Since Ulf Sterner first hit the NHL ice in the 60s, Swedish hockey players have made huge inroads in the National Hockey League.
Staff and wire reports
Once derided as too soft for stardom, Swedish hockey players have turned the National Hockey League into their own rink of success. More than 46 years after Ulf Sterner became the first Swede to play in an NHL game, Swedes are stars at every level of the NHL.
Detroit icon Nicklas Lidström is arguably the best defenseman since Bobby Orr. Lidström and Ottawa Senators center Daniel Alfredsson are among the longest-serving team captains in the NHL, and the Sedin twins—Daniel and Henrik—have taken turns in the past two years winning the Hart and Art Ross trophies (Henrik in 2010, Daniel in 2011).
Lidström is the first European to captain a Stanley Cup, leading Detroit to the 2008 title when he was one of seven Swedes on the Red Wings.
However, there were more than a few bumps along the way to Swedish success in the NHL, and Sterner felt a lot of them.
Sterner, who led Sweden to the 1962 World Championship and topped all scorers at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, became the first Swede to play in an NHL game when he stepped on the ice for the New York Rangers on Jan. 27, 1965. He played four games for the Blueshirts and had no trouble skating with the North Americans. However, he was not used to the physical style of play in the NHL—international hockey at the time banned body checking in the offensive zone—and after the season he returned to Sweden.
It wasn't until the International Ice Hockey Foundation decided in 1969 to adopt the NHL's rules on body checking all over the ice that the path opened for the first wave of Swedish talent to hit North America—most notably defenseman Börje Salming, who joined the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1973.
Salming was a trailblazer who probably did more than any other player to dispel the myth that Swedes weren't tough enough to play in the NHL. He took every hit, dished out more than a few of his own, and became one of the NHL's top defensemen and a fan favorite in Toronto.
Salming was a First- or Second-Team All-Star for six consecutive seasons and had 148 goals and 768 points in 16 seasons with the Leafs before finishing with a year in Detroit. In 1996, Salming was the first Swedish player voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"He was tough," Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke said.
Salming's ability to play at a high level and cope with the physical pounding that is part of life in the NHL convinced other teams that Swedish players could stand up to the demands of North American hockey while providing an infusion of skill. Five Swedes were taken in the 1974 Amateur Draft, and Björn Johansson became the first Swede chosen in the first round when he was selected with the No. 5 pick by the now-defunct California Golden Seals two years later.
The next step forward in the evolution of Swedes in the NHL came via the New York Islanders. GM Bill Torrey used lower-round picks on talented Swedes other teams overlooked, and the Isles' first of four Cup-winning teams included defensemen Stefan Persson (part of the first class of Swedes in 1974) and forward Anders Kallur. They were the first Europeans to get their names on the Cup. In addition, the overtime winner in the Isles' first championship run in 1980 was scored by Bob Nyström, who was born in Stockholm and still carried a Swedish passport, though he got his hockey education in Canada. Another defenseman, Tomas Jonsson, came aboard in 1981, and Mats Hallin made it four Swedes on the Island when he was a member of the 1983 champions.
By the late 1980s, talented Swedes dotted the NHL.
Kent Nilsson, known as the "Magic Man," was the first Swedish player to reach the 100-point mark when he notched 131 points in 1980-81. Mats Sundin became the first Swedish player (and first European) to be chosen with the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft when Quebec selected him in 1989—and he later became the first Swede to score 500 goals. Lidström went to Detroit in the third round that same year after the Wings discovered him playing for Västerås and asked him not to attend the draft so no one else would discern their interest in him. Two decades after arriving in Detroit, he's still among hockey's elite.
Lidström became Detroit's captain in 2006-07 after Steve Yzerman retired. By then, a Swedish captain was no longer a novelty. Sundin (1997 in Toronto), Alfredsson (1999 in Ottawa) and Markus Näslund (2000 in Vancouver) were already long-established wearers of the "C."
Alfredsson enters the 2011-12 season as the longest-serving active captain, while Lidström enters his sixth season in Detroit and Henrik Sedin his second as captain of the Canucks.
The real breakthrough came in 1993 when a then 22-year-old center from Modo Hockey in Örnsköldsvik named Peter Forsberg was part of a blockbuster trade involving the Range, Flyers and now-defunct Quebec Nordiques. The deal sent Forsberg to Quebec, and he made his debut in 1995, scoring 50 points in his rookie season.
He remained with the team when it moved to Denver, where it became the Colorado Avalanche. With Forsberg leading the way, the Avs won the Stanley Cup twice. He ended his career in 2011 as the fourth-highest scoring Swedish player in NHL history. He also has the fourth highest points-, goals- and assists-per-game averages in NHL history, behind only Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux.
Still, some teams have been better than others at spotting Swedish talent.
By the early years of the 21st century, no one was better at it than the Red Wings. The sharp eye of European scout Håkan Anderson kept a steady supply of Swedish talent headed to Hockeytown, capped by a Stanley Cup victory in 2008 that saw Lidstrom become the first Swedish captain to lead a team to the title and six fellow Swedes—including Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg—get their chance to skate a lap with the Cup.
Some teams have also been lucky.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has established himself as one of the NHL's best, was a seventh-round pick in 2000 who arrived in New York five years later after getting his hockey education with Frolunda. He became an immediate sensation. Lundqvist, quickly dubbed "King Henrik," is the first goaltender in NHL history to begin his career with six consecutive 30-win seasons, leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five of them. He also led the League in shutouts last season with 11.
The parade of Swedes headed to the NHL shows no signs of abating.
Twenty players from Sweden were selected in the 2010 Entry Draft, and another 28—including six in the first round—were chosen in 2011. Stockholm native Gabriel Landeskog was the second player chosen, by Colorado. Frölunda, which has the longest streak of having at least one player chosen, continued a run that dates to 1998 when the Islanders selected center Johan Sundström in the second round and produced another All-Star last season when Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson made the All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C.
Karlsson, who got a lot of help from Alfredsson when he was a rookie in 2009, is already getting ready to help the next generation of Swedes—two of Ottawa's top prospects, defenseman David Rundblad and 2011 first-round pick Mika Zibanejad, are Swedish.
"I remember how much (Alfredsson) was able to help me when I got here, and even though I haven't been here as long I still think it's good for the young guys coming in here to speak their own language once in a while and ask if there's anything they need to know," Karlsson said. "I think it's good for everyone, even me, to have them here. It gives you a bit of comfort. I'm really looking forward to being one of the guys who is able to help some guys. I'm still young, but I really like that role."
Former New York Rangers forward Ulf Sterner was the first Swede to play in the NHL. Bildbyrån photo