STOCKHOLM — In Sweden, the singing of the national anthem is reserved for games involving the national team and special events.
On Friday, before the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 before a sellout crowd of 13,230 in the 2019 NHL Global Series, the fans sang it loud and proud at Ericsson Globe.
Their voices rose for the last line.
“Ja, jag vill leva, jag vill dö i Norden.”
What does that mean?
“Yes, I want to live, I want to die in the North.”
[RELATED: Complete Global Series coverage]
So what did that mean to Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman as he stood on the blue line, staring up at the flag of Sweden?
Hedman had played in Sweden before. He had represented Sweden before.
But he had played 791 games over more than 10 years in the NHL in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs combined, going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2018, and never before had he played an NHL game in his home country.
He was close to tearing up.
“That was probably one of the most special things I’ve experienced as a hockey player, hearing the national anthem before an NHL game,” Hedman said. “That was super special, and I was really focusing in on that flag, trying to keep the emotions in check.”
No nation outside North America produces more NHL players than Sweden. At the start of the season, 79 Sweden-born players were on NHL rosters, accounting for 11.4 percent of the 690 total players. As of Friday, 84 had appeared in a game.
Six played in Stockholm on Friday: Hedman for the Lightning, and goalie Linus Ullmark, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and forwards Johan Larsson, Marcus Johansson and Victor Olofsson for the Sabres. Hedman, Olofsson and Ullmark were in the starting lineups.
“Standing there during the anthem was big for me,” Ullmark said. “It was a very humbling experience, one of those one-of-a-kind moments I’ll always cherish for the rest of my life.”
Sometimes the crowd is relatively flat at events like this. A neutral site means a neutral crowd. With no real rooting interest, the fans can observe the game more than engage with it.
Not here. Not Friday.
Fans in Sweden follow the NHL like never before nowadays. Even though most NHL games are played in the middle of the night here, they can catch highlights via social media. Kids can play video games like NHL 19.
The fans lined up outside in the dark long before the doors opened Friday. In the crowd were Hedman jerseys and Dahlin jerseys, but also jerseys of Lightning center Steven Stamkos and Sabres center Jack Eichel and players from around the NHL.
“I will tell you, it was a different atmosphere in this building tonight than what we see back home,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It was fun. You could tell the guys were really excited to go out there, and they felt it in warmups. You could hear the guys coming in, saying, ‘Man, it’s awesome out there.’ “
The fans greeted the Sweden-born starters with extra cheers during intros.
They saw a world-class finish when Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov one-timed a pass from center Brayden Point on a 2-on-1. They saw Hedman earn an assist on the power play when he shot the puck from the point and forward Alex Killorn tipped it in, giving Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead.
The scoreboard screen showed a graphic of Hedman afterward, even though Killorn got the goal.
“To hear your name announced and the way the crowd went nuts, that’s got to be a really incredible feeling,” Cooper said. “I’m just really happy that not only he plays well in the game, he gets a point and the team wins. So it’s a little hat trick for him.”
The fans saw the Sabres make it 2-1 on a goal by forward Sam Reinhart, the Lightning make it 3-1 on a goal by forward Yanni Gourde and the Sabres make it 3-2 on another goal by Reinhart, this one assisted by Olofsson. They saw hits and pushing and shoving.
They saw a high-speed, hard-fought NHL game.
“It was phenomenal,” Hedman said. “I thought it was a great atmosphere out there today, and that was really intense. It was a very, very … It was an unbelievable game for myself and I think everyone else.”
The same teams play here again Saturday (1 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN1, SUN, MSG-B, NHL.TV). Considering the Sabres have five Sweden-born players to the Lightning’s one — six including defenseman Lawrence Pilut, who didn’t play Friday — get ready. They don’t want to go home empty-handed.
Make that leave home empty-handed.
“I think we really felt a good spirit from them this week, and the emotions around hearing your anthem at an NHL game were high,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “We’re very disappointed with the final result, and we’ll come out fighting [Saturday], because these guys are proud to be here, and you know, they want to change this storyline.”