Ten years ago there were six teams in the National Hockey League, the sport's only major professional operation. Bobby Orr was an 18-year-old rookie with the Boston Bruins. The average salary of the 120 players in the NHL was about $15,000. And, talk about ethnic purity, 99 17/100s% of the players in the NHL had been born or raised in Canada. Tommy Williams of the Duluth, Minn. Williamses was the only true foreigner in the sport.
Bjorn Johansson was a fifth-grader in Oredo. Sweden back in 1966, and he knew nothing about the NHL or Bobby Orr and certainly nothing about Tommy Williams. But hockey has had a major face-lift over the last decade, and now fifth-graders in Oredo know there are 30 teams in North America's two major leagues—the NHL and the World Hockey Association. They know that in 1976 Bobby Orr is a 28-year-old newcomer to the Chicago Black Hawks. That the average annual salary of the 360 players in the 18-team NHL is more than $70,000, while the WHA's paychecks have reached just about the same level. And that a once for-Canadians-only sport has suddenly become a smorgasbord.
This season some 15 Swedish citizens, including 20-year-old Defenseman Bjorn Johansson, will be playing in the NHL and the WHA, along with seven players from Finland, two from Czechoslovakia and, most surprising, approximately 60 from the U.S. One striking example of hockey's new melting pot was the training camp of the New England Whalers, where Coach Harry Neale had a 34-player roster that included 22 Canadians, two Swedes and 10 Americans, including two Harvard preppies and a black refugee from the Oakland ghetto named Henry Taylor. Another was in Boston where 21-year-old Matti Hagmann of Finland showed up for a tryout with the Bruins and easily won a regular job. Juha Widing of the Los Angeles Kings put hockey's foreign invasion into perspective when he said, "Once I was written about as the first Swede to score a goal in the NHL, but now they think I'm just someone from Flin Flon with a funny name."
Of all the foreigners, the Swedish players are having the greatest impact on the game. Bjorn Johansson was the first-round amateur draft choice of the NHL's California Seals (now the Cleveland Barons) this past summer, the fifth player selected and the first European ever picked in the first round. He easily won a job with the Barons.
Toronto's Borje Salming is hockey's most accomplished defensive defenseman and the darling of the crowds at Maple Leaf Gardens. When Salming was introduced with his Swedish teammates before a game against Team Canada in the recent Canada Cup series, the Toronto fans gave him a thundering five-minute standing ovation, punctuated with cries of "B.J., B.J., B.J."—Salming's nickname. Listening to the roar. Canada Captain Bobby Clarke said, "Don't these people know that we're the home team in this game?"
In Winnipeg, Defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg is captain of the WHA champion Jets, and Center Ulf Nilsson and Right Wing Anders Hedberg work with Bobby Hull on one of the league's most devastating lines; they combined for 141 goals last season. Hull calls Nilsson the team's "air traffic controller," because of the precise manner in which Nilsson passes the puck to his breaking wings. Boston Bruin Coach Don Cherry scouted the speedy Hedberg, who scored 50 goals last year, during the Canada Cup competition, then said, "Playing Hedberg in the WHA is like running Secretariat at the county fair."
In Hartford, snuff dipper Thommy Abrahamsson starts his third season as a regular defenseman for the New England Whalers, and his kid brother, Christer, starts his third as the Whalers' alternate goaltender. And in Minnesota, eighth-round draft choice Roland Eriksson has won a regular job at center with the NHL's North Stars; in his first NHL game last week, Eriksson had four assists against the New York Rangers.
Why this heavy influx of Swedes? The lure is basic. "We came over here for the experience and the challenge but mostly for the money," says Thommy Abrahamsson, who receives $80,000 a year from the Whalers. "Back home I worked as an electrician and played in the top [Elite] league, and between the two jobs I could make $15,000 or maybe $20,000 a year. With the Swedish rate of inflation, that's only $10,000 or $12,000 here in the U.S. And you can't eat too many lobsters on that. The life here is good." Toronto's Salming recently signed a five-year contract for $1 million, while Nilsson and Hedberg have identical Winnipeg contracts that pay them more than $100,000 a year. "We were considered gangsters when we left home to play for big money in North America," says Christer Abrahamsson. "Now kids all over Sweden want to be hockey players in North America."
