Scandinavia supplies stars
His name is Tommi Salmelainen and he is not only the answer to a trivia question, but a pioneer of sorts.
Hmmmm. So who is Tommi Salmelainen?
Well, he owns the distinction of being the first player from Scandinavia drafted by an NHL club, taken with the 66th selection of the 1969 Amateur Draft by the St. Louis Blues.
Since Salmelainen's selection, European names have been commonplace at the NHL Entry Draft. Even though the pick didn't pan out for St. Louis, the bold move paved the way for other teams to follow suit. Since then, a total of 1,529 international hockey players have been drafted by NHL teams with a combined 42.1 percent coming out of Finland and Sweden.
Throughout the years, teams have dispatched some of their top scouts to watch young Finnish and Swedish players. It's not an easy assignment since there is plenty of talent available in both countries. But the birddogs also have to assess whether a young Finn or Swede can make the jump to a different culture and style of play.
Still, despite the additional questions, the trips overseas have proven to be fruitful in the past 34 years, as 377 Swedish prospects have been called to the podium by teams, while 267 Finnish players have been treated to an opportunity, as well as an NHL cap and jersey on Draft Day.
At the start of the 2003-04 season, 236 of the 728 NHL players were European-born. Forty-two were from Sweden, 33 were from Finland. The Vancouver Canucks had the most Swedes on their roster with seven, while the Dallas Stars had the most Finns, sporting four to start the season.
Per Alexandersson was the first Swedish hockey player ever to be drafted by an NHL team. The center was selected by the Maple Leafs 49th overall in 1974. Four other Swedish-born players were nabbed that year, including defenseman Stefan Persson (214th overall, NY Islanders) who went on to become the first European to play on a Stanley Cup winner.
In 1976, Bjorn Johansson became the first European-born player taken in the first round, as the Swedish defender was selected by the California Seals with the fifth overall pick. Sweden won the distinction of having the first European player to be drafted first overall when Mats Sundin was chosen by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989.
Sundin played four seasons with the Nordiques before joining the Maple Leafs in a blockbuster trade in 1994 that has since catapulted him to superstardom. Sundin led the Leafs in scoring for eight consecutive seasons (1994-95 to 2001-02) and represented Toronto in seven consecutive NHL All-Star games (1996-2002). Sundin, who has scored 30 or more goals in 10 of his 13 NHL seasons, became the first European-born player to ever captain the Toronto Maple Leafs, named to the position Sept. 30, 1997.
"To be captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is probably one of the finest assignments you can have in Canada," Sundin said. "But at the same time it is a very exposed position. Win or lose, as captain you are expected to always stand there in the dressing room and answer for what happened."
"Very few guys are that big, are that strong, skate as well as he does and have a set of hands like the perfect package," former teammate and current CBC broadcaster Glenn Healy said. "If you were to make a perfect player, that is what you would want, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. He has it all and there is not a thing missing from his game. He is a quiet leader who has great skills, but yet you would think he is the guy next door."
Peter Forsberg and Nicklas Lidstrom also have done Sweden proud.
Forsberg, who was originally drafted by Philadelphia in 1991 and traded by the Flyers to the Quebec Nordiques in 1992, came into the 2003-04 regular season with 198 goals and 488 assists in 541 games. The current Colorado Avalanche superstar walked away with the Art Ross Trophy, as the League's top scorer, and the Hart Trophy as the regular season MVP last June, beating fellow Swede Markus Naslund and New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur for that honor. He was the first Swedish player to win either of those awards.
"It's a good year for Swedish hockey, I guess. Unfortunately, we lost to Canada in overtime of the (2003) World Championships, but that's a different story," Forsberg said.
That's one of the few setbacks for Sweden, as the country's players and the NHL have authored quite a success story, especially Lidstrom.