.
Above all, you have to be patient.
“You have to do the unsexy work on a daily basis,” Stoppel says. “It’s not the nice goals or highlight plays that will carry you, it’s the hard work every day. When it comes to the Stanley Cup or the playoffs in general, it’s the teams that outwork you that will win.”
“The last thing we want to do is jump off track and decide ‘let’s do this,’ or ‘let’s do that.’ The biggest challenge we have is that we need to have patience and not try to rush results. If we don’t have the patience, the players won’t have the patience and that goes against what we are trying to do.”
“Our coaches are such an advantage for us,” Pehrsson admits. “I love being around those coaches and seeing how they work; it’s motivating to me. Everyone here gets it. It might not be results every single day that you can see, but over one month, three months, one year, three years, you see that development when you have the patience and continue to work hard.”
As Pehrsson shares, you won’t see the change every day, but when you count the practice hours and time they commit to their development, especially at 15, 16 or 17 years old, that is what separates some of these players.
THE NEXT GENERATION
As these players look forward to (hopefully) long and fruitful NHL careers, Pehrsson and Stoppel are hard at work developing the next generation.
“That is part of our DNA – today is the most important day of your life,” Pehrsson admits. “Whether you are working on your body or on the ice or watching video. Today is important and then tomorrow is important and the next day and so on.”
“We are never satisfied,” Pehrsson says. “We work constantly to evaluate and are always looking to find details or ways that we can be better. We are working on it every day. It’s such a process, but a lot of players want to come to us so it shows that we know what we are doing is the right way.”
This new chapter will have players flocking to Stockholm for years to come, looking to be part of the next great Djurgårdens team.
“It’s the biggest club in Sweden, that is what makes it special,” Eklund praises. “They have the most golds in the history of Sweden. It’s a special thing to play in the biggest club and the most historic club in the country and I learned a lot there.”
“It was a really special experience that has made me into the player I am today.”
For Stoppel, as he sits back in his chair when we wrap up our conversation, I ask him what the best part of his 30-plus years with the club has been.
“What makes you happiest is when you see the players growing to become successful men in whatever they do,” Stoppel answers, almost immediately. “It’s so great talking to guys like Niklaus Kronwall now when you’ve seen them and worked with them since they were like 14 or 15 years old and see now how they have grown as players and human beings.”
The spotlight shines bright on Djurgårdens because of a run of outstanding prospects in their recent history.
But as you flip back through the pages of time, you can see this group isn’t the trailblazers, they are following the footsteps of a philosophy and program with as legendary a history as the game itself.
- More Hockey Factories stories:
- Hockey Factories: The story behind EV Zug
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Frölunda HC
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Jokerit
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Adler Mannheim
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Okanagan Hockey Academy
- Hockey Factories: The story behind Shattuck-St. Mary’s School
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