Ironically, the advance guard of Swedes did not survive very long in pro hockey. Sven (Tumba) Johansson, Sweden's "Rocket Richard," failed a tryout with the Boston Bruins in the late 1950s, and Ulf Sterner flunked a four-game test with the New York Rangers in 1964 when he could not adjust to the hitting of the NHL pros. "The Rangers played tougher against me in practice than they did against the rest of the league," said Sterner as he left for home. But in 1972 the combination of NHL expansion and the creation of the WHA opened up hockey's job market, and the Detroit Red Wings imported three Swedish players. One, Defenseman Thommie Bergman, played regularly for the Red Wings for two seasons before jumping to the Winnipeg Jets. Toronto signed Salming and Left Wing Inge Hammarstrom before the 1973-74 season; Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and the Abrahamssons, among others, turned professional before the 1974-75 schedule.
From the start, the Swedish players had to combat the "Chicken Swede" image that most Canadian-born hockey players felt was the perfect description of the newcomers' nonviolent hockey style. "I was prepared for the runs players took at me," Salming says, "and I was ready for the spearing and so forth, but some of it was ridiculous." The Broad Street Bullies initiated Salming into the NHL in his first game in Philadelphia. In order, Salming was chopped down by Bob Kelly's stick, hacked by Ed Van Impe and punched repeatedly by Dave Schultz. Last spring Salming was the prime target of Philadelphia's intimidation tactics during the Stanley Cup playoffs. A pacifist, Salming refused to drop his gloves and fight any of the Flyers; in one game he simply held onto the shirt of Philadelphia's Mel Bridgman while the Flyer player was throwing punches at him.
"It wasn't as bad as people made it out to be," Salming says, "but Swedes just don't know how to fight. In Canada kids are brought up fighting. In Sweden, never. It is the philosophy we have about the game." In fact, fighting can earn a season's suspension in Sweden. "North American hockey," says Winnipeg's Sjoberg, "is the only sport where fighting is allowed."
Sjoberg remembers his first fight with the Jets. "All of a sudden my gloves were off and some guy was pounding me," he says. "Then I realized I didn't know what I was doing. So I just stood there. Afterward, someone asked me if I thought I looked stupid. I thought the other guy looked stupid. You know, it's never the really tough players who pull this stuff, only the little punks who want to prove something. The difference between North American and Swedish hockey? Look at the teeth."
Last season Nick Fotiu, the Staten Island, N.Y. native whose left hooks and overhand rights have now earned him a job with the New York Rangers, had a speed bag installed in the New England Whalers' dressing room, and one day he tried to get Thommy Abrahamsson to use it. Abrahamsson walked over, took a swing and the bag hit him squarely on the nose. "You ought to put a team together and tour Sweden," Abrahamsson told Fotiu. "You, Johnny McKenzie, Schultz and a bunch of other guys. They'd love you in Sweden. Like a freak show. Maybe you could even put Muhammad Ali on skates."
Toronto Owner Harold Ballard has been low on the courage of one of his own Swedes, Inge Hammarstrom. "Hammarstrom could go into the corner with a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break one of them," Ballard once said. On another occasion, after a game against the Flyers in which Hammarstrom had not been very aggressive, Ballard suggested that the Swede had contracted the "Philly Flu." One frustrated WHA coach, seeing Hedberg and Nilsson skate circles around his players, yelled at the Swedes, "How can you guys score 50 goals and not have any scars?" But New England Coach Harry Neale says, "I'll tell you about the Swedes. Ricky Ley hit Nilsson last season with what might have been the most violent clean check I've ever seen. I mean, I thought Ricky'd broken every bone in Nilsson's body. Well, Nilsson got up and got five assists against us."
Hedberg says he detected the strong anti-Swede feelings of Canadian players "right away" after his arrival in Winnipeg. In San Diego Andre Lacroix protested that the Swedes were "taking jobs away from Canadians." "We'd be cross-checked, speared and challenged to fights," Hedberg says. "I remember a couple of times we asked each other, 'What are we doing here?' Then we decided we had three courses of action: we could retaliate by dropping our gloves and fighting, we could be intimidated and stop playing our games, or we could keep going and try to ignore the provocation. Our game is to skate and score goals, and the only way we could do that was by following the third alternative. It wasn't always easy, but we were lucky to have Bobby Hull and an entire team behind us."
The not-so-subtle intimidation tactics that Canadians practiced on the Swedish players angered Hull, who called the intimidators "goons." Hull even staged a personal one-game strike as a protest against the harassment of his European teammates. Hull also has been a major force behind changes in WHA rules that now call for the expulsion of players who wield their sticks like Scaramouche.
