World Juniors 2024

"We need a good standard to be a good team": A Q&A with Sweden World Juniors head coach Magnus Hävelid

Magnus Hävelid didn't plan on coaching for this long. Not with the federation anyway. When he signed his deal with Sweden's governing hockey body back in 2015, it was only a two-year pact, his second with the program, the first starting 15 years prior.

"I worked with the Swedish Federation in the beginning in 2000 to 2004. Then I started working with Linköping with the Junior under-20 team, and then I had almost nine years in the SHL and a few years again in the J20," Hävelid told EP Rinkside. "My former boss, the manager, called and he asked me if I wanted to go back to the federation, and I thought it was a good time to go back to the federation because I wanted to go back up in the helicopter again and see the world.

"I haven't planned to be here for so long. It was supposed to be two years, and it's like, 'Okay, I can start with two years because I like to be with these clubs,' but when we won in Örnsköldsvik, I continued. That's the life. Now, the time is flying. I go year by year, but it's so fun."

Now, as Hävelid prepares to man the bench for the second straight World Juniors, this time in his native Sweden, he's in his ninth year with the federation.

"I have a contract for next year, but I go tournament by tournament. It's the coach life. You don't plan for this season or next season; I just go tournament by tournament," Hävelid said. "I've tried to be on the ice every day. I've said that when I take the ice every day, I'm like a Formula 1 driver – I'm always thinking about the next corner."

That ethos has worked out pretty damn well for Hävelid. He stewarded the Tre Kronor to their first U18 win in tournament history in 2019. Then, he repeated that feat three years later in Landshut, Germany, as the heavy underdog to the powerhouse Americans in the gold medal game.

Now, the 52-year-old bench boss has the chance at another first: Sweden's only gold medal win on home soil. They came close in Malmö back in 2014, bowing out in the gold medal game to a Finnish squad led in goal by Juuse Saros, who stopped 35 of 37 shots as rival Finland won in overtime.

What follows is an exclusive question-and-answer article between EP Rinkside and Hävelid, previewing the tournament and getting some insight into how he'll approach it.

EP Rinkside: How would you describe the excitement level right now, not only among the players but in Sweden more broadly? This is the biggest tournament in junior hockey, a massive moment in these players' careers, and they get to do it in front of their friends, families, etc., with more media coverage than they've likely ever faced to this point in their careers. What's that like?

Magnus Hävelid: It was 10 years ago when they played in Malmö, and we know there will be a lot of spectators based on that. The World Juniors have become much more popular in Sweden since 2007 in Leksand and we had a great TV production there. So we know there’s going to be a lot of spectators in the Scandinavium, and it’s a good opportunity for us.

I know I’m humbled by the opportunity to coach the team; I know the players are very humbled by the opportunity to play for the team too. I told them and we told each other that it’s quite a short tournament, there’s a lot of games in one and a half weeks. So for us, it’s about finding a way to handle the things around you on and off the ice to focus on playing your best hockey for 60 minutes. I told my players that when the 26th comes, don’t wait for anything. We need to be in the best shape ever, individually and as a team.

EP: I imagine that with that excitement comes a lot of pressure, especially as one of the tournament favourites. How do you help them navigate that part of the equation?

MH: We know Canada has won the gold in three of the last four tournaments. They have a good team. The USA has a good team. We need to find a way to catch them and get a gold medal. But it’s about showing up in these games. That’s the challenge for us. I hope we get the opportunity to use our home crowd and get a push from them, but we need to give them something to get them behind our back. We’re talking about how we can do that.

We have an extra week off compared to most teams for preparation, and we’re talking about how we can do that.

EP: And what are some of the ways you've handled that as a coaching staff specifically? What's been the messaging for your team as it relates to the balancing act that comes with both the excitement and the pressure of being a tournament favourite on home soil?

MH: We started talking to our players about this tournament in the summer when we played in Plymouth. It was important to know where we are going in the season. It was important to know about Gothenburg and all of the spectators.

We know about how we can handle the pressure, the positive aspect of it and the negative aspect. So we’re focusing more on how we can handle the positives of it. We had an open talk actually as a group. Those guys are smart, they want to help, and we have older players who want to help out.

Then we played in Czechia in the middle of November, and we continued to talk about it. We have started talking about it again here in Sweden as well. I told the players that I don’t see us as a favourite, because Canada and the USA, what they have done during the last 10 years – Canada in the last four tournaments has three gold, and for perspective, Sweden has won gold twice in the history of the tournament.

I think we have a great chance to challenge ourselves in a positive way. To do our best. If we can do that and we have good behaviour on the ice, then I know the crowd, the Swedish fans will support us. That can give us a chance to play good hockey during the tournament.

