Inside Jantelagen, the Swedish mantra of putting team before self

The Sabres' Rasmus Dahlin says Swedes as a rule "don't like to put ourselves before the group," but that dynamic gets complicated in competitive sports. Ben Green/NHLI via Getty Images

What's your favorite thing about Rasmus Dahlin?

This is the question members of the Buffalo Sabres are being asked by their social media team after practice has ended.

They say Dahlin is really funny. They say Dahlin has great hair. They say Dahlin is extremely talented in a variety of ways. One teammate's answer was that Dahlin is Swedish. Another went as far as to say Dahlin has always had his back. It eventually led to a few coaches and players wondering whether the 22-year-old star defenseman was asked what he liked about himself.

"Are you asking everyone this question?" Dahlin said. "Oh my God. No."

Dahlin then walked back to the dressing room, which left everyone around him laughing. What he did in that moment was more than a polite way to get out of answering the question. The fact that Dahlin asked about the group first while placing himself second, then chose not to talk about himself, is rather significant in its own right.

Back home in Sweden, it's referred to as Jantelagen.

What is Jantelagen exactly? Essentially, it's putting the success of the group before the accomplishments of the individual, and it has been part of the traditional cultural belief system in Sweden for hundreds of years.

Sounds perfect, particularly in hockey, where one of the game's staples is having a team-first mentality, right?

Not necessarily. Jantelagen can be more complicated than that.

"We don't like to brag, we don't like to put ourselves before the group. That's how Sweden works, I guess," Dahlin said. "But there's also a good part about being yourself and not being scared to be yourself. It's a huge question."

"It's probably more of a problem than it is a blessing, to be honest with you," Nashville Predators winger Filip Forsberg said.

THE ORIGIN STORY of Jantelagen and its roots are nuanced.

Benjamin Bigelow, who is an assistant professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Minnesota, said Jantelagen isn't uniquely Swedish. Bigelow said the concept also exists within Danish and Norwegian cultures because of the overlapping history shared among the three nations. It also exists in Finland and Iceland.

It's part of what can make pinpointing an exact origin story so challenging.

Kristian Næsby, a former Scandinavian studies professor at the University of Washington, said the concept originated in Denmark following the Napoleonic Wars. Næsby said the events of the war forced Denmark to realize it was no longer a power and "what was lost on the outside must be gained on the inside."

"The co-ops and unions started growing at this time," Næsby said. "The dedication to a really strong education for everyone started at this time. So did the first steps toward a welfare system because we cannot afford to leave anyone behind."

Bigelow said the studies into Jantelagen's impact into traditional Swedish society revealed what was a historically weak nobility. That led to farmers and peasants aligning themselves with the monarchy as a way of guaranteeing a level of autonomy and security.

From there, it eventually paved the way for Scandinavian nations to have social benefits such as paid parental leave and universal, highly subsidized health care.

As for the name itself? It originated in the 1933 satirical novel "A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks" by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, which provided a name for a shared Nordic experience in the fictional town of Jante. This is why there is some variation of the name in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden that essentially translates to the "Law of Jante."

"Since Sandemose coined it, it's been this handy way of describing this social reality that already existed," Bigelow said. "It goes back to this long tradition of idealized Nordic farmers or peasants enjoying a fair amount of autonomy and political clout in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. But that's also sort of painting it with a broad brush."

"Not that it is necessarily explicit to one area, and it is talked about with how people come up in sports with the importance of being a good teammate," said Næsby, who is Danish. "But the idea of equality and sameness is celebrated [in Nordic nations]. There are really strong ideas of community and ideas of trust and how everybody must contribute for a society or a sports team to be a success. Everyone must stay together."

Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm said being raised in Sweden meant he grew up learning that everyone is equal, and should have access to the same opportunities and social programs. He also said growing up in Sweden meant there was an importance placed on kindness and being helpful to one another, as if the nation were one big team.

