When the Washington Capitals skate onto the ice at the Johanneshov Isstadion in Stockholm Monday night to play the Minnesota North Stars, they will be fulfilling an idea that was born two years ago in Portland, Maine.
On that forgettable night, the Capitals were making an exhibition of themselves in a 7-1 loss to the Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League. It was a game that should never have been scheduled, but Washington had to play somebody before the regular season began.
"The top teams have an interlocking schedule of exhibition games and we haven't been able to crack it," said General Manager Max McNab. "One of our problems, historically, has been to get the right rotation of exhibition games. The frustration of not getting reasonable games led me to start talking to the Swedes. We actually made our plans, including our hotel reservations, 18 months ago.
"We'll be playing three exhibition games with no travel in a big rink with an emphasis on skating. It beats stopovers in Denver, St. Louis and Minnesota. The Swedes started training at the end of April and they hit the ice the first of August.They'll be ready and those games will be a good eye-opener for our guys."
The games in Stockholm are spread two days apart, with the Capitals meeting AIK Wednesday and Djurgarden Friday. It is an ideal arrangement, according to Coach Gary Green.
"Max and I discussed the trip and we felt that if anything involved with it could hurt our effort to get ready for the opener, then it would be best not to go," Green said. "But it's an excellent setup. It's far better than that week's trip last year, when the club was always on a plane.
"We won't miss one step of our progression. There will be a day off when we get to Stockholm, but we would have had a day off in Hershey. Sunday we're just continuing training camp. With a day to practice between each game, it's ideal.
"The Swedish teams are out to win, European teams always want to beat the NHL. So we'll be meeting excellent competition. If we played the Flyers this week, we'd be facing seven Flyers and 13 from Maine. Last year, we won one like that and thought we were worldbeaters. The Swedes won't put in their second best.
"And a big plus is the way our players are so excited about it. It's something to work for right off the bat and it brought the guys to camp in excellent shape. Whenever you get that type of enthusiasm right off the bat, you're ahead of things."
For the Capitals' Swedish players, the trip is especially exciting.
Rolf Edberg, who once played for AIK, said "It's a really big thing for the whole team, but for me a bit extra. It's my home and I haven't played there for two years. I'll be a little tight on the first shift, maybe. pI hope we can play really good and beat them.
"There will be fast skating and passing which will be good for us. Our team is in really good shape. The kind of practices we've been having, working hard in the morning and easing off in the afternoon, are really good. That's what I always did in Sweden and I feel stronger this year."
"This is a great show for all the players, but even more for us," said Bengt Gustafsson. "Those in Sweden who know about hockey know who we are, but Rolf is bigger there than I am. It's important for the league we play in that we do well and I hope we win."
"All visits by the Canadian teams are big things in Sweden and they always sell out before," said Leif Svensson. "But at $15 a ticket, I don't know. The usual price is $4 or $5. Everybody is talking about it, though, and there's a lot of interest. The Swedish teams will be ready, that's for sure."