When Rasmus Dahlin put pen to paper on his first NHL contract, the reverberations carried to Gothenburg and Lidkoping in his native Sweden.
The No. 1 overall pick signing with the Buffalo Sabres earned Sweden more than $250,000 to put back into development.
“It’s unreal,” Dahlin said. “We need all the money we can get.”
Last year alone, the NHL paid more than $35 million in transfer fees as teams signed European players. There are agreements in place with all the major hockey-producing countries except Russia and Switzerland that allow the free flow of players to the best league in the world.
“The purpose I suppose is to help prime the pump for hockey development,” deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said. “The pool of players who can play in the National Hockey League continues to increase on a regular basis. … There’s more better players than ever before.”
When the world junior championship begins Wednesday in Canada, it will be a showcase of that emerging talent spurred along in Europe and North America by this money. The NHL also sends junior leagues in Canada and the United States over $12 million annually and provides financial support for USA Hockey.
That feeder system is partially responsible for the game’s explosion of young talent in recent years. Nowhere is that more evident than Sweden, which received roughly $8 million last year for Dahlin and more than 30 other players signing NHL contracts.
“That money is obviously huge,” said Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who is Swedish. “It doesn’t just go to the pro teams. I think it funnels down to your first team and the teams that are developing you and have been taking you on this ride. And that money is doing the same for the next generation of players: setting up with the right facilities and the right coaches and just try to surround them with the best circumstances that they can so they can succeed. That’s one of the reasons why Sweden’s been able to keep producing players.”
The investment makes sense for the NHL, which currently has players from 16 different countries. The 31 — soon to be 32 — teams split the costs equally each year.
It’s beneficial for national federations and European leagues and teams, too, even if Swedish Hockey Association vice president Peter Forsberg had to convince those in charge it was better to make a deal with the NHL than lose players for nothing.
“I told them that I think it’s better you have an agreement because then we have impact in the kind of discussions,” said Forsberg, who shares the same name with the retired NHL star. “All the players who sign a contract with Swedish club or European club or whatever, they have always an out clause that they can go to the NHL. We can’t ever keep them in our league if you want to keep them in our league. We cannot sign the long contract that they do in soccer in Europe. We don’t have that kind of possibilities.”
The trick is making sure the money goes to what it’s designed for. Daly, who has been in charge of transfer fees since the end of the 2004-05 lockout, said federations are responsible for reporting where the funds go because the goal is to keep churning out players who one day could make it to the NHL.
The federations distribute the money to various levels as they see fit. Forsberg said 95 percent of fees go back into programs that grow the sport in Sweden.
“We ensure that the money goes back to the development,” Forsberg said. “You can see that on the result that we have around 10 percent of Swedish players are today in NHL (and) that 10 percent of players in NHL are Swedes. We can see that we have a high production line.”
That’s also the case in Finland, which has the league’s leading scorer in Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and produced Winnipeg’s 43-goal scorer Patrik Laine, young Dallas defenseman Miro Heiskanen and a whole generation of emerging star players.
“They take care of the players, they help players to develop them to get ready to come over,” Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. “Like you’ve seen the last few years, Finnish players are really stepping up, so it’s a credit to every team back home.”
Government contributions and smart leadership have also helped hockey blossom across Europe. Kronwall credited longtime coach-turned-general manager Tommy Boustedt for setting up position-specific camps in Sweden that specifically allowed for the development of Dahlin and more modern defensemen.
The NHL money paved the way for that.
“We’re a hard-working country,” Dahlin said. “We’re humble. We don’t have a lot of players, but some of the guys come to the NHL and for me, a younger guy, I know that a Swedish guy can make it, too.”