SKELLEFTEÅ, Sweden – Sometimes things do work out as planned. In 2013, Frolunda Gothenburg hired a new coach and gave him free reins to develop a new generation of champions. The mission was accomplished on Sunday, when Frölunda beat Skellefteå AIK 5-3 in Game 5 to win the final series of the SHL 4-1.
Artturi Lehkonen scored the game’s first goal just 1:46 into the first period, and then added his eleventh of the playoffs with 5:54 remaining in the period giving Frölunda a 3-0 lead. Nicklas Lasu scored for Frölunda halfway through the period. Skellefteå AIK, playing in its sixth straight final, made a comeback attempt in the second period, but Frölunda could close out the game and take its fourth win.
“We found a way to win, even if things didn’t always go like we wanted. But when it mattered, we came through,” said team captain Joel Lundqvist, who was the only remaining player from Frölunda’s previous championship team.
It was Frölunda’s fourth Swedish title (1965, 2003, 2005, 2016) and the first since the NHL lockout season 2004/05. They also played in the final 2006 but lost to Färjestad. (That same season, Skellefteå was promoted to the top division for the first time after 16 years in the second-tier league).
“I was on the 2005 roster early on but when my brother and the other NHLers came, I was sent back to the junior team, and I’ve waited for this day since then,” said Anton Axelsson, brother of P.J. Axelsson.
“I think we’ve done good work for a while but especially since [coach] Roger [Rönnberg] came to Gothenburg, we’ve taken strides every year,” he added.
It was the signing of Roger Rönnberg that marked the birth of the latest reincarnation of Frolunda. With three finals in four years between 2003 and 2006, Frölunda was the dynasty with big ambitions, not only in Sweden, but also internationally. Frölunda was one of the engines driving the development of Nordic Trophy, a club competition for Finnish and Swedish teams that became the European Trophy and was one of the corner stones of the reborn Champions Hockey League, which they also won this season, fittingly.
In 2011, when the financial crisis was at its worst and the club was on the brink of bankruptcy, a new chairman, Mats Grauers, was brought in. His first – and only – job was to save Frolunda.
“Those first two years were financially very strained, we had to cut costs while finding new revenue streams. It was a daily struggle,” he said in an interview to Swedish news agency TT.
“Frölunda’s philosophy had been to build their teams around mature players. Good players, but also expensive.”
When Grauers joined Frölunda, the average age of the team on the ice was 26.4. In 2013, before Roger Rönnberg, who was Sweden’s coach when the nation won its first World Juniors gold in 31 years, took over and started the re-build, it was 26.3.
In Ronnberg’s first season, the average team was 24, and the team made the quarter-final. The season after, it was 23.9 and the kids made it a round farther in the playoffs. This season, the kids had gotten a year older, and the average age was 25.6. However, Frölunda had only five 30-somethings on its roster.
The new philosophy of finding young talent and developing great players both through Frolunda’s own junior system and through signing up and coming stars seems to work. Artturi Lehkonen won the World Juniors with Finland in 2014, and signed with Frölunda to become a more mature person and player.
When he moved to Gothenburg, he spoke English with everyone, while now he gives interviews on live TV in fluent Swedish. More importantly, for Frölunda, of course, was his development in the rink.
Last season, he scored 16 points in 47 games and added six more in 13 playoff games. This season, the 20-year-old doubled his regular season points total to 33, and won the playoff scoring race with 11 goals and 19 points in 16 games, and while he signed an extension in December, the Montreal Canadiens second-round pick from 2013 may be ready for his next move.
“I don’t want to talk about it. This is one my career highlights, together with the World Juniors gold,” he told Expressen.
The future’s looking bright for Frölunda.
In the four previous seasons, they sold out Scandinavium only nine times but now that Frölunda has a winning team on the ice so they could announce their classic sold-out attendance 12,044 four times. They sold out two games in the regular season, and both their home games in the final. And their finances are in order again.
Just as planned.
First published on IIHF.com.