EP: Does it help that you not only have experience winning in international competition but have done so with a lot of the players on this roster? I mean, you have 14 players with you on this roster that took home gold in Landshut, Germany at the 2022 U18s. Your messaging probably goes a little bit further with someone who's won with you before, right?

MH: When we won in Landshut, the USA had a good team and they played a good game, but we stole the gold medal because we had a good power play and good goaltending. We took care of business in our own way.

I know a lot of the players, the ‘05s lost a tight game in Switzerland in Basel, but those players together, I tried to use the experience but also what it costs to come to the final and how they can play their best game during those 60 minutes and use it to build confidence. I think you need to have a good mindset.

If you look individually, we have a lot of good players in the lineup as well as in the US and Canada. I think my most important job right now is working with the group so that we have good team play. That will be my biggest challenge. It’s good guys, but I think it’s about how hard we work together. Good teamwork is the key, I think.

EP: Are you going to kind of lean on those players who helped you capture gold to lead the way with this group? Because, yeah, you had 14 players with you in Landshut, but still leaves nine players who weren't there. There's also a lot of crossover between this and last year's roster, which will help with team leadership too, right?

MH: Definitely, yes, I’m going to lean on those players. It’s about how we can handle those tough games. We talked about it today, we had three games last year that went into overtime, two overtime losses in the semifinals and against the USA. And we know how the gold medal game went last year, as well in overtime. Then Canada against Slovakia in overtime.

So my message is going to be that there’s going to be a lot of tight games, and you have to get ready for those. You have to like it, very much. This is hockey at this level. I want to keep them in the mindset of playing playoff hockey. For Swedish hockey players, that’s a positive feeling. I want them to chase that feeling as individuals and as a group. We have four games in the group, but you have to be ready for the first game, then the next game – each player has to be in that mindset. You have to have the picture of doing your best game that day, every day. Then you move to the next day, the next skate, the next game.

And we have players from last year, they have a good idea of what that’s like, and what it means. They can be leaders for us, and they can translate that to the other players as well. The boring stuff, too. Sleeping right, eating right, that stuff. You need to be fresh there.

EP: Once you move on from the mental side of things and get to the whiteboard, what does a Magnus Hävelid team play like? What are the kind of broad strokes of your system and the way that you want your team to play hockey? And then how much emphasis can you place on systems in a short tournament like this? What's that balancing act like?

MH: It’s a challenge, that’s for sure. You want to have balance, but it’s not easy. Let’s just say, if I tried to install a system that was just for Jonathan Lekkerimäki or Noah Östlund, I think the team will not get the most of their potential. I think you have to figure out different roles for different players.

They are humble guys. They know that this system can help us to win different games. So we are open-minded and we talk about it with them as well, including all of my third and fourth lines and defensive pairings.

So we try to figure out, half of the guys play power play, half of the guys can penalty kill – we know in Sweden, that will be very important for us, and it lets everyone else know they are important to us. So we want them to have roles and play the system and have freedom as well. That’s the challenge for a coach, all over the world. That’s what we are trying to figure out right now as well in individual talks with the players as well.

We want to play with puck possession, and I think we have to adjust a little bit if we play against teams, where sometimes we play high pressure and other times with the trap. We try to do both. As a nation, some teams, we can’t play them with high pressure. When we play other teams, we may have more of a trap system. So we try to have both of it.

The players we talk about it with, like Axel Sandin Pellikka, they definitely want to hold the puck, play it blade to blade, not just dump it and chase. That’s important for us as well. That can help us have a good tournament. It’s both sides of it for us.

EP: Now, obviously, when you're building your roster, you want the best players you can get and then you sort out the rest. Stylistically, though, what sort of players were you looking for if it came down to two players who were similar in quality but had different skill sets?

MH: I think we needed a mixture of different players there. The game is different today. You need to have players who can skate well and be smart out there and make quick decisions with different choices. I think we have quite a good mix with this group of players born in ‘04 and ‘05. I hope we can control play in the big rink and use our experience as well.

EP: It really seems like you prioritized mobility and range on your blue line in particular, am I wrong there?

MH: Yeah, I would say we did. That was what we were striving for last year in Halifax, especially in the beginning of the tournament. We lost a couple of defencemen because of injuries and other things, but we knew that we’d have a good group of defencemen and a good competition, and we still have a couple of good players at home right now – Theo Lindstein, for example, play good blade to blade.

I think we know we have those guys. We look at someone like Ôstlund, they want to play on a puck possession team. So that’s going to be a key for us as well. We need a good standard on those things to be a good team in Gothenburg.

EP: You've got the Djurgårdens trio of Lekkerimäki, Östlund, and Liam Öhgren back together, though I suppose that nickname is a little outdated considering they're not with that organization any longer. What does that mean for your team, and will you go back to that line since built-in chemistry can mean a lot in a short tournament like this?

