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Bitttersweet Lule? homecomings for former NHLer Renberg

by Bill Meltzer

Former NHL forward Mikael Renberg made his return to Lulea with his former teams' main rival, the Skelleftea AIK.
A large crowd has packed the five-year-old Coop Arena in Luleå, Sweden, for a September 2007 preseason game between the hometown Luleå HF Bears and the visiting Skellefteå AIK club.

While Skellefteå is a traditional Luleå rival, the primary reason for the unusually high turnout to a training match is not the game itself. Many of the Luleå fans have come out specifically to boo former LHF captain Mikael Renberg.

The longtime NHL player and Luleå fan favorite departed the club for Skellefteå this summer, and it was far from an amicable parting.

The chilly reception Renberg receives in Luleå on this night stands in stark contrast to the outpourings of devotion he received throughout his four stints with the club. But each of his previous departures and homecoming came under markedly different – if no less emotional – circumstances.

Sometimes he came back for professional reasons. Sometimes it was for intensely personal reasons. But the one constant, at least until now, was that no one could fathom Renberg playing for any other team in Sweden except Luleå.


Fall 1994: A rising star returns

It was never Mikael Renberg’s intention to return to Sweden during the 1994-95 season. He was coming off a spectacular rookie NHL season with the Philadelphia Flyers in which he set a team rookie point record (82 points) and was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. He was poised for an encore in 1994-95.

On September 30, 1994, the night before the Flyers’ season opener, collective bargaining talks broke off between the NHL and the Players’ Association. The start of the season was officially delayed two weeks. Trying to stay in shape, the Flyers players organized player-only practices at the Hollydell Ice Rink in Sewell, New Jersey. Initially, almost all of the players showed up.

As it became clear that the lockout was not about to come to quick resolution, the number of attendees at the rink quickly dwindled. Renberg continued to be among the rink regulars. Like everyone else, though, he was concerned about the possibility that much or all of the NHL season would be lost to the work stoppage.

Several of his teammates accepted offers to play in the (now defunct) IHL or play in Europe for the duration of the lockout. Luleå extended Renberg an offer to return to the club until the NHL lockout ended. He declined.

“I don't want to take a job away from one of the other players and I definitely don't want to take ice time away from one of the young guys. It's not right,” he said to the media.

For several more weeks, Renberg continued to skate and work out in New Jersey. Meanwhile, the lockout grew longer and longer. Finally, he accepted LHF’s standing offer to re-join the club.

Apologetically, he explained, “I have to get my game conditioning back. I hate to take anyone's spot in the lineup but it's something I have to do.”

A star for Team Sweden at both the 1992 and 1993 World Junior Championships (scoring a combined 11 goals and 18 points in 15 games), Renberg had graduated from his hometown Piteå HC club – a minor league team – to Elitserien team Luleå in 1989-90 and earned a regular starting spot with the club the following year, despite suffering a broken thumb during the campaign.

Heeding the advice of Lars-Gunnar Pettersson, a former Edmonton Oilers draft-pick and longtime Luleå HF scoring ace, Renberg developed an aggressive, crash-the-net style of hockey that was well-suited to being adapted quickly to the North American game.

Philadelphia, in the midst of rebuilding the team around wunderkind Eric Lindros, wanted Renberg to join the Flyers in 1992-93. He turned the club down – for a specific reason.

“I wanted to be ready for the NHL, and I didn’t feel ready yet,” Renberg said in 1995. “I wanted to get stronger, get a little more experience.”

By this era, fewer and fewer players in Sweden needed to work offseason jobs in order to sustain a decent living. Even so, the 20-year-old Renberg (a second-round pick by Philadelphia in the 1990 Entry Draft) turned down a considerable increase in pay, even at the NHL minimum salary, which was then about $100,000.

In the season prior to leaving Luleå for Philadelphia, Renberg racked up 19 regular-season goals, 32 points and 61 penalty minutes in 39 games -- robust totals for a young player in the Elite League. He then helped the team get to the precipice of the Swedish championship, but the crown ultimately went to Frölunda HC Göteborg (Gothenburg).

Now he was back for the duration of the NHL lockout. Renberg received a conquering hero’s welcome upon his return to the venerable Delfinen (“the Dolphin”) arena in Luleå. Renberg hails from Piteå, a town of 40,800 located slightly south of Luleå, but the LHF fans considered him a local boy made good.

