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Mats Sundin
Toronto's Mats Sundin, from Sweden, became the first European to be drafted No. 1 overall, selected by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989.
Swedes, Finns have long been NHL stars

By Robert Picarello | Impact! Magazine

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.

Peter Forsberg
Colorado's Peter Forsberg walked away with the Art Ross Trophy and the Hart Trophy last June. He is the first Swedish player to win either of those awards.

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.

Markus Naslund
Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund, a native of Ornskoldsvik ,Sweden, has developed into one of the most lethal scorers in the NHL.

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.

Nicklas Lidstrom
Sweden's Niklas Lidstrom, considered the best defenseman in the game today, has won three straight Norris trophies. The only other player to do that is Boston's Bobby Orr, who won eight straight.

Like Forsberg, Lidstrom also took home some hardware from the 2003 Awards Show, namely his third straight Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman. He's the first defenseman to win the Norris in three consecutive seasons since Boston's Bobby Orr captured the award a record eight times from 1968 through 1975.

"I really don't compare myself to Bobby Orr," Lidstrom said. "He's someone one I would like to someday take a picture with. I don't think it's really sunk in yet that I've won three in a row."

Don't let him kid you, Lidstrom is one of the key reasons the Wings are in the thick of things every season, especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The three-time Cup-winner and seven-time NHL All-Star won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Playoff MVP after guiding the Red Wings to the 2002 Stanley Cup. The Vasteras native came into the 2003-04 season with 109 points in 156 playoff games and 688 points in 935 regular-season games.

"Nick is a great all-around player," Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said. "He plays in every situation and does everything well. Nick can do it all. He's the one guy we can't afford to be without."

The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s knew exactly what Yzerman was talking about, as Edmonton couldn't have built a dynasty without the efforts of Finland's Jari Kurri. The mere mention of Kurri's name still gives former opponents and goalies nightmares, as Kurri racked up 1,398 points in 1,251 regular-season games. The high-scoring winger also posted 233 points in 200 playoff games on his way to winning five Stanley Cup championships.

On Nov. 12, 2001 Kurri was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as the highest-scoring European-born player in NHL history. The Helsinki native broke into the NHL at a special time when a young corps of talented players that included Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr turned the Oilers into a dynasty. Before you knew it, the run-and-gun Oilers were on their way to winning Cups and shattering League scoring records thanks to the offensive wizardry of Kurri and Co.

Teemu Selanne
Known as the "Finnish Flash," Selanne turned the NHL on its ear in 1992 when he broke into the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets and scored a rookie record 76 goals.

"It is a great honor since so few players are able to make it to this level," said Kurri. "To be the first Finnish player elected (to the Hall of Fame) is especially gratifying. Now it's different. There are so many great Finnish players."

And Teemu Selanne is one of them. The "Finnish Flash" was Winnipeg's first choice (10th overall) in the 1988 Entry Draft. In his first NHL season (1992-93) with the Jets, he was tied for the League-lead in goals with 76, earning him the Calder Memorial Trophy and both NHL First All-Star Team and NHL All-Rookie Team status. The high-scoring winger has been named to the NHL First All-Star Team twice (1993, 1997), NHL Second All-Star Team twice (1998, 1999), and played in the NHL All-Star Game on nine occasions. Selanne has also led the NHL in goal-scoring on three occasions.

Coming into the current campaign, Selanne had 436 goals and 483 assists in 801 games. Since the start of the 1992-93 season, only two players (Jaromir Jagr and Joe Sakic) have recorded more points than Selanne's 919, and only Jagr has notched more goals than Selanne during that span. Selanne has eclipsed the 70-goal barrier once, reached the 50-goal plateau twice, and eclipsed the 30-goal mark on four other occasions during his career. His career playoffs totals include 18 goals and 12 assists in 39 contests. The 33-year-old forward has participated in the Olympics for Team Finland three times -- 1992, 1998, and 2002 -- earning a bronze medal in Nagano in 1998.

The future of Finland in the NHL looks bright, as the country made a big splash at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft with three Finns selected among the top 15 picks. In all, five Finnish pLayers were selected in the first round.

Kari Lehtonen became the highest-drafted Finnish native in Entry Draft history when the Atlanta Thrashers selected the goaltender with the second overall pick at 2002 Entry Draft. Previously, no Finn had been selected higher than third overall (Olli Jokinen in 1997, Aki Berg in 1995).

"Kari is an exceptional athlete and highly skilled goaltender who is ready to take the next step in his career," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said. "He has a great deal of potential."

Kari Lehtonen
Goalie Kari Lehtonen is the highhest-drafted Finn in history, just edging out Aki Berg and Olli Jokinen. Lehtonen was selected second in 2002. Berg and Jokinen each were taken at No. 3 in their draft years.

Lehtonen, the highest-drafted European goaltender in NHL history, posted a 39-19-9 record, nine shutouts and a 1.91 goals-against average in 72 career games with Jokerit-Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League from 2000-03. The 20-year-old netminder has won the Urpo-Ylonen Trophy as the Finnish Elite League's best goaltender for the last two seasons (2001-02 and 2002-03). He was also named to the 2002-03 Finnish Elite League All-Star Team and Most Valuable Player of the 2002 playoffs.

The native of Helsinki, Lehtonen has represented his county in international competitions on nine occasions, including the 2003 World Championships in which he backed up Pasi Nurminen and Jani Hurme, but did not play. Lehtonen led Finland to the bronze medal at both the 2003 and 2002 World Championships, being named among Finland's Three Stars in 2003 and Best Goaltender in 2002 after leading all goalies with a 1.17 GAA and a .943 save percentage.

Quality players, quality people and quality performances all have come to sum up Scandinavia's contributions to the NHL since those humble beginnings in 1969 when Tommi Salmelainen got things started.


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