During his 10 seasons as a workhorse goaltender in the NHL and numerous starting appearances with Sweden's national team, Tommy Salo got a first-hand education about the difference between being a player and a decision-maker in the front office. Through his experiences in North America, the Swedish Elite League (Elitserien) and international hockey, Salo took mental stock of the hurdles involved in building a winning team and the challenge of dealing with the pressure of high expectations and the disappointment of sometimes falling short of one's goals.
Now 39 and retired for three years as an active player, Salo has moved on to team management. Recently, he accepted a three-year contract to become the general manager (often referred to in Sweden as sport chief) of Leksands IF of the Allsvenskan league, leaving the same post with competing minor-league club IK Oskarshamn. He'll gradually take over the GM role in Leksand from Olle Öst, who assumed the post in April on an interim basis. Meanwhile, in Oskarshamn, Salo temporarily will be replaced by coaches Lars Ivarsson and Magnus Österby, who will double as interim co-GMs.
Salo and Oskarshamn president Mats Söder assert Salo's sudden departure was not due to a conflict between the two. Söder did tell Swedish media that he was not entirely happy with the midseason timing of his general manager's departure for a competing club.
"We're turning the page and we'll move on," said Söder. "Tommy wants this, so there's no reason for us to put obstacles in his path."
Salo's new mission is clear: Succeed where others have failed in getting former long-time Elitserien team Leksand back to the top level. In recent seasons, the club (also sometimes nicknamed the Stars for the stars that traditionally have adorned its uniform) often has been a powerhouse during the Allsvenskan season but has been unable to secure a first- or second-place finish during Kvalserien -- the double round-robin playoffs that see the bottom two teams in Elitserien compete with the top teams from Allsvenskan, with two spots in Elitserien the following season up for grabs.
So far during the 2010-11 season, Leksand is in third place in Allsvenskan. While they are on pace to earn a berth in Kvalserien, they are just two points ahead of fellow former Elitserien team IF Malmö Redhawks for the final automatic qualification-round position, 11 points behind second-place Örebro HK and a whopping 17 points off the pace set by the league-leading Växjö Lakers.
Although one never should write off a team's chances for advancement in the postseason, this does not look like it will be Leksand's season to fulfill its four-year quest to return to the Swedish Elite League. The team ranks among the top defensive squads in the league, allowing just 52 goals in 22 games. The offense, however, has been sporadic, scoring 69 goals (sixth in the 14-team circuit).
The Stars last played at the Elitserien level in 2006-07 but were a fixture in the top league for 53 years, including an unbroken string between the 1951-52 season and 2000-01.
In an effort to return to the top level permanently, Leksand has had a revolving door of general managers and coaches since the start of the new millennium. Salo will be the sixth person to assume the LIF general manager post since 2000, following former Leksand playing legend and coach Anders "Masken" Carlsson; retired goaltender Christer Abrahamsson; Mikael Lundström; former NHL player Patric Kjellberg; and Öst. The club has also gone through a whopping 11 full-time and interim coaches since 2000, with former long-time LIF player Niklas Eriksson currently holding the job.
The biggest challenge Salo faces right now will be taking stock of his personnel and getting on the same page as the coaching staff. He is not expected to fully assume managerial duties until the offseason.
"I'm going to speak with the coaches and see what we can and can't do. After that, I'll learn about the club and personnel that's here so that, as soon as possible, I can get started on the work toward next season," said Salo.
This has been a transitional season for the Leksand roster. Several older veterans departed after last season and the club has relied on some of its younger veterans to step up into leadership roles. To date, the club gotten solid play in goal so far this season from Patrick Galbraith (2.20 GAA, .921 save percentage, 17 games), who stepped in to replace Joacim Eriksson after the 20-year-old Philadelphia Flyers prospect signed with Elitserien club SAIK.
Right wing Jesper Ollas has emerged as a two-way threat, posting a team-high 10 goals, 19 points and a plus-16 rating at even strength.
For his part, Salo is well aware that Leksand's rabidly loyal fan base is anxious to see the historically important club restored to the top level. In many ways, the LIF hockey team is the lifeblood of the small town of Leksand. Much like the NFL's Green Bay Packers, the Leksand Stars became a national powerhouse despite playing in a tiny market compared. Even as the team has scuffled to clear the Kvalserien hurdle, the community has continued to support the team. The flip side of the equation is the enormous pressure to win that has contributed to the parade of GMs and coaches.
"The most important thing is to do it the right way," said Salo. "You have to consider things carefully and keep the big picture in mind when you make decisions."
During his playing career, Salo learned much about the need to take in stride the high and lows that are part of the hockey business. As a young starting goaltender for the Islanders, he learned a difficult personal lesson when he attended his own salary arbitration hearing and was reduced to tears by the ultra- aggressive way in which Islanders general manager Mike Milbury made the case that he did not deserve a pay raise.
While a member of the Edmonton Oilers, Salo was a regular-season warrior, starting 70 and 73 games in back-to-back seasons, but he took considerable heat for the club's first-round playoff failures. Internationally, he experienced the highs of being hailed a hero after Sweden won a gold medal at the 1994 Olympics and the lows of being the goat in Sweden's infamous loss to Belarus in the medal round of the 2002 Games.
Said Salo: "As a player, you can only focus on your own performance. In management, you are responsible for fitting together the pieces of personnel that allow the coaches to do their job but also to be careful with the budget. One thing that's universal is the need to see where you need to improve and then work to get there."