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Sundstrom links Modo past, present and future

Wednesday, 12.21.2011 / 4:39 PM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

In the pantheon of great Swedish hockey players who hail from or got their start in the small city of Örnsköldsvik, former NHL forward Niklas Sundstrom often gets overlooked. Once considered one of the premiere defensive forwards in the NHL and on the Swedish national team, Sundstrom slowly faded from the international limelight but continues to be a critical player for Modo Hockey at age 36.

This season, despite missing five games due to injury, Sundstrom ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 6 goals and 20 points. He now ranks second on the Modo franchise's all-time assist list, 25 behind Per Svartvadet and fifth on the team's all-time point list. With 270 regular season points, Sundstrom would need to play two more productive seasons to catch Modo's all-time leader, Magnus Wernblom.

Modo celebrates 90-year jubilee

Founded in 1921, Modo Hockey will officially celebrate its 90-year history on Dec. 28 in a home match against Brynäs Gävle at Örnsköldsvik’s Fjällräven Center. To mark the occasion, Modo’s players will wear a special retro-style uniform in the game.

In addition, the team will retire the jersey of 1970s-era star Anders Hedberg before the game. Hedberg, a local product who starred with Modo and Djurgårdens IF Stockholm before coming to North America, was among the first generation of standout European players to make the jump to North America. Along with countryman Ulf Nilsson, Hedberg became a prolific scorer in the World Hockey Association with the original Winnipeg Jets. Later, the New York Rangers recruited the duo.

Prior to his retirement at age 34, Hedberg enjoyed four 30-goal seasons and six seasons of 20-plus goals for the Rangers. After his active career, Hedberg has worked in front office and scouting capacities with the Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, as well as serving a stint as general manager of the Swedish national team.

-- Bill Meltzer
In recent years, Sundstrom has played on a series of one-year contracts. He signed one-season extensions after both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.

"I'm still hungry to play," Sundstrom said at Modo's press conference to announce his signing for the current season. "Hockey is the best thing I know and I'm glad Modo wanted me to continue."
 
Renowned for his meticulous preparation for games and ability to come through in the clutch, Sundstrom has often been called a "player's player." Some have opined that he is the savviest player in the Swedish Elite League, and present and former teammates and coaches alike are quick to sing his praises.

"He is an excellent hockey player and has played this game a long time at a very high level," Modo defenseman Freddy Meyer said to NHL.com "His hockey sense, veteran experience and attention to detail allows him to be one of the best all-around players in the Elite League year in and year out. It has been a real pleasure to play with him this year."

Sundstrom, nicknamed "Sunny" in the NHL and "Susse" in Sweden, has had a long-running on-ice partnership with Norwegian power forward Per-Age Skroder. They are now in their fourth season as linemates. The first two seasons, they formed a dynamic trio with Mats Zuccarello (now with the Rangers' AHL farm team, the Connecticut Whale). The last two, they have played with Nicklas Danielsson.

"Playing together with Susse has been my best time as a hockey player," Skröder told the team's official magazine. "He's the best that I have had the privilege to play with."

Danielsson leads the team and is tied for the league scoring lead with 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists). He, too, is quick to credit his linemates for his success.

"It has worked great with Susse and Skroder," he recently told Swedish newspaper Expressen. "I have developed my game a hell of a lot and scored on my chances."

As a player who has always prided himself more on his defensive play and hockey sense than his offensive stats, Sundstrom's impact on the club goes far beyond shouldering a significant part of the team's scoring load. 

Niklas Sundstrom continues to play for Modo at age 36. (Photo: Getty Images)
The veteran forward mostly played right wing in the NHL for the New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens, but has primarily been a center in recent years. Modo coach Ulf Samuelsson relies heavily on Sundstrom to play against opposing teams' top offensive centers, kill penalties as well as play on the power play, and take crucial faceoffs. Sundstrom by far leads the club in faceoffs taken (576) and also is tops in winning percentage (51 percent).
 
Samuelsson, who was a teammate of Sundstrom's with the Rangers for four seasons in the mid-to-late 1990s, has long been a vocal advocate of the forward's talents.

"Niklas is the type of player who is always self-motivated and prepared," Samuelsson said. "He knows the game in ways you can't teach, and sets a great example."

As one of Modo's team leaders, Sundstrom has also played an important role in helping the club overcome a terrible start this season. After six weeks, Modo appeared to be in severe danger of having to re-qualify for Elitserien for the second straight season. But the team has battled through the adversity.

After winning five of its last seven games prior to the league's holiday break, Modo is currently tied in points with eighth-place AIK Stockholm. However, Modo has played one more game. Nevertheless, a playoff spot is within reach if Modo plays reasonably well after the season resumes. Modo returns to action with a Boxing Day road match against fourth-place Luleå HF.

Sundstrom, who is one of the last still-active links to Modo's golden era of producing world class homegrown talents, has generally played in the shadows of Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund during his career. But the Rangers first-round pick (No. 8) in the 1993 Entry Draft is still going strong on the ice, while the retired Naslund and Forsberg now serve as Modo's general manager and assistant.

"Niklas has been the key ingredient to our team again this year," Naslund told NHL.com. "He uses his smartness so well and is, in my mind, playing his best hockey in a few years this season."
 
Over the course of his 750-game NHL career, Sundstrom earned acclaim as a premier defensive forward. He achieved his career-best 24 goal, 52 point campaign in 1996-97, his second season in the NHL. That season, Sundstrom played regularly as a winger on Wayne Gretzky's line and was second on the club with a plus-23 rating. Injuries limited Sundstrom to nine playoff games as the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Although Sundstrom never again reached the 20-goal mark in his 10-season NHL career, his name came up frequently in debates over whether he was deserving of the Selke Trophy as the League's top defensive forward. He took on somewhat greater offensive responsibilities when he suited up for Team Sweden at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics, tallying a combined 2 goals and 6 points in eight games.
 
Frequent injuries limited Sundstrom's offensive effectiveness in many of his later NHL seasons. After a disappointing campaign with the Montreal Canadiens in 2005-06 (Sundstrom was limited to 55 regular season games), he returned home at age 31 to play for Modo. Sundstrom, an Örnsköldsvik native who played parts of four seasons with Modo before beginning his NHL career, has played at home ever since.

While no decisions have been made about Sundstrom's future beyond this season, his play on the ice suggests that there is plenty of good hockey left in him. It also seems that the desire to compete still burns inside him even midway through his 20th professional season.

It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery