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Two goals shy of Swedish record, Wernblom retires

by Bill Meltzer /
He never played in the NHL and he often toiled in the shadows of other Modo Hockey players from his generation, but Magnus Wernblom finally is getting his due. The 35-year-old power forward, who announced his retirement Nov. 4, will be honored before Modo's home game against Skellefteå AIK on Nov. 17.

Wernblom played 18-plus seasons of pro hockey in Sweden, 15-plus with Modo and three with Skellefteå. He started the 2008-09 season needing only four goals to tie L-G Pettersson's all-time Elitserien regular-season record of 270. Coming off an Elitserien personal-best 27-goal campaign last season, most thought it was a foregone conclusion that Wernblom would break the record this season. But after struggling through the first 17 games this season with only 2 goals and 4 points, he surprisingly decided to call it quits.

"I haven't produced as much as I'd hoped, and it's just as well I climb off," he said in making his retirement announcement.

When Wernblom's playoff scoring and seasons with Skellefteå in Allsvenskan (the highest Swedish minor league) are added into his Elitserien totals, he tallied 293 goals.

Nicknamed "Werner," Wernblom never played a professional game in North America, but always played a North American brand of power hockey that made him the most penalized player in league history. His stock in trade was camping in front of the opposing net, screening the opposing goalkeeper while collecting goals off deflections, rebounds and scrambles around the crease. He also performed a lot of the dirty work in deep -- battling behind the net to dig out the puck, throwing his weight around and drawing penalties on the opposition.

The all-time franchise leader in goals, points, penalty minutes and games played for Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik of the Swedish Elite League, Wernblom became known as "Mr. Modo" through his longevity. After years of standing in the background of bigger names, he finally will have his day in the spotlight.

"Through the years, people in Sweden have been pretty bad about honoring old heroes, so I hope this is changing," said Martin Sedin, a Web radio broadcaster and contributing writer for Modo's Web site. "I would hope that Wernblom's No. 9 jersey is raised to rafters."
A breed apart

Historically, Swedish players have been known for their speed, finesse, and a slight reticence to shoot the puck. But even as a young player, Wernblom never fit the mold.

“The only way to score a goal, you know, is to shoot," he told HockeySverige after surpassing Tommy Själin, a star in the 1970s and '80s, for the franchise points record in October 2007. "That’s my philosophy in any case.”

Wernblom was cut from the same cloth as Detroit Red Wings standout Tomas Holmstrom. The two had similar styles, virtually are the same size and are the same age (Holmström was born Jan. 23, 1973, while Wernblom is 11 days younger). Wernblom and Holmström successfully overcame skating deficiencies. They were less naturally talented than a multitude of European and North American players whom they’ve outscored and outlasted in the sport.

Both were late bloomers who were unheralded prospects as teenagers and were late-round NHL picks. The Los Angeles Kings drafted Wernblom in the ninth round of the 1992 Entry Draft, while Detroit chose Holmstrom in the 10th round in 1994.

The biggest difference? In 1996 Holmstrom got a shot at playing in the NHL and went on to become one of the League's top supporting-cast and playoff performers, while Wernblom never was offered an NHL contract.

"It was actually never really all that close to happening," Wernblom told Expressen in 2006. "I was drafted by the Kings. There was a little bit of a buzz (about a contract offer), but it soon died down. They have a lot of players with my playing style to pick and choose from over there."

Wernblom always was more a steady goal-scorer on a year-in and year-out basis than someone who posted eye-popping numbers in certain seasons. His typical goal output was anywhere from 14 to 25 during the course of the 50-game Elitserien season.

Wernblom always said he had no regrets about playing his entire career at home. During his Modo career, he has gotten to play with and against a who’s who of players in Sweden, ranging from NHL stars like Peter Forsberg, Markus Näslund and the Sedin twins, to the likes of Andreas Salomonsson and Per Svartvadet, who have had greater success at home than during their NHL stays.

