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New immigration policy: sign a Swede

To arrest its ignominious backward slide, Toronto has daringly reached out to Europe for fresh talent—and has discovered that its imports not only can take the NHL's punishment but can dish it out as well

Why was Harold Ballard, the intrepid president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, smiling so happily in his office sauna last week? Well, for one thing there were no saunas at Milhaven Penitentiary, where the 70-year-old Ballard had spent the previous 52 weeks while serving a sentence for theft and fraud. For another, the Maple Leafs, who plunged from fourth place to an ignominious sixth during Ballard's incarceration, had defeated the lordly Stanley Cup champion Canadiens 5-3 the night before in Montreal, right there on national television. But Ballard had some even better reasons for his smile-as-you-sweat sojourn. In that Montreal game Paul Henderson was again playing like the Paul Henderson who had singlehandedly destroyed the Russians for Team Canada a year ago; prize rookie Lanny McDonald from Medicine Hat, Alberta busted off the bench to score the winning goal: and Ballard's two Swedish imports—Defense-man Borje Salming and Left Wing Inge Hammarstrom—were performing with more talent, poise and verve than their Canadian chauvinist detractors thought possible. As Salming likes to tell everyone in his halting English, "We are not chicken Swedes."

All things considered, last year was a total washout for the Maple Leafs. Besides losing Ballard to the jailhouse, they also lost two of their best players, Goal-tender Bernie Parent and tough Center Jim Harrison, to the World Hockey Association, and when Henderson returned from his Team Canada heroics he was emotionally incapable of playing up to his ability. "It was absolutely brutal," said Henderson, who scored two goals against the Canadiens in last week's game. "I was getting 200 calls a day at home—and I had an unlisted number. I couldn't even pull up to a stop sign without getting mobbed by people. How could I possibly think of playing hockey? I scored only four goals in my first 18 games. That was ridiculous. Now the pressure and the publicity have died down at last, and I hope things will return to normal."

As the Leafs sagged in the Last Division their demanding fans turned against them by either failing to show up for games with expansion teams or simply cheering for the opposition—even, egad, the hated Canadiens. "It seemed that we played 78 road games and no home games," complained one disgruntled Maple Leaf. Down at Milhaven, Ballard sensed the public's reaction to his inept hockey team and fired off this message to General Manager Jim Gregory: "Spend all the money you want, but get me a team that can win the Stanley Cup."

Like pro football's George Allen in Washington, Gregory quickly overspent his unlimited budget and completely overhauled the Leafs by bringing in a new coach, Red Kelly, and 10 new regulars, including five rookies and three tested goaltenders. The goalies—Eddie Johnston from Boston, Doug Favell from Philadelphia and Dune Wilson from Vancouver—carry salaries totaling more than $300,000, but at least, as Henderson says, "We know we've got good goal-tending for a change." Three of the rookies—Salming, 22, Ian Turnbull, 20, and Bob Neely, 19—play regularly on defense, and both Hammarstrom, 25, and McDonald, 20, have won starting jobs on the wings. With the accomplished veterans Dave Keon (37 goals last season), Rick Kehoe, Darryl Sittler, Ron Ellis, Norm Ullman and Henderson already in the lineup, the Leafs do not lack scoring power. "All we need now are a tough center and a tough wing," Ballard says, "and then we'll have a legitimate contender. I've told Gregory to go and get them at any cost."

Which may mean another raid on Sweden. For years the NHL ignored Europe as a source of playing talent, claiming that Europeans were not combative enough to survive the punishment of the NHL. On the rare occasions when a foreign player did appear at an NHL training camp, he was cruelly harassed. Sven Tumba, probably the best player Sweden has ever produced, received a brief tryout with the Boston Bruins in the late 1950s. "I watched their games," he said, "and they never dared treat the players on the other team the same way they treated me in the practices."

The NHL rediscovered Sweden last year when it was confronted by the realities of a talent gap caused by its too-rapid expansion and the appearance of the rival WHA. Detroit signed a young defenseman, Tommie Bergman, and he became a regular. Then Team Canada's NHL All-Stars barely managed a victory and a tie with a Swedish team that included Hammarstrom and Salming, and it was obvious that some Swedes could play in the NHL as well as, if not better than, many of the Canadian-born professionals.

