During his playing days as an NHL defenseman, Ulf Samuelsson was known for being one of the League's most rugged -- and sometimes ruthless -- players. His aggressive style made him a controversial figure at times, but there was no denying his effectiveness on the ice. In 1,080 career regular season games, he finished with a plus-173 defensive rating to go along with 333 career points and 2,453 penalty minutes. But Samuelsson's reputation hid the fact that he was a student of the game and possessed an enviable work ethic. He was a logical candidate to pursue coaching after his active career ended.
For the last five years, Samuelsson served as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes. The Fagersta, Sweden native has made his permanent home in the US for years and his son, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Philip Samuelsson, represents Team USA internationally. But when the opportunity recently arose to become the head coach of Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik in Sweden's Elitserien, the 46-year-old known as Robocop and "Tuffe Uffe" (Tough Ulfie) jumped at the chance to return to his homeland.
Naslund, Samuelsson, Forsberg (Modo Hockey)
"It's a glorious opportunity to become head coach of Modo," he said at his introductory meeting with the media. "It's a club with tremendous heritage that is very well known. In North America, there are a lot of people who are curious about this club, which developed so many skilled players."
Flanking Samuelsson were Modo's two most famous products: general manager Markus Naslund and assistant GM Peter Forsberg. Along with Samuelsson, the duo is responsible for turning around the fortunes of a team that finished in last place in Elitserien in 2010-11 and narrowly avoided being relegated from the top league. The roster is undergoing reconstruction during the offseason.
"It's been hard to negotiate with players when we didn't have a coach, but now we're having discussions with players who want to be here, and several of them have had Ulf as a coach before," Naslund said.
Most notably so far, the club has signed defenseman Jonas Ahnelov, a third-round pick by Phoenix in the 2006 Entry Draft who has spent the last three seasons in the American Hockey League with the San Antonio Rampage. Naslund also has reportedly been in negotiations with former Coyotes winger Fredrik Sjostrom. The 28-year-old Sjostrom spent the 2010-11 campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring 2 goals and 5 points in 66 games.
Naslund makes no bones about the fact that Forsberg, Samuelsson and he have all agreed that the team needs to add more players with recent North American experience in order to play the style of hockey the new coach envisions for the team.
"We want to play tougher and with more speed," Naslund said. "We're going to try and bring over some more players directly from [the NHL or AHL]."
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The club has already signed former Detroit Red Wings second-round pick Dick Axelsson away from defending champion Färjestads BK. During the regular season, Axelsson tallied 15 goals and 30 points in 47 games to go along with 127 penalty minutes. In the playoffs, he added 4 goals and 10 points in 14 games.
Samuelsson believes that he is well-prepared for his first head coaching opportunity, having taken things away from the coaches he played under and the two bench bosses he assisted in Phoenix.
"It was great to work with Dave Tippett the last two seasons, as well as with Wayne Gretzky," said Samuelsson. "I learned a lot from Jim Schoenfeld when I worked with him in Hartford. I also played under some great coaches during my career. I played for Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman in Pittsburgh. I was also with Bowman in Detroit. I played for Colin Campbell with the Rangers and for Roger Neilson in Philadelphia.
"Every coach has his own way of doing things. As a coach, you have to pay attention to detail. When problems come up, you try to come up with solutions. It might be through running different practice drills, explaining tactics and making adjustments during games. There's a lot of preparation and a lot of film review. But no two coaches are the same. There will be particular ways I want to do things, too, but certainly I have learned from all of them."
The next order of business for Samuelsson will be to select an assistant coach, in conjunction with Modo's new brain trust. He plans to return to Örnsköldsvik in early June to complete that task and get down to the business of preparing for a new season. He will look to reverse the team's steady slide since winning the Swedish championship in 2007. Despite a rather hefty payroll and considerable roster turnover, the club has missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.