Any time you enter a tournament as the eighth seed, you’re often already behind the eight ball.
Call it what you want, but Sweden will simply be embracing the role of the underdog at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games from 7-16 March.
“I know that we’re underdogs but (sledge hockey fans) can expect us to play really good hockey, and they will enjoy us when we’re on the ice,” said Swedish forward Per Kasperi.
In October 2013 at the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey Qualification Tournament in Torino, Italy, Sweden qualified for the Paralympics by defeating the silver medallists at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, Japan, 4-3.
Kasperi was a huge part in Sweden’s success at the Qualification Tournament, finishing second in the tournament in scoring with 12 points, including six goals and a plus/minus of nine. Two of those goals came in the bronze-medal game against Japan.
It was a big win and an important tournament for Sweden. As a very young, and a very small team, any progress is good progress since their last-place finish at the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships A-Pool earlier in 2013.
Sweden’s Niklas Ingvarsson, one of the world’s top defencemen, said the Qualification Tournament was also a chance to learn some things about the current make up of the team.
“We’re always trying to do our best as a team,” Ingvarsson said. “We’re very few guys, so we have to not only work hard, but work hard as a team together. A lot of our results depend on how good our team spirit is.”
Ingvarsson, along with veteran forward Niklas Rakos and goaltender Ulf Nilsson, will assist team captain Peter Ojala in the squad’s leadership duties.
Kasperi, meanwhile, is set to enter his second Paralympics as a member of Sweden after joining the national sledge hockey team at the age of 15. Now 20, and with the Paralympic Games just 60 days away, the excitement is starting to grow for the team’s top scorer.
“It’s starting to feel … I’m a little bit nervous but it’s a tournament that you work for and it’s just awesome to get there,” Kasperi said.
While Sweden have made it to the most important tournament on the sledge hockey calendar every four years, they have not medalled on the Paralympic stage in 12 years.
The last time Sweden won a medal in ice sledge hockey was at Salt Lake City 2002 Paralympic Winter Games, where they won bronze.
The nation’s best tournament was in 1994 in Lillehammer when Sweden beat host country Norway for gold.
Ice sledge hockey has come a long way since those days, said Kasperi.
“I think that back then some teams were good and some were really bad,” he said. “But now all the teams are really good and its close between them. We have lost a lot of players so we’re not a big team but we’re strong and we’re hoping to get some new guys to fill out the team so that we can play around with two fives.”
Sweden gets their tournament underway the day after the Opening Ceremony on 8 March as the preliminary round starts at Shayba Arena.