"Actually we knew all along just how good the Swedes were," Gregory says, "but it is unbelievably difficult to get them out of the country. We have to negotiate their release from their local team, which is an expensive proposition." The Red Wings paid $35,000 for the rights to Bergman, and this year another $35,000 for Tord Lundstrom, a forward who is sidelined at present with a shoulder injury. The Buffalo Sabres have been negotiating for several months to acquire the release of Tommy Abrahamsson, considered the best defense-man in Sweden.

Oddly enough, in this age of computer scouting in hockey, Salming and Hammarstrom both were led to the Maple Leafs by a Toronto businessman, Bob Woods, who often visits Sweden. "We were looking for goaltenders," Gregory says, "and Woods suggested that a fellow named Leif Holmquist might help us. At the same time he mentioned Hammarstrom and Salming and said he thought they could make the Maple Leafs without any special problem."

Gregory dispatched Gerry McNamara, a former goaltender who now scouts for Toronto, to Sweden last December. "He called me one day at 3 a.m. Toronto time," Gregory says, "and gave me a complete rundown on Hammarstrom and Salming. I asked him how he would relate them to the players available in the amateur draft in June. He assured me that both Hammarstrom and Salming would be picked high in the first round." Gregory then sent his chief scout, Bob Davidson, to inspect the Swedes at the world championships last April in Moscow. When Davidson concurred with McNamara's assessment, Gregory began flexing his checkbook. To get both men the Maple Leafs reportedly had to pay $100,000 to their Swedish team. "Whatever it was," Ballard says, "it was money well spent."

Despite their Swedish reputations, Hammarstrom and Salming still had to convince their new coach, Red Kelly. "What concerned me most," Kelly says, "was whether they'd be able to adjust to our style of hockey. Then I saw them skate and many of my doubts disappeared. They did things with their feet that you can't teach players. Why, they used their feet like another hockey stick." Kelly has been particularly impressed with Salming, Toronto's best defenseman in the season's opening stages. "He has great anticipation," Kelly says, "and he is an outstanding shot-blocker. When he goes down for a shot he doesn't stay on the ice, either, like a lot of players do. He bounces right up and gets back into the play." Against the Canadiens Salming saved a likely Montreal goal when he sprawled in front of a Jacques Lemaire bullet fired from 10 feet away and caught the puck in his stomach. "I've got to ask Salming someday if he was a figure skater as a boy," Kelly says. "When he makes a turn on the ice, he does it with the style of a figure skater, moving his upper body first, not his legs."

As Hammarstrom and Salming anticipated, the NHL's tough guys have tried to intimidate them. In an exhibition game, Cowboy Flett of the Philadelphia Flyers warned Hammarstrom, "Touch the puck, Swede, and Ell break your arm." Hammarstrom, a 5'11" 180-pounder, told Flett where to go and skated away with the puck. Salming, strong and rawboned at 6'1" and 190 pounds, has been a particular target. Ed Van Impe of the Flyers speared him in an exhibition game, then broke his stick while spearing him in the stomach again during the second game of the season in Philadelphia. "He told everyone it was an accident," Salming says, "but I know—and he knows—it wasn't." Dave Schultz, the No. 1 Flyer tough, called Salming "chicken Swede" after Salming crashed him into the boards with a legal check. Schultz then waved his stick in Salming's face; in turn, Salming knocked Schultz' stick to the ice. "It is all part of the game with rookies," Salming says resignedly.

Hammarstrom finds the NHL game more disciplined than he anticipated. "In Europe there is more skating, more passing," he says. "Right now I skate around the ice too much. I must learn to go up and down my wing like the others. For me, that makes it more difficult to play here."

What bothers Hammarstrom most about the NHL is the prospect of boredom as the season grinds on. "In Sweden, hockey was our hobby, not our lives," he says. "I worked in an office from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and Borje was a full-time student at a technical school. We practiced at night and played two games a week—on Thursdays and Sundays. We never had time to get bored. Here all we do is play and live hockey, and that will not be easy."