Any player with Wernblom’s style is bound to accumulate various bumps and bruises through the seasons, but his pain tolerance and durability were renowned throughout the league. Swedish hockey may be less physical than the North American variety, but there’s still a price to be paid for camping in front of the net. Despite the punishment he took, Wernblom rarely missed time with injuries.

Entering this season, Wernblom did not appear to be himself physically, but he characteristically downplayed the suggestion that injuries had anything to do with his decision to retire.

"I had a little problem with the back of my neck, but nothing serious," he told the local Allehanda newspaper. "Besides, I trained more than ever during the preseason."

Overshadowed by NHL stars

Wernblom got his start in his hometown of Kramfors, scoring 16 goals in as many games at the Division II level. He also was an accomplished youth soccer player for Kramfors Alliansen. In 1990 he was recruited to play in Modo’s famous junior development program in the small city of Örnsköldsvik.

“The hockey gymnasium in Ö-vik felt more right to me," he said in Expressen. "In the end, hockey was an easy choice for me."

Wernblom broke into the Elitserien during the 1990-91 season, scoring 4 goals in 16 games. The same season, Forsberg and Näslund cracked the big team’s roster. Likewise, future New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals forward Salomonsson broke in that season.

Wernblom did not truly come into his own at the Elitserien level until he was about 23. He was overshadowed by Forsberg and Näslund in particular. After being drafted by the Kings, Wernblom played a supporting role for silver medalist Sweden at the 1993 World Junior Championships (the same year Forsberg posted a tournament record 31 points in seven games and Näslund had 13 goals and 24 points).

Wernblom’s breakthrough season came during the 1995-96 campaign. Although limited by injury to 28 games, he had 16 goals and 23 points. The following season he started every game for Modo and enjoyed a 26-goal campaign.

During the next seven seasons, Wernblom’s gritty play down low in the offensive zone was a constant Modo could rely upon season after season. Three times he cracked the 20-goal plateau, scoring many of his goals from his stomach, his knees, or off his equipment.

"Every team needs a guy like Wernblom on the team," said Forsberg. "He's one of those players who you hate to play against and like when he's on your side."

An era came to an end in the spring of 2004 when "Mr. Modo" signed with Skellefteå AIK to play in Allsvenskan.

"Quite simply, we couldn't come to agreement on a contract then," Wernblom said of his departure from Modo. "That’s how it goes in this business sometimes."

With an NHL work stoppage looming that year, Modo loaded up on talent in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to win their first Swedish championship since 1979. Among others, Forsberg, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Mattias Timander, goaltender Tommy Salo and later, Näslund and Adrian Aucoin, signed Modo contracts. There was only so much money to go around, and only so many roster spots to be had.

Successful return

Wernblom enjoyed three highly successful seasons in Skellefteå, where he was a team leader off the ice and the club’s biggest scoring threat, especially on the power play. In 2005-06, he was instrumental in securing SAIK’s return to the Elitserien, scoring 37 regular-season goals and adding 4 goals and 9 points in 10 postseason games during the qualification tournament for Elitserien.

In the spring of 2007, shortly after Modo won the Swedish championship for the first time in 28 years, Wernblom announced his return to Örnsköldsvik.

"I wanted to go back to Ö-vik mainly for social reasons, not for the money," Wernblom said. "It worked out in every way, although I had a wonderful time in Skellefteå."

The Modo comeback was a smash success last season, as he recorded 27 goals as well as 98 penalty minutes (the second-highest total of his career). This season, the same effort was there but not the same results. He saw less and less ice time in five-on-five situations and became strictly a power-play specialist.

"I've done all I could and it's been frustrating," Wernblom told Allehanda.

Wernblom never has been a man of many words, but has had the reputation for being very honest and straightforward. Asked recently about his greatest hockey memories, he joked that if people want to know about that, they should buy his upcoming autobiography. But he was more forthcoming and direct about the question of whether he'd consider returning long enough to set the goal mark.

"There's no chance in the world," he said.

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