Ulf Nilsson, played for the Winnipeg Jets from 1974-78 averaging an astounding 121 points a season in his four years playing in the WHA. Nilsson amassed 484 points (140G, 344A) in 300 games in Winnipeg. He helped lead the Jets to Avco Cup titles in 1976 and 1978, winning the WHA playoff MVP in 1976. Following his time as a Jet, Nilsson spent four seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Nilsson, who hails from Nynashamn, Sweden represented his country in two IIHF World Championships and the 1981 Canada Cup.
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When you think about Ulf Nilsson, the first traits that spring to mind are vision, precision passing, skill and toughness. Wait, what?
At five-foot-eleven and 185 pounds, Nilsson was not the kind of player you'd expect to see going full-tilt into the corners with the likes of tough guys Gilles Bilodeau or Steve Durbano of the Birmingham Bulls. At least, not without leaving on a stretcher.
But that's because true toughness isn't about fighting or even hitting, it's about being able to withstand whatever your opponents do to stop you - both inside and outside the rule book - and never ever changing your game.
By this definition, Nilsson is a super heavyweight.
As the centre between Anders Hedberg and Bobby Hull, Nilsson's typical assignment was to draw one or hopefully two defenders to him before dishing the puck off to one of his wingers. That meant taking more than his fair share of hits, legal and otherwise. When opponents quickly realized that he was the lynchpin of the Hot Line, well, he became all-toofamiliar with both ends of their sticks.
"Ulf always played with a black eye," says fellow Jets centre and Finnish star Veli-Pekka Ketola.
...Hockey is such a beautiful game if you play it the way it's supposed to be played. It's a physical game without the fights.Ulf Nilsson
Opponents marvelled at the sheer punishment that Nilsson would take, often drawing penalties, and then leading his teammates on the ensuing powerplay.
"Toughness was one of my strengths. I wasn't trying to be stupid out there. Maybe sometimes I was but no one was going to intimidate me. If they were 20 or 30 pounds heavier, they had to go through my stick before they could get to me," Nilsson says.
It was hard. We didn't grow up in the North American way of playing hockey where you retaliate and drop your gloves. Hockey is such a beautiful game if you play it the way it's supposed to be played. It's a physical game without the fights.
Thommie Bergman, the first Swede to crack an NHL line-up in 1972 and who joined the Jets two years later, says Nilsson was the toughest guy he ever played with.
"I've never seen anyone, and nobody ever will, take the abuse that Anders and Ulf took the first year in Winnipeg (in 1974- 75) Nobody is even close," he said.
Nilsson and his fellow Europeans were often asked at the post-game parties held by their agent, Don Baizley and his circle of friends, to show off their latest war wounds. It was never pretty - their bodies were kaleidoscopes of purple, black and blue.
Off the ice, Nilsson was preoccupied with maintaining his reputation as the team's top prankster. Who else could jump out from behind the net during a practice and hit Hull in the face with a pie on his birthday?
"I got him good," Nilsson says. "Bobby was very shocked." Members of the media weren't off limits, either. Winnipeg Tribune reporter Ed Deardon recalls going through security in Toronto ahead of Nilsson when the customs officer asked about the bag containing his telecopy machine, the antiquated precursor to the laptop computer.
Members of the media weren't off limits, either. Winnipeg Tribune reporter Ed Deardon recalls going through security in Toronto ahead of Nilsson when the customs officer asked about the bag containing his telecopy machine, the antiquated precursor to the laptop computer.
"Before I could open my mouth, Ulf said, 'that's a bag of American money.' Uh oh. The customs officer called me aside and they had to go through everything. Ulf and the guys were laughing like hell," he says.
In four seasons with the Jets, Nilsson scored 140 goals and 344 assists for a total of 484 points. He is the WHA's all-time leader in assists per game with 1.147 and points per game with 1.613. He was the MVP in the 1976 playoffs, with seven goals and 19 assists for 26 points in leading the Jets to their first AVCO Cup title. He was also a key contributor to the team's second AVCO Cup two years later. He is a member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and the WHA Hall of Fame.