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Salming and Hammarstrom weren’t exactly the first

At the beginning of the 1973-’74 season, the Leafs had just come off a horrible year. They had missed the playoffs the previous spring after losing a number of outstanding young players—including star goalkeeper Bernie Parent—to the new World Hockey Association.

At training camp in 1973, they welcomed first-round draft choices Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull. They also brought on board two young but largely unknown Swedish players: Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom.

By making—and staying with—the Leafs, Salming and Hammarstrom broke a barrier of sorts—Swedes playing successfully in the perceived-to-be more rugged NHL. Hammarstrom, a forward, was a wonderful skater with obvious skill and creativity. As older Leaf fans know, Salming went on to face down the bully tactics of the Philadelphia Flyers and over the years became a legend with the Leafs and eventually a Hall-of-Famer.

In the ‘70s, critics weren’t always as kind to Hammarstrom, who was not a prototypical “rugged Canadian”. His was a thinking, finesse game, but this was the era of the Broad Street Bullies and guys like Inge were often unfairly targeted. (His own boss, Leaf owner Harold Ballard, complained that Hammarstrom played too soft, but that is a story for another day.) Hammarstrom, who finished his NHL career with the St. Louis Blues, was good enough to represent Sweden in both the Olympics and the Canada Cup.

The facts remain that both Salming and Hammarstrom did something virtually unheard of at the time—and were successful.

But if I’m not mistaken, another Swedish player made the trek across the ocean many years before as the original European pioneer.

His name stands out to this day—Ulf Sterner. When I was a youngster, I remember hearing about a young Swede coming to the New York Rangers for the 1964-’65 season. The event certainly didn’t receive the kind of attention it would nowadays, but as a young hockey fan at the time I was aware of his arrival.

I just now checked to see how long Sterner’s NHL “career” lasted- and it wasn’t long at all.

After an impressive performance at the 1964 Winter Olympics, Sterner signed with New York and then played a total of 4 games in the NHL as a 23 year-old in that 1964-’65 season. While he didn’t put up points with the Rangers, he had big-time minor league numbers in that same season—30 goals and 35 assists in only 68 games between the Central Hockey League and the American Hockey league, the top minor leagues at the time.

Obviously he had talent, but for reasons I can’t recall, returned to Europe after that season to continue playing. He had an outstanding career back home before and after his short-lived North American stay, twice representing Sweden in the Olympics—once as an eighteen year-old.

Though he was drafted by the New York franchise in the WHA draft in 1972, he never came back to play in North America professionally.

Almost 10 years after Sterner made his NHL debut, Salming and Hammarstrom triggered a huge influx of European stars to North America, including Winnipeg Jets (and later New York Ranger) stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson. Both Swedes played on a line in Winnipeg with former Black Hawk superstar Bobby Hull, and had many outstanding WHA seasons before jumping to the Rangers to finish off their careers in the NHL.

We all know that NHL rosters for years have been filled with players of European descent, but the European hockey invasion really started, it seems, with the little-talked-about Ulf Sterner.

Our readers may remember other players from Europe who came over before Sterner, and if so, send along your recollections!

1 comment:

  1. I found this piece of news from the the local newspaper (Karlstad, Sweden) where Ulf Sterner still lives.
    He played almost a full game at age 66 in 2008.
    (veteran hockey)