MH: During practice and pre-tournament right now, we played Östlund, Lekkerimäki, and Anton Wahlberg together. Liam Öhgren, Filip Bystedt, and Fabian Wagner are on the other line actually. Öhgren has had a tough season, but he’s back playing with Färjestad after recovering from injuries. We know we’ve played them together before, but we think this is the better way to go right now after a few practices. We’ll see what happens in the games against Switzerland and the USA though. We’re still trying to figure out now what the best chemistry is for the team.

EP: What would it mean to win gold on home soil, and not just as someone who's won with a lot of these players before, but as someone who's got two nephews on the team in Mattias and Hugo Hävelid?

MH: I know they’re on the team, of course. You reminded me now and so has other media. But we had practice today, and I don’t think of them as my nephews. Probably because Hugo is a goalie and works with our goalie coach, and Mattias is a defenceman, they work with Pierre Jonsson. It’s more about maybe bringing it up at family dinners. It’s not that we sit down and just talk about Landshut all the time, but if you have good experience and good memories together – that’s special.

We have won two times in 45 years, and if it happens here, then we can talk about it when we meet and have that special kind of feeling. It’s something we can look back. I would probably be more happy for Swedish hockey if we won this one, it’s not just about Mattias and Hugo.

EP: Before I let you go, because I get the sense you've got a little bit on your plate right now, what have you learned about yourself after nine years of coaching with Sweden internationally? Hell, call it an even 15 years if you include that run in the early aughts.

MH: You have to remind yourself as a coach that when you have these players, they aren’t even 20-years-old. I think you need to remind yourself that they don’t have the experience of other guys, but they have really good skills and you need to take off pressure on them. Remind them sometimes that it’s just hockey, don’t hold the stick so hard. More like that. They want to learn. They are humble. They like to discuss the game. They are skills-minded. You know there’s going to be mistakes because they are juniors, but I think the spectators, the fans – they like it.

So, for me, it was learning that they are 17-, 18-, 19-years-old, and you have to be patient and give them a little confidence as well. I try to communicate a lot with them and support them. Try to tell them the bigger picture. It’s always coming with new games, new world championships, so don’t get too negative. I know you want to be really good on the ice, but don’t be too negative because there’s always going to be next shift – don’t forget what’s coming.

It can be tough because they have such a big network around them and they want to help them, but sometimes, they just need to be 19-years-old actually. You have to let them be kids. I try to remember. Maybe some of them are going to play in the NHL one day, but this is a step they have to take. Sometimes they even need a little distance from the sport almost.

EP: You cheated, I asked about you specifically, so that means I get one more question: What have you learned about yourself specifically in this time?

MH: They keep me young, in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of stats today, analytics. It’s more about being a team coach and focusing on the big picture. Not just for me, but for the players. You get a lot of inputs and there’s a lot of video a lot of clips, but you have to find a balance – you talk about the system as well, it’s about a balance of the system, looking at what’s right, what’s not right, and you can’t have them lose the feeling and instincts for it. I think it’s easy to get lost in all of this and the analytics.

Because if I go back seven years, there’s so much more information now, and that will be the case after another seven years. I look at it like, I have to help them navigate it and tell them they don’t have to listen to everything, because you can lose your heart for the game. They have to remember what it was like to play with their friends in the streets, if you know what I mean. Don’t forget where you started and why you started and why it’s fun to play. That’s what I’ve learned in seven years.

EP: You Swedish are so modest. But since you like talking about the team as a group rather than any one individual, what's something that stands out to you about your team in Gothenburg?

MH: That’s a good question. I don’t know that I even have a good answer there….

We talk about this group and how hard it is to win against the US and Canada, and we look at what this age group has done, winning in Landshut and then losing in Basel – that gives the group a good drive. They feel like they have a chance. You can feel it, I think. They are also humble because they know it’s tough to win.

With this group, the thing is, I have to remind them of the teamwork. They know they are skilled. I think it was the teamwork that helped them to come to the finals, with the ‘04 group winning and the ‘05 group losing, but it was close. They know if you work hard for each other and play the system, we know we have a chance because of those results earlier. This is a new tournament, of course, but the atmosphere of the team is that we have a good chance if we do our best and play as a team.

EP: And I imagine there's a hunger from those losses too, yeah? You know, wanting to avenge those defeats and all that?

MH: Oh, I think so. We talk about it that way, in a positive way. I think that makes the players humble as well. Even if you play US or Canada – that’s the key. You have to be humble, you have to be prepared. You have to play so many games in such a short time, so don’t wait for anything. You have to be in shape when it starts. This is something they say to each other in the group.

For me as a coach, I feel that hunger too. That's why I like this job.

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World Juniors 2024 Sweden U20 WJC-20 Magnus Hävelid
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