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Paving the way

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks have had their share of impactful players, but few measure up to Thomas Gradin.

Gradin was 22-years-old when he, Lars Zetterstrom and Lars Lindgren, a trio of Swedish players oozing with potential, became the first Europeans in the history of the Canucks, joining the team for the 1978-79 season.

Urged to make the move to the NHL by his agent, Gradin filled a void at center for the Canucks and the fit was perfect – think Cinderella and the glass slipper.

In Gradin’s first year, he finished tied for the team lead in assists with 31 and was second on the team in points with 51, five back of Ron Sedlbauer. Although he benefited from playing alongside fellow rookies Stan Smyl and Curt Fraser on The Kid Line, his transition and immediate impact weren’t as easy as his stats indicate.

“I don’t think anything was smooth, it was hard work and a lot of pain,” said Gradin, Vancouver’s associate chief amateur scout, who will join Orland Kurtenbach and Kirk McLean in the Ring of Honour on Monday, January 24th when the Canucks host the Dallas Stars.

“Just playing with Curt and Stan, we were three young guys, we were rookies and we ended up being the first line and I think that gave us a little bit more room because our opponents hardly knew who we were, so that made it a lot easier.”

For his breakout rookie season, Gradin was named Vancouver’s co-MVP alongside goaltender Glen Hanlon.

“That first season was a great experience and obviously there were people that believed in us, and for sure Harry Neale as the coach. It was a gutsy move by Jake Milford to sign us too, and from there on everything fell into place.”

Everything certainly did fall into place for Gradin during his career in Vancouver, which spanned eight seasons in Vancouver from 1978-78 to 1985-86, but not quite as easily as he’d have you believe.

Gradin, Zetterstrom and Lindgren had to earn the respect of their teammates and of the opposition, who welcomed the foreigners to the NHL with a few hundred pokes, whacks and jabs.

“We had to play a different game, although you can’t change that much. The biggest thing was we couldn’t really stay down when we were speared or crosschecked or if somebody wanted to do something to you. You just had to eat the pain and continue going.”

That, in a nutshell, was Gradin the player, an “eat the pain and continue going” tough guy who used exceptional hockey sense and unseen speed to leave Vancouver as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer with 550 points (197-353-550) in 613 games.

The rise of Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden, Stan Smyl and Daniel and Henrik Sedin has Gradin currently sitting sixth on the all-time scoring list and ironically enough, it’s partially his own fault.

Seven years after Gradin’s retirement from the NHL, the Canucks brought him back to the organization as a part-time scout, a role that would expand into full-time amateur scout and head European scout after just five seasons.

Think back to the 1999 NHL Entry Draft and you’ll recall a tangle of draft day moves that led to the selection of the Sedins second and third overall by Vancouver. One of the biggest supporters of acquiring the twins was Gradin, who had been scouting them for many years.

“Mike Penny, the boss of the scouting at the time, and I were in Sweden and we were staying in my farm house because the tournament was played in the village area around there and on the way down to Stockholm we were supposed to stop at one of the smaller towns to see this tournament with these unbelievable twins. So we went there and they were like only 16 years old playing for the under-16 Swedish National Team and they were unbelievably good. You could see it at that time that they were unbelievable players. That was the first time we ever saw them.”

Gradin knew the Sedins had talent, but reserved labeling them the next big thing until he saw how they handled their next few years of maturation, both on and off the ice.

Looking back, he’s amazed the Sedins been able to continue to raise the bar the way they have and it’s scary to think where the Canucks would be today without them.

Take that a step further and it’s impossible to imagine where the Canucks would be without Gradin; there’s no run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1982 without the forward’s clutch 19 points in 17 games and there’s no Sedins without all the homework he did to help draft them.

It’s only fitting then that Gradin be placed alongside other Canucks greats in the Ring of Honour.

“I’m very honoured for sure and I’m grateful to the Aquilini family for their generosity and to Mike Gillis for everything he’s done. It’s very nice to be recognized and I feel very proud to be a Vancouverite.”

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