The art of becoming part of hockey culture
You may have noticed: Skellefteå is a place where the love for hockey, and in particular Skellefteå AIK, is great. But what's the deal? We let columnist and culture writer Per Strömbro, potentially northern Sweden's least sports-minded individual, infiltrate a match in search of answers.
It feels a bit of a drag, I'll admit it. It's a Friday night in late August and almost 20 degrees Celsius outside. The instinct to go into a cool ice rink does not really want to appear. Others outside Skellefteå Kraft Arena seem all the more eager. The majority of the nearly 5,000 people here are wearing black and yellow oversize jerseys in Skellefteå AIK's home game style and are marching in excitedly.
I feel a bit exposed in my everyday clothes. It is as if everyone knows that the party is a masquerade but forgot to tell me. Two minutes later, I desperately search the supporters' shop for the least offensive item to show where my sympathies lie. 200 bucks for a scarf?! Absolutely. It is, after all, on the same level as a band t-shirt. I buy it. Now it rests over my neck and, funnily enough, I immediately feel like I'm wearing a uniform and blending in. The transformation has begun.
I have been told that if I really want to experience the essence of a hockey game, I should go to a meeting between Skellefteå AIK and Björklöven. Although they have not played in the same league for 16 years, the rivalry is total. It is known throughout the country. Tonight they meet in a training match.
It's half an hour before kick-off. I sit down and wait at a table in the "Gold Bar". It's not long before an older gentleman asks if he can sit next to me. Of course! He immediately starts talking about the last week's big talk in Hockey Sweden. Skellefteå AIK presented a new acquisition on Monday. It was apparently controversial as it soon turned out that the player's alleged attempts to free himself from the contract with the Russian club he was involuntarily part of were not so wholehearted. Two days later it was clear that the player will not join Skellefteå after all. That AIK's management has been deceived there is no doubt in my table neighbor's world. But it's water under the bridge now, although the history books may well one day conclude that few AIK players made such a big impression in the club without having set foot in Skellefteå. Well.
The man has had the same seat for 33 years and seen all games, except for a few when he was sick or away. He wouldn't dream of missing a match against Björklöven, even if it's just a training match that has no significance in official contexts. For the majority of the visitors here, it has all the meaning. Honor is not to be taken lightly and there can hardly be a worse humiliation than letting Björklöven, also known as "little brother" or "Röbäckstattare", win.
Someone says that Björklöven is a bit like the children's choir at the end of the school year - brave to face an audience but they know nothing about artistry.
I can't say that. I see a lot of overexcited men in two teams with adrenaline-filled eyes doing everything to get control of a piece of rubber. However, I can say that Björklöven knows a thing or two about scoring goals. Already after 1.5 minutes in the first period, the first comes. The second a short time later. But the home crowd with the supporter club North Power in the lead does not lose courage. "AIK, show heart, come on and crush Löven", they chant continuously for seven minutes (I counted). If my sources are correct, they will use the same chant about Löven during meetings with Luleå Hockey to emphasize that the real derby is against the Umeå team. I can't get away from the feeling that it's done out of love somewhere, it's just that it manifests itself in a slightly unusual way.
As if on cue, much of the crowd leaves their seats two minutes before half-time. This arouses my journalistic curiosity and I follow. Soon I am standing in the "beer hole". It is apparently a not insignificant part of the match experience for many to crowd up to the bar and unhealthily quickly swallow a beer before the next period begins.
For a person with a slight fear of bacilli and touch, it becomes a moment of involuntary CBT therapy, but afterwards I almost start to feel like one of the gang and when the second period starts I am relaxed. I can concentrate on following the game rather than what people around me are doing. There's really only one problem: unlike games I've seen on TV, there are no (sane) commentators here. However, it is easy to understand when Löven and/or the referees do something wrong. A few thousand Skellefteå supporters protest loudly.
At first I try to understand exactly what, if anything, is irregular, but I give up. I know the game too poorly so far. Instead, I give in and start shouting too. At first mostly for show, but slowly I feel how all rational thinking, all that I have experienced as decent behavior on my part, kind of flows out of me and I undergo a transformation into another being, some kind of pack animal. And when AIK reduces, equalizes and goes past, it is as if I helped.
But Björklöven keeps up and after three periods, sudden death awaits in a three-on-three game. Even I understand that it is something of a lottery. It does not take long before Skellefteå AIK scores the decisive goal and departs with honor.
It makes me happy. Partly because it really feels like it is our victory that we have fought for. But mostly still for my newfound friend who got a good start on his 33rd season in the same seat.