No place like home for Alfredsson
Captain Daniel Alfredsson leads Ottawa to his native Sweden
Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson plays professional hockey almost 6,000 kilometres away from Goteborg, Sweden, yet he can't make a move without his hometown knowing about it.
Entering his 13th NHL season, Alfredsson marvels at how the league's exposure has dramatically increased in his native country since the era of Hall of Famer Borje Salming some 30 years ago.
Unlike the old days, information instantly travels home whenever Alfredsson reaches a milestone or, as last season proved, if the Senators struggle to make the playoffs.
"Hockey is big [in Sweden], especially now with the media coverage and the internet," the 35-year-old veteran pointed out during a recent conference call. "There's a lot more NHL games that are covered over in Europe compared to when I was younger. The Swedish media follows us regularly over here."
The hometown reporters won't have to travel far to see Alfredsson this weekend.
All eyes on Alfredsson
In a continuing effort to increase awareness of its product overseas, the NHL will stage four regular-season games in Europe.
A pair of contests see Alfredsson and his Ottawa teammates square off against last season's Stanley Cup finalist Pittsburgh Penguins in Stockholm beginning Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca 2:45 ET).
Prague plays host to the other two games, between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, starting Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, noon ET).
The Senators have spent the last four days of training camp in Goteborg, getting ready for their opener. Part of the team's preparation involved an exhibition game against Alfredsson's old Frolunda club of the Swedish elite league, which Ottawa won 4-1.
There will be no shortage of star power on the two NHL teams. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, along with Ottawa's Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza expect to dazzle the crowd with their immense skills. But make no mistake; all eyes will be glued on Alfredsson when the puck drops.
Plans for family and friends to travel 398 kilometres northeast to Stockholm were made some time ago. The event will also feature Alfredsson becoming the first European captain to lead a team in a regular-season game in Europe, a fact that took the bashful Swede by surprise.
"I didn't even know," he says with a laugh. "To be able to show off ourselves in front of them, I think it's going to be special. Not only because I'm the captain, but as an older player that's been over in Canada for a long time."
Stockholm potential NHL expansion candidate?
Putting obvious logistics and expense considerations aside, it's believed the NHL could be looking at a division of six clubs, with Stockholm mentioned as a potential candidate. Although Alfredsson remains skeptical, he says playing regular-season games in Europe — as the NHL has done for the last two years — is an intelligent way to measure fan and corporate support.
"I think it's a good way to test out the market and see the interest that we can create, and show off our game for Europe," Alfredsson says. "I see it as a possibility. I think it's still a long shot, but I know I won't be playing if that happens. That's a lot of travel and logistics that have to be sorted out. It would be pretty neat to see it happen, but I'm not sure it will."
Could Stockholm afford the hefty prices NHL teams currently charge for 42 regular-season games and the playoffs?
"Yeah, without a question," he says confidently.
New coach, more physical players added
But off-ice controversies involving enigmatic goaltender Ray Emery contributed to a forgettable campaign.
In January, the team began a steady decline and had to fight to stay in seventh place, only to be swept away in the opening round by the Penguins. For his part, Alfredsson suffered through several injuries, including a sprained medial collateral ligament.
Feeling that his team was too soft for the grind of the playoffs, general manager Bryan Murray fired first-year coach John Paddock prior to the post-season, opting for the no-nonsense style of Craig Hartsburg following Ottawa's quick playoff exit.
He also watched long-time defenceman Wade Redden sign a lucrative contact with the New York Rangers, while trading blue-liner Andrej Meszaros to Tampa Bay.
Needing more toughness, Murray brought in rugged veteran defenceman Jason Smith and agitating forward Jarkko Ruutu.
With the most frustrating season since his rookie year behind him, Alfredsson believes it would be foolish for hockey pundits to discount the new-look Senators.
"We have much more grit, I think," says Alfredsson, whose agent J.P. Barry is expected to begin negotiations with Ottawa on a contract extension this week. "Our [general] manager definitely had a plan when he signed the new guys and got rid of some of the other ones. He brought more character people.
"We'll probably be a little tougher to play against physically than we have in the past. We've always played with a lot of skill and puck possession, and hopefully we can maintain that, but at the same time we can also be a little grittier."