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Swedish players have had major impact on NHL

by John Kreiser
Sweden's impact on the National Hockey League has come a long way since Ulf Sterner became the first Swede to play in an NHL game 46 years ago.

These days, Swedes are stars at every level of the NHL -- Nicklas Lidstrom is arguably the best defenseman since Bobby Orr, he and Daniel Alfredsson are among the longest-serving team captains in the NHL, and the Sedin twins -- Daniel and henrik -- have taken turns in the past two years winning the Hart and Art Ross trophies (Henrik in 2010, Daniel in '11). Lidstrom became the first European to captain a Stanley Cup winner in 2008, when he was one of seven Swedes on the Detroit Red Wings.

But there were more than a few bumps along the way to Swedish success in the NHL -- and Sterner felt a lot of them.

Sterner, who led Sweden to the 1962 World Championship and topped all scorers at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, became the first Swede to play in an NHL game when he stepped on the ice for the New York Rangers on Jan. 27, 1965. He played four games for the Blueshirts and had no trouble skating with the North Americans. But he was not used to the physical style of play in the NHL -- international hockey at the time banned bodychecking in the offensive zone -- and after the season he returned to Sweden.

It wasn't until the IIHF's decision in 1969 to adopt the NHL's rules on bodychecking all over the ice that the way was cleared for the first wave of Swedish talent to hit North America -- most notably defenseman Borje Salming, who was signed by Toronto and joined the Leafs in 1973.

Swedish defenseman Borje Salming joined the Maple Leafs roster in 1973. (Steve Babineau/NHLI)
Salming was a trailblazer who probably did more than any other player to dispel the myth that Swedes weren't tough enough to play in the NHL. He took every hit, dished out more than a few of his own, and became one of the NHL's top defensemen -- and a fan favorite in Toronto.

Salming was a First- or Second-Team All-Star for six consecutive seasons and had 148 goals and 768 points in 16 seasons with the Leafs before finishing with a year in Detroit. In 1996, Salming was the first Swedish player voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"He was tough," Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke said.

Salming's ability to play at a high level and cope with the physical pounding that is part of life in the NHL convinced other teams that Swedish players could stand up to the demands of North American hockey while providing an infusion of skill. Five Swedes were taken in the 1974 Amateur Draft, and Bjorn Johansson became the first Swede chosen in the first round when he was selected with the No. 5 pick by the now-defunct California Golden Seals two years later.

The next step forward in the evolution of Swedes in the NHL came via the New York Islanders. GM Bill Torrey used lower-round picks on talented Swedes that other teams had overlooked, and the Isles' first of four Cup-winning teams included defensemen Stefan Persson (part of the first class of Swedes in 1974) and forward Anders Kallur -- the first Europeans to get their names on the Cup. In addition, the overtime winner in the Isles' first championship run in 1980 was scored by Bob Nystrom, who was born in Stockholm and still carried a Swedish passport, though he got his hockey education in Canada. Another defenseman, Tomas Jonsson, came aboard in 1981, and Mats Hallin made it four Swedes on the Island when he was a member of the 1983 champions.

By the late 1980s, talented Swedes dotted the NHL.

Kent Nilsson, known as the "Magic Man," was the first Swedish player to reach the 100-point mark when he notched 131 points in 1980-81. Mats Sundin became the first Swedish player (and first European) to be chosen with the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft when Quebec selected him in 1989 -- and he later became the first Swede to score 500 goals. Lidstrom went to Detroit in the third round that same year after the Wings discovered him playing for Vasteras and asked him not to attend the draft so no one else would discern their interest in him. Two decades after arriving in Detroit, he's still among hockey's elite.


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Lidstrom became Detroit's captain in 2006-07 after Steve Yzerman retired. But by then, a Swedish captain was no longer a novelty -- Sundin (1997 in Toronto), Alfredsson (1999 in Ottawa) and Markus Naslund (2000 in Vancouver) were already long-established wearers of the "C." Alfredsson enters the 2011-12 season as the longest-serving active captain, while Lidstrom enters his sixth season in Detroit and Henrik Sedin his second as captain of the Vancouver Canucks.

Still, some teams have been better than others at spotting Swedish talent.

By the early years of the 21st century, no one was better at it than the Red Wings. The sharp eye of European scout Hakan Anderson kept a steady supply of Swedish talent headed to Hockeytown, capped by a Stanley Cup victory in 2008 that saw Lidstrom become the first Swedish captain to lead a team to the title and six fellow Swedes -- including Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg -- get their chance to skate a lap with the Cup.

Some teams have also been lucky.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has established himself as one of the NHL's best, was a seventh-round pick in 2000 who arrived in New York five years later after getting his hockey education with Frolunda -- and became an immediate sensation. Lundqvist, quickly dubbed "King Henrik," is the first goaltender in NHL history to begin his career with six consecutive 30-win seasons, leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five of them. He also led the League in shutouts this past season with 11.

The parade of Swedes headed to the NHL shows no signs of abating.

Twenty players from Sweden were selected in the 2010 Entry Draft, and another 28 -- including six in the first round -- were chosen in 2011. Stockholm native Gabriel Landeskog was the second player chosen, by Colorado. Frolunda, which has the longest streak of having at least one player chosen, continued a run that dates to 1998 when the New York Islanders selected center Johan Sundstrom in the second round and produced another All-Star last season when Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson made the All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C.

Karlsson, who got a lot of help from Alfredsson when he was a rookie in 2009, is already getting ready to help the next generation of Swedes -- two of Ottawa's top prospects, defenseman David

Rundblad and 2011 first-round pick Mika Zibanejad, are Swedish.

"I remember how much (Alfredsson) was able to help me when I got here, and even though I haven't been here as long I still think it's good for the young guys coming in here to speak their own language once in a while and ask if there's anything they need to know," Karlsson said this summer. "I think it's good for everyone, even me, to have them here. It gives you a bit of comfort.

"I'm really looking forward to being one of the guys who is able to help some guys. I'm still young, but I really like that role."
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