Monday, April 15, 2024

The challenges for hockey in Sweden with Niclas Franzen

After ten years of international hockey, Niclas Franzen is not as well known as he might be. Part of the reason is that Nic plays for one of the more low-profile nations in world hockey – Sweden. The Partille SC keeper has thrown his hat into the ring as a candidate for election to the International Hockey Federation (FIH) athlete committee. And while we don’t support any particular candidate, if we want hockey to grow, shouldn’t Nic be just the sort of person we should be asking what the challenges are?

Here is an interview Nic gave to Dan Pilgrim recently. Highlights of Nic’s career include winning the award for best goalkeeper in last year’s European club championships playing in the same tournament as Max Weinhold, as well as the decisive spot flick save against Croatia that ensured promotion in the 2009 European Nations Trophy. Nic’s biggest goal is to play in the indoor hockey World Cup!

As an ambassador putting Swedish hockey on the map, how do you feel about raising awareness and interest in this role?

I think in recent years the success with both Partille SC and the national team have helped hockey in Sweden. Children who start playing hockey these days have got something to look up to and strive for. Personally I am proud of what we have done. We started off in the European C division events and over a ten-year period we have climbed to the top of European indoor hockey. The biggest goal still remains to play in the indoor world cup. 

Where do you think Swedish hockey is in relation to other nations’ set-ups, and how far do you think you’ve come with recent successes? 

The biggest problem slowing the development down is economic issues. We are more or less self funded and even when playing in EuroHockey events players have to pay to play. Our preparations are limited to how much the players can afford and how much money the association can afford to give us. We often compete against semi- and full-time professionals although all of our players have got work and studies on the side of their hockey. Another problem is that since field hockey is not a high profile sport, it can be complicated to get employers and universities to understand what we are doing and why they should help us.

What more could be done to keep “upping the ante” so to speak?

We realise that to compete at a high level we must try to train as hard as everyone else, therefore physical training is very important to us especially since we do not get as much match training as the teams we play. We try to travel as much as we can to get to play against top-level teams from around the world which is a must for us to develop. The new indoor rules have punished us in this way, we have not had enough though games to figure out the best tactics but we have tried to make the best out of the situation.

Sweden is obviously well known for its ice hockey, winning gold at the 2006 winter Olympics and football is also doing well in football with Zlatan Ibrahimavich and the U21’s success in last year’s FIFA World Cup tournament, do you think there is a difficulty in competing with fan bases and participation to grow the sport in Scandinavia?

Yes, it is complicated, but I do not think we should even try to compete with these sports. We should try to raise awareness of field hockey, considering most people in Sweden think field hockey is the same thing as street hockey, we have a long way to go.

What we want to do is first of all to make field hockey interesting to field hockey players, for us live streaming events is a good way forward. It makes it possible for juniors, relatives and friends to sit back home and see games at the highest level which is something we do not get to see live in Sweden.  

And is this possibly what is holding the growth of hockey back in Sweden?

In Sweden we have several stick and ball/puck sports – ice hockey, street hockey, bandy, floor ball and field hockey/indoor hockey. Unfortunately field hockey has been held back by the popularity of floor ball. Another reason is that minority sports do not get much sponsorship or funding and we are constantly fighting for media space. 

But with Swedes Henry and Lucas Eriksson joining Cardiff & Met playing in the English national league, how do you feel about this in relation to Sweden’s hockey growth?

Henry and Lucas are two very skilful players that have helped boosting the level of the outdoor national team. Every time we get contacted by Swedes playing hockey overseas it is very interesting and in most cases they are welcomed to try out for the Swedish national teams. We should not forget we also have the Björkman brothers playing for the German Bundesliga club HTHC. In total there have been five Swedish players playing in the Euro Hockey League which is pretty impressive considering how few players we have got.

And would you consider something similar yourself, say playing in Holland? I’m sure you’d be a good fit in theiIndoor Hoofdklasse!

I am always looking for new challenges and I am always considering offers especially where I can a chance to play more outdoor hockey. I am still young and I still dream of testing my wings outside of Sweden so with the right timing and the right club I would probably give it a go! I think the indoor level of many Swedish indoor players is very high and we could fit in to most indoor leagues all around the world. I think it would be nice to play for a big club with nice facilities in England/Germany/Holland/Belgium/Spain and the ultimate dream would be to help a club make it in to EHL.

