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Swedes refuse to buy into Russian ‘lottery’

Sweden teammates Tom Nilsson, left, Linus Arnesson, centre, and Niklas Lundstrom, right, celebrate after defeating Russia in a shoot out during at the semi-final IIHF World Junior Championships hockey action in Ufa, Russia on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013.



Roger Ronnberg has heard the word in every language of the hockey world.

This night, moments after his Swedish team defeated the hometown favourites in a breathtaking 3-2 semi-final game decided in a shootout, it comes out first in Russian.

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Ronnberg requires no translation to know where Russian coach Mikhail Yarnakov is headed with this one.

"In this lottery we lost," the Russian coach says with a philosophical shrug. "One team goes on to the gold medal. One team goes on to play for bronze. It's a lottery."

No, Ronnberg wants to say. It is not a lottery. But instead he responds diplomatically.

"We try to prepare for this," he says in the coaches' formal press conference, "because in every world tournament I have been to this is how you win the tournament or how you lose the tournament. It always comes down to [a shootout] and so we prepare for that."

He talks about how the Swedish "scouted" the Russian shooters in the quarter-final match when the spunky Swiss team also took Russia to a shootout, and lost. The Swedes knew who would be chosen and had a good sense of what they would do. Nail Yakupov, for example, the NHL's No. 1 draft pick last summer when he was chosen by the Edmonton Oilers, used exactly the same move against the Swiss that he tried on Swedish goaltender Niklas Lundstrom – a quick, low shot to the five-hole – and failed.

"We knew what they will do," he says.

Later, in a private chat, Ronnberg says what he bit his tongue on when sitting beside Yarnakov in the news conference.

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"First of all," he says. "I don't think it's a lottery. That's a mindset, but it's not a lottery. You can practise the penalty shots. You should take it more seriously. It's one of the things that a coach must do, I think. You have to prepare the players. You have to help them, give them tools, help them own the confidence that they need in the penalty shots.

"I think it's a coachable skill."

It is an opinion slow to reach other hockey worlds, the NHL included. The shootout has been part of NHL play since the league returned from its previous lockout, in 2005. It was first considered as far back as the 1994 all-star game – a fan-entertainment idea pushed for by Michael Eisner, then owner of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and Marcel Aubut, owner of the Quebec Nordiques – but the league was slow to adopt it and has never truly embraced it.

Purists say it is an individual skill deciding a team sport. There are even complicated mathematical arguments available to prove it's nothing but a crapshoot. In other words, exactly as Yarnakov argued: a lottery.

No, Ronnberg says. It is not a crapshoot and coaches who buy into that are merely seeking a scapegoat that allows them not to take responsibility.

"It's a mindset," he says. "If you think it's a lottery you won't coach it, you won't practise it. But if you think it's a part of the game that you have to take care of, then you have to take responsibility for it, too."

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Sweden, Ronnberg says, learned this lesson the hard way two years ago in Buffalo, when it let a semi-final game slip out of its hands by allowing a late Russian goal to force overtime and then had a shootout decide the game 4-3 in favour of the Russians. The Russians went on to win the gold medal.

"That was the lesson for us," the Swedish coach says. "We hadn't prepared the shooters that time. We just put them on the ice and one guy wasn't ready. And another guy, he had a [shootout] shot that he didn't care to use at that moment, because we hadn't coached him.

"So that was my fault. I could have blamed the lottery, but we learned a lesson that time, that we have to coach them, that we have to prepare them for this moment."

Last year in Calgary, the Swedes again went to a shootout in the semi-final, this time against Finland. And they were prepared – winning 3-2 and moving on to play Russia for the gold medal, which the Swedes won dramatically in overtime.

"World juniors for us three years in a row it's penalty shots," Ronnberg says. "We do everything right in the games, but it's the penalty shots in the end that decide winning and losing."

This time, he says, they were even better prepared. The goaltender, Lundstrom, knew what he had to do, what he had to watch for, and none of the Russians could score.

If it came down to one Swede who had to score, Ronnberg knew he would be sending out Sebastian Collberg, an 18-year-old who plays for Frolunda HC in the Swedish elite league and is a draft prospect of the Montreal Canadiens.

Why Collberg? Well, he has the skills required. But that, Ronnberg says, is only one part of it. Perhaps not even the most important.

"We know he has a good penalty shot," Ronnberg says. "But he also has the mentality to be the hero in those situations, so he is really enjoying being out there.

"That is the most important part with that kid. You have to love to be there. You have to love to be at the centre. You have to love to be there, to have the confidence to be that type of player. And he is. He showed it."

It is an interesting perspective, but whether Yarnakov is right that the shootout is a lottery, or Ronnberg is correct in saying it is as "coachable" as a breakout pattern or a penalty kill, the question still remains: Does he like the idea that important hockey games should be decided by a shootout?

He smiles. "When you win," he says, "you like it."

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