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Alumni Corner: Kenny Jonsson

After a successful hockey career, the former Islanders captain has become a firefighter in Sweden

by David Silverman NYIslanders / NewYorkIslanders.com

Quick travel tip for Islander fans: if you find yourself somewhere in southern Sweden, run into trouble, and suddenly think the fireman you see rushing to your rescue is ex-captain Kenny Jonsson - you're not hallucinating. It's the real Kenny Jonsson you remember, just doing what he does now. We'll get to that later, but first, let's dive into his resume. 

In 19 years of professional hockey, Jonsson won two Olympic Gold medals for Sweden (1994 and 2006), was an NHL All-Star in 1999, and captained the New York Islanders from 1999 - 2001 - leading his team to the playoffs three years in a row, from 2001 - 2004. He played almost 600 games for the Islanders over nine years and was always the consummate teammate. The one thing that stands out even more clearly than his many on-ice accomplishments is what a team-first kind of guy he is, even in retirement.

In the beginning Jonsson was just a kid like any other, playing sports in Angleholm, Sweden around the time the Islanders were winning Stanley Cups. There were very few Swedes playing in the NHL back then, but with no internet or cable feed, that wasn't even on his mind. When he was asked to choose between hockey, soccer and tennis at 15, it was a bit of a toss-up. Luckily for Islanders fans, he chose hockey.

The summer Jonsson turned 16 his local pro team asked him to skate with them at practice and at 17, Jonsson played his first game as a pro and was named the number one star of the game. In his second year, Jonsson began playing with the Swedish national team as well. Scouts and agents followed, and Jonsson was drafted 12th overall on June 26, 1993 by the Maple Leafs.  

Touted as the next Borje Salming, a perennial All-Star defenseman for the Leafs, the 20-year-old was under a lot of pressure in Toronto. But he wasn't the only one; after some disappointing seasons, the Leafs were under pressure as well. So, despite Jonsson's strong play and the Leafs' confidence in him, they traded him to the Islanders in the middle of the 1995-96 season for hometown hero Wendel Clark.  

Jonsson remembers playing through some thin years with the Islanders at first, but also how good it felt when the late Charles Wang bought the team. Wang promised to keep them on Long Island and invested in the team, kick-starting their three-year playoff run.

"The first home game after Charles bought the team was against Detroit. You could hear the fans cheering the entire 20 minutes between warmups and puck drop," Jonsson said.

Needless to say, he's excited about the Islanders' return to the Coliseum and their bright future on the ice and in Belmont.

"I really enjoyed my time on Long Island," Jonsson said. "The fans were great. And Mike Milbury treated me really well. He helped me become a better player." 

And that shows in the numbers: Jonsson scored a career-high 40 points (14G, 26A) in 1997-98. He's third in all-time games played (597) among Islanders defensemen and fourth in points (232). He was inducted to the Islanders Hall of Fame in Feb. 2012. 

Jonsson's NHL career was book-ended by lockouts - the last one coming in 2004. He was only 30 years old, his contract was up, and he was getting offers from both NHL and KHL teams. But he really wanted to watch his kids to grow up in Sweden, and he wanted to be there for their childhood. So he moved back home and decided to play once again for his local team Rögle BK. They were still in Allsvenskan - one league below the SHL - and many people thought it was a strange choice for an ex-NHL player with lots of good years left, but this is typical of Jonsson.

"I wanted to give something back to my community and the team that gave me the opportunity to be a successful hockey player," Jonsson said. 

Playing in Sweden's second division meant less money, not to mention the risk he'd lose his spot on the national team, but Jonsson felt it was the right thing to do. It worked out, as Jonsson kept his spot on the national team and helped them win Gold again in 2006. In fact, Jonsson was named best defenseman of the tournament - an amazing accomplishment in light of the fact that he was not only competing against the best players in the world, but especially because he had been playing a few notches below NHL-level for the prior year. Two years later Jonsson helped his local team move up to the SHL, Sweden's top league. 

"For Swedes, that's like winning the Stanley Cup," he explained.  

In 2008-2009, the year after his team moved up to the SHL, Jonsson retired. He was 34, and had just captained Sweden to a Bronze medal in the IIHF World Championships. People were shocked, but Jonsson knew it was time. 

"I lost my motivation to practice - playing hard every night, putting in all the hours, summers like winters, airplanes, bus rides, punishment to my body," Jonsson said. "I was done. I had 19 full seasons of beautiful hockey." 

But he hasn't regretted his decision. He helped coach his 17 year-old son's team for a while. His son Axel is a goalie, so Jonsson focused his attention on teaching the defensemen how to back each other up, force the opposition into bad angle shots, limit rebounds, etc. Not surprisingly, Axel is a big fan of the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, which ruffles his dad's feathers a bit.  

"We have a little cat fight at home when the Rangers play the Islanders," he said. 

Jonsson has gained a lot of notoriety since moving back home, which surprised him after spending 10 years in the NHL.

"It wasn't until I started playing for my local team that I became famous in Sweden, actually," he said. "Not when I was playing with the Islanders." 

He doesn't mind being famous for the most part, though it can be a bit weird, he said, because after he retired in 2009, he volunteered for his local fire department. 

"When people recognize me, I try to step back," Jonsson said. "They're in the middle of serious issues - traffic accidents, suicides, heart attacks. I'm happy to talk hockey with people when they see me in regular life, but when I'm helping with an emergency, I like to leave them space." 

He gets called about three times a week, any time of day or night, but says he's happy to be of assistance. 

"Putting on the uniform is a bit like putting on my hockey gear. With hockey, it was usually 7pm at night. This could be any time, but you have to be ready to go." 

He's also happy he has an officer above him to slow him down because otherwise, he'd probably try to do too much and put himself at risk. That's just Kenny Jonsson.

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