Ihand the map of Sweden to Nick Lidstrom. I ask him to circle his home town. It’s in the southern half of the country. “Vasteras,” he says. “Very nice place.”

“And where is your teammate Tomas Holmstrom from?” I ask.

“Tomas?” he says, snickering. “He’s from …up north.”

I go to Holmstrom. I hand him the map of Sweden. He circles his hometown. It is indeed in the north. “Pieta,” he says. “Very nice place.”

“And where is Lidstrom from?”

“Nick?” he says, rolling his eyes. “He’s from …down south.”

You hear of north/south rivalries in these Stanley Cup playoffs. You hear of Canada vs. U.S. You hear of Detroit vs. Dallas. You hear of …Sweden?

“Northern Swedish, they are different,” says Lidstrom, chuckling. “They are very private. They talk differently. Tomas lives up there with the reindeer, you know.”

I mention this to Holmstrom. His eyes glare. “He said reindeer? That back-stabber!”

Now, if you’re like me, you had no idea there was a north/south thing going on in Sweden. Personally, I thought all of Sweden was north. I mean, when a chunk of your country is in the Arctic Circle, how south can the rest of it be? It’s not like southern Sweden has palm trees and hurricanes. It’s not like they’re serving pina coladas down there.

But apparently, just as most countries have their invisible borders, so, too, does Sweden. To the outside, it might be all gorgeous blonds and meatballs. But inside, there’s a north and south. And apparently they love to tease each other.

“Did Tomas tell you he lives near the Laplanders?” Lidstrom says, chuckling.

I mention this to Holmstrom.

“LAPLANDERS?” he says.

Uh-oh.

Where the reindeer roam

Now, I want to make something clear. These two are friends. They hang out together. They go to movies together. They speak Swedish together (although each jokes that the other has “a funny accent”). And they are both worth their weight in gold to the Wings, especially in the playoffs, where they have come on strong. They are tied for third in team scoring.

It’s true, Lidstrom plays defense quietly, masterfully, like a skilled surgeon, while Holmstrom plays forward like a bull in a china shop. And it’s true, they call Holmstrom “Homer,” while they call Nick, well, “Nick.”

But they are buddies. Pals. Theirs is a jovial, winking rivalry.

Until you mention reindeer.

“Hey, it’s not like we keep reindeer as pets,” Holmstrom says of his little town on the Baltic Sea, where it is sometimes dark 20 hours a day. “It’s not like we have reindeer running around the living room.”

“Do you eat reindeer?” I ask.

“Sometimes.”

“Don’t tell me. It tastes like chicken?”

He stares at me. Obviously, the chicken jokes haven’t found their way up there yet.

So I did some exploring. And after long, arduous research — which consisted of looking for the “S” volume of my encyclopedia — I can tell you that, geographically speaking, the area of Sweden where Holmstrom comes from is yellow, while Lidstrom’s is orange.

No, wait. Those are the colors on the map.

OK. The colors mean that there are about 30 people per square mile in Holmstrom’s neck of the woods, and 380 per square mile where Lidstrom lives. In either case, we’re not talking about downtown Tokyo here.

So I go to Anders Eriksson, the Red Wings’ other Swede. I ask him, “What is the difference between the north and the south?”

“Where Tomas lives,” he says, “they are very private, very relaxed, very calm.”

Hmm. That sounds more like Lidstrom.

“And where Nick lives, they are more outgoing.”

Hmm. That sounds more like Holmstrom.

“Also, where Nick lives, they are good at dancing.”

Dancing? That doesn’t sound like either one. Maybe Eriksson is messing with my head. Maybe he’s pulling the Swedish wool over my eyes…

“Did Tomas tell you about the reindeer?”

Maybe he isn’t.

They share a common cause

Now, I don’t want to take away from the focus in this series. Obviously, the Wings want to beat Dallas, a team that is south whether you are Holmstrom, Lidstrom or Strom Thurmond.

But I find it funny that, even on a hockey team that has only three Swedes, there can be such differences. And one of the biggest differences, they say, is the sense of humor.

“Oh yes,” both Eriksson and Lidstrom agree, “Tomas is very funny, the way they are funny in the north.”

“And how is that?” I ask.

“You know,” they shrug, “just …funny.”

Of course, we’re talking Sweden here, the country that gave us such crack-ups as Bjorn Borg.

But that’s my point. You can have a rivalry anywhere, anytime, over anything. The important thing is to put aside your differences. Unify for a good cause. Like winning the Stanley Cup. Right, Nick?

“Yes,” he says. “Tomas is a great guy …he just talks funny.”

Right, Homer?

“Did Nick really say reindeer? I am going to kill him!”

And here I thought Sweden was neutral.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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