Or as Seattle Kraken winger Andre Burakovsky more bluntly put it: It's knowing everyone is the same and that nobody is bigger than anyone else.

"It just comes natural. It comes from your parents, and probably a lot of Swedes take it for granted a little bit because you don't think about it," Kraken forward Alex Wennberg said while sitting next to Burakovsky. "But when you bring it up? You're like, 'Oh yeah, maybe that is different.' I think with Swedish people, it's the way we are. We're a smaller country than the United States and we have a different approach to it."

It's an approach that easily aligns with an NHL team environment.

"I think we are all based on that team-first mentality, which translates pretty well once you get over here," Forsberg said.

Minnesota Wild goaltending prospect Jesper Wallstedt was speaking to ESPN for a story about goalie tandems. Wallstedt, a first-round pick by the Wild in 2021, explained how he believed in doing what is best for the team even if that meant being on the bench.

Wallstedt said he has a two-pronged approach for why he is open to being on the bench if that's what is required. The first is he wants to win. The second stems from Jantelagen and the experiences he had when he was younger.

Since turning pro as a teenager, he has typically been the youngest player on every team he's been on by at least three or four years. Wallstedt said being that young meant showing humility and respect for those older teammates with the hope others do the same.

"Everyone in Sweden is so humble and the most important thing my dad taught me was to be humble around everyone," Wallstedt said. "He told me, 'Don't be a selfish little s---. Don't think only about yourself.'"

ASKING SWEDES AROUND the NHL about Jantelagen draws a variety of reactions. Not that talking about Jantelagen is anything controversial. New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad said that discussing Jantelagen is challenging because it can be hard to explain.

Dahlin asked a reporter what they knew about Jantelagen before fully delving into the subject, acknowledging the positives before digging a little deeper.

"But also Jantelagen takes away the good part about an individual," Dahlin said. "In every group, there are successful individuals, too. It's both ways. It's a great thing to have in a group and everybody is equal and on the same page. That's where I come from, but I also don't want to be a part of it because it is both good and bad."

Forsberg expressed similar sentiments.

"I think that's something that goes both ways," he said. "I do agree with some of the standards, but sometimes it gets a little too [much] even for my point of view."

Constantly making the group the central focus also leads to some philosophical questions that could arguably be the most difficult aspect of Jantelagen.

How does one go about finding individuality, expressing individuality and becoming comfortable with their individuality? Is there a way to feel pride about one's success without it coming across as arrogant?

The short answer: It's extremely complicated for reasons that have everything and nothing to do with hockey.

"If you are good at something you are doing or if you have success, there are definitely different ways of expressing that," Zibanejad said. "I don't think you should feel ashamed or say sorry for something good that you've done. As much as it's about the group, it's about every individual reaching their highest potential. But at the same time ... I don't think anyone's bigger than the team or the organization or the group that you are in. You can be a big part of that, but not bigger than everyone else."

Being comfortable with one's individual success while also practicing the parts of Jantelagen that provide a critical sense of structure is a challenge several players cited.

Forsberg offered a number of examples of what makes it so complex. He grew up playing youth hockey and handled losses differently than his teammates. Forsberg said his team could lose and his teammates were just happy they played a game. Asked how he reacted to a loss, Forsberg laughed and said he was "likely pissed and furious," which could be seen as being in conflict with placing the group before the individual.

But the way Forsberg sees it, the drive he had as a child is what eventually helped him become a first-round draft pick and a three-time 30-goal scorer in the NHL. It's also the reason, he said, his parents had to both scold and then console him after losses when he was a child.

"I don't think anybody's necessarily striving to be average, and I think that's a little bit of the problem," Forsberg said. "You're allowed to be good. I think that's the biggest part of it. You have to be allowed to compete, be allowed to try to achieve excellence and sometimes, the Swedish way is a little bit, 'good is good enough,' and I don't necessarily agree with that."