Do you think this is a step in the right direction for the level of Swedish hockey to grow and to push for the ability level of the international team, like Scotland star Kenny Bain playing in Holland?

It is a complicated situation because in one way it is crucial for the national team that as many players get exposure to as much high level hockey as possible but at the same time we are so few players at home that if too many players move away it makes it hard to keep the level high enough during the training in Sweden. Our strength has always been that we are a bunch of childhood friends that keep working hard day-in and day-out back home in Sweden.

Partille HC is sort of the Swedish equivalent of Manchester United, the main ‘big club’ from an outside perspective. Do you think there will be other clubs that can really challenge your team in the next few years domestically?

Haha first of all Partille is not a big club by any means we only have 13 male players in the club in total and we do not recruit players so it is more or less the same team that played together since our junior days under the same coach. Our main objective have always to try to keep all players and making every player as good as possible our coach Urban Björkman have a favorite saying “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. But to answer your question, no, unfortunately I do not think that any team in Sweden will be able to challenge us in a near future, we have not lost a single game in the national league for over seven years and if we win the indoor title this year it will be our tenth in a row.

Holland has a specialist indoor team and choosing its national indoor team according to the quality of athletes better at the indoor format. Do you think Sweden is more of a specialist indoor than out because of the seasonal changes affecting sporting opportunities?

I do not think the climate plays a huge role a more important factor is the lack of Astroturf pitches. We do not have one single water-based pitch in Sweden and it is impossible to compete at a high international level when only training on 3G pitches. We do however have plenty of indoor halls due to the popularity of handball and other indoor sports. Because of this it makes more sense of playing more indoor hockey than outdoor.

How do you feel about Sweden’s recent performances in the European indoor championships and how much effort do you think it would take to get to the indoor World Cup?

I am super disappointed since the World Cup has been our ultimate goal ever since I started off in the national team ten years ago. We have been close to qualifying twice now, first in Poland 2010 and now in Austria 2014, as the team is still young I hope we can keep on working to make it in to the Argentina WC 2019 but it is hard to reset your goals especially since it is so far away. The main issue is money with slightly better preparation I am confident that we could had made the world cup on both occasions but next time we will be more experienced and this time we will make it!

With the climate as it is, indoor seems to be Sweden’s main hockey focus, but do you think the introduction of 4G pitches, like those in use in Russian football, could help to change that around?

In Sweden these [4G] pitches are more common today than regular grass. The downside is that modern turfs are too bouncy and the grass is too long. In one way I think it is scandalous that pitches built with tax money are only focused on football. In my mind I would like to see multi-sport turfs with a lot of different markings just as you see in indoor today. Nearly all pitches built here are good enough to play elite football. For me it would be more sensible to create opportunity for more sports but sadly that is not happening today. 

How have you found playing against some of the world’s best players in your travels?

I have played and met many players I could only dream of playing against a couple of years ago but in general hockey players are very down to earth and friendly. 

And who would say is the most memorable player you have come across and the most memorable playing experience you have had so far?

It is hard to say but last year I got to play against Max Weinhold when we played against Rotweiss Köln. He is a player I have always looked up to so I am lucky to have played against him before he retired. I think he was one of the most technically gifted goalkeepers in the world, and every keeper out there could learn from the way he played.

Where do you see Swedish hockey in ten years time?

Hopefully we will have played in the World Cup and I hope that it could help making the game more popular. I hope the rest of the national team and I will keep playing long enough to make sure we get more junior players introduced into the team. I hope that there will be at least one water-based pitch in Sweden and that we have tripled the amount of junior players; a very ambitious goal, but if you aim for the stars you might hit the moon! 

How do you feel about winning awards and recognition for your personal sporting achievements?

2013 was a very good year for me first I got awarded goalkeeper of the tournament in the European indoor club championship and then I was awarded a scholarship by the Swedish national sports association for being one of the 50 most promising young athletes in Sweden. The diploma was presented at the annual sports gala by ice hockey legend Peter “Foppa” Forsberg. For me the most important thing is that my team is doing well and I would trade all prizes for a spot in the World Cup but of course it feels good to get such recognition especially considering that I am a self-taught goalkeeper from a small hockey nation as Sweden. 

Would you go as far as comparing yourself with Sweden’s King of ice hockey goalies in Henrik Lundqvist, with your achievements so far?!

Ha ha, no way! 

For more on the FIH athlete’ committee elections see here.

Total Hockey


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