Hedberg, Nilsson, Sjoberg and most of Winnipeg's other European players were recruited for the Jets by Dr. Gerry Wilson, an orthopedic surgeon in Winnipeg whose promising hockey career with the Montreal Canadiens was ended by knee problems. Dr. Wilson visited Stockholm in the winter of 1973-74 to do research on sports medicine and teach a course on sports injuries at the Gymnasium, a university that prepares physical educators in both the practice and the philosophy of sport. "I was fascinated by their entire approach to sport," Dr. Wilson says. "When I found out that Hedberg, Nilsson and Sjoberg were interested in playing in North America. I quickly contacted the Jets. We needed something. The simple economics were that we were drawing 2,400 to 2,500 per game in Winnipeg. There was some skepticism when they arrived, and grumbling that they were taking Canadian jobs away from Canadians. But by the end of the year they were bringing in 8,000 people a game."
Hedberg leads the philosophical discussion groups in the Winnipeg dressing room. "Sometimes it sounds like Oxford in there," says Coach Bobby Kromm. Hedberg once helped start a philosophy-of-sport course at Stockholm's Gymnasium, and now he and Dr. Wilson lecture at sports clinics and seminars throughout Canada. Hedberg glibly expresses his views on hockey (the way one plays can be improved by his understanding of the physical and psychological aspects of the game as well as his environment and physiology) and, for what it's worth, even Mussolini—"He controlled mosquitoes in the Mediterranean." Says Hedberg of Soviet players: "They'd never adjust to a society so based on competition, where money is too much power."
Sjoberg, who is 32, is writing his thesis to complete his Ph. D. in education, specifically the application of education to community planning. As captain of the Jets, he already has improved their community planning by convincing management that all bonus agreements should be based on team performances—not individual productivity. "Sjoberg was in Winnipeg for only a year, and then he was voted captain," Kromm says. "That tells you something about Sjoberg the man."
Salming, though, ranks as the outstanding player from Sweden; he is the Swedish Bobby Orr. Like Orr, Salming maintains a low profile, shielding himself from outside contact and keeping his words to a minimum. Like Orr, he plays with remarkable instinct and flair, displaying a recklessness that seems beyond reason or science. He has speed, a hard and accurate shot and surprising strength concealed in his lanky, wiry frame. He also has excellent balance and leverage on skates.
The Maple Leafs discovered Salming and Hammarstrom in the spring of 1973 when scout Gerry McNamara decided to take in a game in Sweden between the Barrie Flyers, a senior amateur team from Ontario, and the Brynas team of the Swedish league. Hammarstrom immediately impressed McNamara as a goal scorer by beating the Barrie goaltender four times; Hammarstrom may not be an egg cracker in the NHL but he has scored a total of 60 goals in his three pro seasons. Salming, on the other hand, mainly impressed McNamara when he was thrown out of the game for fighting. "Well, we were playing a Canadian team, eh?" Salming says with a grin. McNamara visited the Brynas dressing room and invited Salming and Hammarstrom to Toronto for a tryout with the Maple Leafs. They accepted, and they both were in the Maple Leaf lineup for the opening game of the 1973-74 season.
"I've had to make some adjustments," Salming says. "I was basically a defensive defenseman in Sweden, but over here defensemen handle the puck more. I had to learn to turn quickly and go back for pucks that had been dumped into the corners. And I had to get used to all the stuff that goes on in the corners, too. But nothing was too difficult." Indeed. Salming has played in the NHL All-Star Game the last two seasons, and he is the player around whom the Maple Leafs revolve—offensively and defensively.
Better still, not even the bulliest Broad Street Bully calls Salming a "Chicken Swede" anymore. "I think in time I have earned my respect," Salming says. "I hit, I get hit. There is a lot more to the game than knowing how to fight." Says Dr. Wilson of Salming and all the Swedes, "They've proved something to the lumberjacks."
Swedes Ulf Nilsson (left) and Anders Hedberg work with Bobby Hull (center) on the line that led Winnipeg to the WHA title.
Borje Salming (left) is the darling of Toronto crowds, and someday Bjorn Johansson may be the same in Cleveland.
Thommy and Christer Abrahamsson like New England lobster.
Hedberg's No. 1 admirer in Winnipeg is Gunn-Marie Nineberg.