Donning the sharp-looking new LHF jersey with its roaring bear crest, Renberg gave a further boost to an already strong club that included the likes of Luleå mainstays Stefan “The Shadow” Nilsson, Lars Hurtig, Lars Modig, defenseman Roger Åkerström, former NHL goaltender Jarmo Myllys, and Finnish standout Mika Nieminen.

The young winger enjoyed a very prosperous homecoming. He enjoyed catching up with old friends on the club, especially Tomas Holmstrom, whom Renberg had grown up with in Piteå. The club also featured a young rising star defenseman from Piteå named Mattias Ohlund (four years Renberg’s junior).

In his 10 games for LHF, Renberg scored nine goals and added four helpers. Finally, the NHL lockout ended in mid-January and he returned to the Flyers. Early in the abbreviated season, the Flyers traded Mark Recchi to the Montreal Canadiens in a deal that sent John LeClair and defenseman Eric Desjardins to Philadelphia.

Flyers coach Terry Murray put LeClair on a line with Lindros and Renberg. The unit, soon to be dubbed “The Legion of Doom”, quickly became the NHL’s most dominant line until injuries began to derail Renberg’s career. The line carried on as a dynamic duo, with rotating right wingers of lesser stature than Lindros and LeClair.

Summer 2000: All about Emmy

A lot of changes took place in Renberg’s life from the winter of 1995 to the summer of 2000. After earning a shade above the NHL minimum his first two seasons, the Flyers tore up the remaining year on Renberg’s contract and negotiated with agent Don Meehan a long-term contract that paid the player about $1.5 million per season.

Renberg married his longtime sweetheart, Stina Sundström, in the summer of 1996. The couple had a daughter, Emmy Stina, who was born on the same day the Flyers opened the 1996 playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Renberg missed the game to be present at his daughter’s birth (drawing criticism from a host at the talk radio station that broadcasts the Flyers games).

On the ice, Renberg had problems staying healthy. In 1995-96, he missed the entire preseason after suffering a sports hernia, but returned quickly – too quickly – after surgery in time for opening night. He played brilliantly in the first half of the season, but suffered a complete tear of his abdominal muscle from the pelvic bone. He missed much of the second half of the season and did not score another regular-season goal after the all-star break. He did, however, post nine points in 11 playoff games.

Slated to play for Sweden in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, Renberg was forced to take himself out of the tournament. He underwent successful surgery to repair the abdominal tear. Renberg was back in the Flyers’ lineup by opening night, but lacked the leg drive and subtle puck skills that marked his first two and a half seasons— attributes that never fully came back to his game.

In the second half of the 1996-97 season, Renberg finally got back to about 90 percent of his accustomed style and averaged over a point-per-game despite having been taken off the first-unit power play.

But then, late in the season, he suffered a horrific facial injury when Ottawa’s Randy Cunneyworth accidentally kicked him in the face with his skate blade. It took over 200 stitches – most of them under the skin – to close the grisly wound. Renberg showed up for practice 48 hours later, but the Flyers wisely did not permit him to skate.

During the 1997 playoffs, Renberg got off to an outstanding start in the first two rounds but suffered a foot injury that required postseason surgery. He was taken off the Lindros line for most of the Eastern Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, as the Flyers fell to the Detroit Red Wings in four straight games.

Late in the summer of 1997, the Flyers traded Renberg to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of a deal that brought restricted free agent Chris Gratton to the Flyers. Renberg became the captain of the woebegone Lightning, but had his 1997-98 season -- which started with a two-goal game on opening night -- derailed by a broken hand. When he returned to the lineup, Renberg’s shooting mechanics were off kilter. His goal output fell to 16 tallies in 68 games (still good enough to be tied for the team lead).

The following year, something strange happened. The Flyers and Lightning reversed the Gratton-Renberg exchange. Gratton had been a disappointment in Philadelphia and Renberg, who sustained a fractured thumb early in the 1998-99 season, was unhappy in Tampa.

Upon his return to Philadelphia, Renberg was installed on a line with Rod Brind’Amour and Valeri Zelepukin. He got off to a solid start. Shortly before Christmas, however, Renberg suffered a separated shoulder on a heavy, clean check into the boards from defenseman Kyle McLaren, then with the Boston Bruins.

