MENOMONIE — Certain hockey fans at UW-Stout — and other sites around the U.S. — can be excused if they end up secretly cheering on an international team, Sweden, in the men’s tournament at the Winter Olympics.
Sweden’s coach, native Rikard Gronborg, also is a U.S. citizen — he played, started his coaching career and lived in the U.S. for about 20 years. Along the way, he graduated from UW-Stout with a master’s degree and served as an assistant coach for the Blue Devils’ hockey team from 1996 to 1998.
It if weren’t for people like UW-Stout Coach Terry Watkins and one of Gronborg’s cousins, Al May, a UW-Stout alumnus living in Menomonie, Gronborg might not be where he is today — at the pinnacle of the hockey coaching profession in a country and on a continent that’s crazy about its hockey.
“He’s the top dog in all of Sweden,” Watkins said.
Watkins’ and May’s friendship with Gronborg goes back to the day he arrived in Minneapolis as a 20-year-old in 1988 looking for a place to play college hockey.
“It is a neat story — we got him a scholarship, got him a job. He never spun his wheels, never went backwards. He’s been very successful,” Watkins said.
Gronborg, 49, was an assistant coach for Sweden’s 2010 and 2014 Olympic teams but has moved up. He coached Sweden to the International Ice Hockey Federation world title in Paris in 2017. He reportedly is high on the list of several NHL teams as a possible head coach.
Gronborg didn’t play in the NHL, but that’s where his UW-Stout and Midwest story begins. After a tryout in summer 1988 with the Montreal Canadiens of the NHL, he was assigned to one of their minor league teams. Gronborg’s father said no to that, and he told his son to either play college hockey in the U.S. or come home, according to Watkins.
Gronborg called May in Menomonie with whom he was familiar but had never met. He told May he was flying into the airport in Minneapolis and hoping to play college hockey somewhere.
“I said, ‘How will I know you,’” May recalled. “Rikard said, ‘I’ll be carrying a hockey stick.’ Except he wasn’t, but he had a girl on each arm.”
May, assistant superintendent of Menomonie schools, and Watkins took Gronborg under their wing. He stayed at the rural Menomonie home of Al and Joan May. Al took Gronborg to tryouts at the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota and UM-Duluth.
The college teams were impressed with Gronborg’s skills but didn’t have scholarships available. St. Cloud State did have one available, however, for 1989.
“He was about 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and an exceptional skater,” Watkins said.
After playing as a defenseman at Division I St. Cloud State from 1989 to 1992 and then serving as an assistant coach, Gronborg wanted to continue coaching and go to graduate school. He called Watkins, wondering if he knew of any college that needed an assistant coach.
“I said, ‘Yes. We do,’ “ Watkins recalled.
UW-Stout’s men’s hockey team was restarting in 1996 as a school sport after a period as a club sport. Gronborg served under Watkins with the Division III Blue Devils for two seasons and helped coach women’s soccer. In the meantime, he earned a Master of Science degree in management technology from UW-Stout’s Graduate School.
With Gronborg using his connections and acting as tour guide, the Blue Devils went to Sweden over the holiday break in December 1997 to play a series of exhibition games. Three Blue Devil players that year were from Sweden, including one from Gronborg’s hometown.
In 1998, Watkins helped Gronborg get his first head coaching job, with the Great Falls (Mont.) Americans in the North American Hockey League from 1998 to 2001. He later coached in Texas and the state of Washington and scouted for the Swedish hockey federation for several years.
In 2009, he was hired by the federation and returned to live in Sweden for the first time since college.
In 2015, he was named head coach of Tre Kronor, the Swedish team. He coached Sweden in the 2016 World Cup, 2017 IIHF world event and now the Olympics.