Forsberg referenced an ongoing discussion around Swedish youth hockey. In 2016, the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation introduced new rules in which there are no standings kept for children under 13. The Athletic, in a story about the nation's development model, reported scores are kept during games but there are no written records of wins and losses. There are also no individual statistics kept for the regular season or tournaments at the U-13 level.

Anders Larsson, the federation president, told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter at that time, "Children should be children, not young adults."

"I think there is a fine line," Forsberg said. "There's definitely issues with being too young too, when you have U-8 elite hockey teams throughout the country like in the U.S. or Canada. You don't want either. But I think competitiveness can never be left out of the game, whether it is young kids or older kids. I think that is still a big part of it."

PETER WALLEN IS an NHL agent from Sweden who represents several Swedish players, including Colorado Avalanche winger Gabriel Landeskog and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.

He agreed with Forsberg's assessment about why it is important to keep the competitive nature within youth sports. Wallen's belief is that no nation has a better development model than Sweden, and it's something that should be celebrated.

Nearly 11% of the players in the NHL are Swedish, which ranks third behind Canada (42%) and the U.S. (27.5%), according to QuantHockey.

"The kids know who scored, who won the game. Why hide it?" Wallen asked. "Why? Is that something bad and ugly we need to hide?"

Wallen also spoke to the complications that come with wanting to be proud of individual success within the scope of Jantelagen. He said in the U.S., there is a feeling of acceptance to talk about your success and how you made it happen. Wallen said in Sweden, it's OK to have success, but there are certain aspects individuals should keep to themselves.

But how does that work in a business like Wallen's, where agents have to sell their clients to teams or sell themselves to prospective clients? When it comes to speaking to teams, Wallen said he tries to show executives that his players can meet a demand.

"I never blow smoke up their a--es," Wallen said. "I always have a backup for what I am saying. I also have the same backup when I am marketing my clients to the GMs because I think that is what the business is. Most of my clients don't get too high on life from what I am seeing. We have conversations about that."

How does that work for the players themselves? Yes, they play in a sport in which placing the group first is welcomed. But their individual performances matter, especially in key situations, when everyone is watching.

Is that why New Jersey Devils winger Jesper Bratt will celebrate his assists, but his goal celebrations are more subdued? Bratt said he enjoys setting up his teammates and it makes him excited to see other people find happiness in something he does.

"It's a blast scoring goals and I love scoring goals, but maybe that side of me [Jantelagen] comes out a little bit on goal celebrations," Bratt said. "I've had a lot of guys say that I should celebrate my goals a little bit more. Maybe I'll put on a show next time."

Bratt said he feels Jantelagen is something that applies more to his personal life rather than his life as a hockey player. He said living in North America has allowed him to feel more comfortable about the balance between being a team player and caring a little more about his individual contributions.

Ekholm said it is possible to have that balance of remaining humble, but also understanding that everyone who makes it to the NHL has to have "a little bit of an ego."

"It's really hard. I don't think we teach people to be in that Jantelagen mentality but still have an ego," Ekholm said. "But the people who make it to that level do have to have that ego. Whether they are born with it or not, it's hard to say."

Bigelow presented another item to consider: Is it possible Jantelagen is waning in a changing Sweden?

A number of players who spoke to ESPN outlined the challenges with Jantelagen, which further underscores the complexities.

Sweden is becoming more diverse, which has led to a rise in more diverse beliefs, Bigelow said.

Other factors beyond the demographics also are changing, most notably the global media landscape in which platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are hyperfocused on the individual.

Is it possible all those factors could lead to some sort of shift in terms of Jantelagen?

"Does Jantelagen still describe modern Scandinavian society? Less and less so," Bigelow said. "But if you are comparing it to America? Yes. Maybe it's the pressure to conform or if you take the average Swede, average Finn, average Norwegian and compare them to the average American, Jantelagen is a way of looking at this traditional belief."