Renberg’s play upon his return was inconsistent. His combined Tampa and Philadelphia goal output fell to 15 and, for good measure, he suffered cracked ribs in the next-to-last game of the 1998-99 regular season. Renberg played through the injury in the playoffs, but was ineffective as the Flyers fell in the first round to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The following season, Renberg fell out of favor with Flyers coach Roger Neilson. Playing with no confidence and poor results on the ice, he was demoted to the fourth line and then traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for Rick Tocchet shortly before the trade deadline. Renberg finished out the season in Phoenix, playing on a line with Jeremy Roenick. The Coyotes went down in the first round of the 1999-2000 playoffs.

Renberg was a free agent in the summer of 2000. The uncertainty of his career path, the frequent injury rehabilitations and the numerous changes of residence had taken a toll on his marriage – an all-too-common scenario in the professional sports world. Stina and Mikael separated that year and later divorced. The Coyotes wanted Renberg to re-sign with the club. But with his young daughter Emmy back in Piteå with her mother, the player could not bear the thought of living a continent away from her for most of the year.

He decided to re-sign with Luleå HF – the only team he negotiated with outside the NHL. While handsomely paid by Elitserien standards, Renberg was still taking a significant pay cut to play in Sweden rather than the NHL. He didn’t care. His main concern was being close to his daughter, although he politely asked the media to confine all questions to hockey issues during the season.

Renberg signed a multi-year contract with Luleå. The deal contained an NHL out-clause after the first season, meaning he could cancel the remaining years if he decided to return to the NHL.

When Renberg took to the ice at Delfinen for the first time since the NHL lockout, the LHF fans stood up and cheered for several minutes. They roared again when the public address announcer introduced his name.

Renberg enjoyed a resurgent season with the Bears in 2000-01, rediscovering his joy for the game in the process. He posted 54 points in 48 regular-season games and another 11 points in 11 playoff games, winning the Golden Puck award as Elitserien most valuable player. While the somewhat lower grade of competition relative to the NHL was a factor in his success, an even bigger factor was that he was able to stay relatively healthy for the first time in the last five seasons.

After the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs made a strong push for Renberg to join the team, although his NHL contract matching rights still belonged to the Coyotes. The opportunity to join Mats Sundin in Toronto was very appealing to Renberg, but he was still hesitant to leave Sweden, because of his daughter.

Renberg and his ex-wife worked out an arrangement where he would be able to spend time with Emmy during the hockey season, even if he played in Toronto. With that concern cleared up, the Leafs acquired Renberg and he exercised the out-clause in his LHF contract. He promised to return when his NHL days were done.

Summer 2004: Veteran icon

Mikael Renberg spent three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. While still a productive NHL player, he was no longer the same caliber player he’d been as a rising young star. Once again, injuries played a large part in his decline.

The forward struggled with an array of sprains, strains and muscle pulls that took his production down each year from 52 points in 71 games during the 2001-02 season, to 35 points in 67 games the next year and, finally, 25 points in 59 games during the 2003-04 campaign. A clutch playoff performer in his Philly days, Renberg scored just one point – a game-winning goal against Philadelphia in a first-round series loss in 2003 – in a dozen career playoff games with the Leafs.

Renberg also dealt with a pair of freak accidents that could have had tragic consequences. In June of 2002, he went boating in the northern Swedish archipelago with his father, former pro soccer player Bo Renberg. Mikael was trying to pull up the anchor of the 25-foot boat when he slipped and fell in the water.

“The engine was either idling or in reverse, but in any case the propeller blade hit his right arm and sliced through the muscle. He was bleeding heavily,” Bo said later.

Thankfully, the boat was in less than five feet of water and Renberg’s father and friends were able to rescue him and get medical help. Fortunately, the propeller did not sever any of the nerves in Renberg’s arm and doctors at Piteå’s hospital were able to stop the bleeding. He did not sustain permanent damage.

In the fall of 2003, Renberg sustained a blister on his hand from tying his skate laces. He thought nothing of it at the time but the blister became infected. Renberg took sick with a high fever and was hospitalized. Doctors were able to treat the infection and bring down his fever. If these treatments were unsuccessful, the doctors may have had to amputate Renberg’s hand in order to save his life.

