SOLLENTUNA, Sweden – About 35 years ago, a fair-haired boy got off bus 520 at the Sollentunavallen stop, walked through the gate and down the stone stairs to the outdoor rink, to attend Edsbergs IF’s hockey school.
Even if he had given it any thought, maybe he would have seen himself come back to the rink as an adult, and maybe a child could even imagine an indoor rink where the old outdoor rink was, and a practice rink next to it, and a full-size bandy rink next to that one, but he most likely didn’t think he’d be back at “Vallen” to unveil an image of himself on the wall of fame of the new rink.
Yet, that’s where Mats Sundin was on Friday, with his parents and a brother – all still living in Sollentuna – in attendance.
“This is fantastic, to get this recognition from my hometown. It’s one thing to get accolades in Toronto where I played most of my career, but this is extra special, because this is truly where it all began,” Sundin told IIHF.com.
It was not a black-tie event, there was no time for long speeches, there were no finely edited video clips on big scoreboards. Instead, there was some juice for kids, banana chips and nuts, and some coffee available on a table in front of the big image of Sundin carrying the puck in a white Maple Leafs sweater.
“This is perfect,” Sundin said, with a big smile. The same smile we got used to seeing after each goal he scored, both in Toronto and with the Swedish national team.
Getting your image on the wall of your childhood rink is special, but the real reason Sundin was back at Vallen was a hockey camp he was running for kids that have newly immigrated to Sweden. Among the 55 enthusiastic boys and girls were, for example, kids from Thailand and Uganda, who arrived in Sweden less than two months ago.
“I’m really inspired to do this kind of work. I saw in Toronto what a great job the club did with making sure that we weren’t just good hockey players, but also role models and leaders in the community we were parts of,” he said.
“Not everybody has the financial resources to play hockey, maybe there are other obstacles in their way, but thanks to a great sponsor, these kids get to try out hockey, and they get a nice start-up kit, too.”
The participants got skates, gloves, a helmet and a stick to keep. And, hopefully, to use in the future.
“It has been fun to see the kids’ enthusiasm, they’ve hardly wanted to eat lunch between our ice sessions and have run out to the outdoor bandy rink instead,” he said.
While Sundin had his spring break camp in Sollentuna, Djurgården had theirs in Husby, an immigrant-heavy suburb ten minutes away, also for kids who haven’t tried hockey before. Over 2,000 kids have got to test hockey this season, 900 of them girls, in Djurgårdens’s Husby camps.
“The key is to give them a chance to try it out. I’m sure that once you try it, you’re hooked,” says Tommy Boustedt, general secretary of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, who was also in attendance to watch Sundin unveil the image.
According to Boustedt, sports can still be a way to improve the odds on life. Maybe not as much as when he was a child in Hökarängen, a tough neighbordhood on the south side of town.
“Back then, you either smoked weed and drank beer or you played hockey and football. If you ended up in one group, things didn’t often go that well, but sports was a way out of it. I’d never be here today without hockey,” says Boustedt.
Sundin has now run his camp twice, and he hopes to make it an annual thing. “I want to do it again, with new kids,” he says.
Then he takes his flowers, talks to a few old friends, and vanishes in the coaches’ room. The kids step onto the ice wearing white sweaters with the Hockey Hall of Fame logo in the front, and number 13 on the back. Just then Sundin emerges and takes a few strides before he puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles twice.
Let’s play hockey.
Published on IIHF.com.