He returned to Luleå HF for a fourth stint. While no longer a top scoring star even at the Elitserien level, he remained a valuable player on the ice for his grit and tenacity and a leader by example in the dressing room. But Renberg just could not stay healthy. He was limited to 22 games in the 2004-05 season

Nevertheless, in recognition of his career accomplishments, LHF bestowed him with the team captaincy for the 2005-06 season. It was another physically taxing year. Renberg dealt with back problems and suffered a hip injury during the playoffs. He scored a respectable 34 points (including 15 goals) in 44 games, but went pointless in the postseason as he struggled physically.

During the 2006-07 season, there were widespread rumors that Renberg’s relationship with Luleå management had turned sour, although he remained the team captain. With his contract set to expire at the end of the season, he was non-committal about remaining with the club. In his best season since 2000-01, Renberg posted 50 points (18 goals) in 48 games, helping a squad with so-so depth reach the playoffs. Luleå lost in the first round.

With his Luleå contract set to expire, Renberg entertained an offer to play in Switzerland’s Nationalliga. Contracts for star veterans in Switzerland are often higher than comparable deals in Sweden.

“If I choose Switzerland, it won’t be for the money, but the chance to try out (hockey) in a new country,” he told Expressen

Asked if Luleå had made a new contract offer, Renberg frowned.

“No, we haven’t talked about the future,” he said, and then changed the subject.

Weeks later, shockwaves hit the Luleå fanbase. Renberg had decided to stay in Sweden, but not with Luleå HF. He signed instead with LHF’s traditional rival, Skellefteå AIK and accepted the team’s captaincy.

Renberg also revealed the reason behind his rift with Luleå HF management: a dispute over pension money. The dispute played out publicly this summer – complete with press releases from LHF's lawyers published on the team's official site and statements to the media from Renberg’s attorney.

In the player’s version of the story, he and several other prominent Luleå players diverted a portion of their salaries into a company (and team sponsor) called Obol. The firm turned out to be a sham, and Renberg and the other players were out everything they put in. Renberg’s attorney claimed to have evidence that Luleå HF's management was responsible for the debacle and has filed a lawsuit against the club.

“The war has just begun,” Renberg told Aftonbladet in May.

In management’s version, the club had no role in the scandal and said Renberg's decision to tie money into Obol was strictly a case of him following bad investment advice from his agent.

Over the last four months, the mud-slinging has intensified with both sides firing shots at each other in the media. The LHF team website promised to publish a full account proving no one affiliated with the club was guilty of any financial wrongdoing.

The situation remains unresolved. All that’s known for certain is that a player-team relationship that spanned 18 years has come to an ugly, bitter end. To Luleå fans, the thought of Renberg suiting up for Skellefteå was particularly anguishing. For much of its recent history, Skellefteå had played in Allsvenskan (the top Swedish minor league), but it earned a promotion to Elitserien earlier this year.

There was no questioning which side the vast majority of Luleå fans took in Renberg’s dispute with club management. When Skellefteå AIK came in for a preseason game last week, there was extra security in the building. As expected, fans loudly jeered and cursed at their former hero. Anti-Renberg banners were unfurled around Coop Arena, including ones that read “It’s all about the money” and “Run over Judas.”

The day before the game, he told Aftonbladet reporter Tomas Ros that he was prepared for the hostile reception.

“I figure the fans will boo. … I expect that I’ll be nervous before the game. It’ll be special, but at the same time it’ll be good to get it out the way. Now it won’t be as tough (coming back to Luleå) when the regular season gets started. Certainly, the public will boo. But it would be strange otherwise. If it didn’t bother the fans that I changed clubs to go to a rival it would mean I never meant anything to them.”

Luleå won the preseason match, 3-2. Renberg was booed loudly every time he touched the puck but scored a goal. Meanwhile outside the arena, police separated Luleå and Skellefteå supporters who were yelling and posturing at one another.

Every Luleå game with Skellefteå this season is likely to be an emotion-packed contest, although the fervor may not reach quite the same pitch as the first game. Luleå faces a tough fight to stake a playoff spot, while Skellefteå may struggle to finish in the top 10.

Skellefteå will play host to LHF on Sept. 19. The next meeting will take place in Luleå on Oct. 10.

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