When Nicklas Lidstrom finally hung up the skates last week, it ended the career of a man that The Hockey News once declared the “best European-trained player ever in the NHL“.
For all of his glory – 4 Stanley Cups, an Olympic Gold Medal, a World Championship, a membership in the elite “Triple Gold Club”, 7 Norris Trophies, 12 All Star appearances and a Conn Smythe Award – Lidstrom’s career would never have been possible if it were not for the Swedish players who paved the road ahead of him, removing stereotypes and stigmas of their countrymen and turning Sweden into the third-most represented nationality in the National Hockey League (Canada and the United States are first and second, respectively).
The road began on two separate paths that eventually converged and opened the door for players such as Lidstrom to have a chance to dominate North American hockey.
While the story of Sweden’s advent in North America does not begin with the World Hockey Association, the WHA was clearly a catalyst. The “rebel league” of the 1970′s had a lasting impact on the NHL beyond simply adding the Winnipeg Jets (now Phoenix Coyotes), Quebec Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche), Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers (now Carolina Hurricanes) to the League.
In order to compete against the NHL without completely depleting the talent pool and watering down both leagues, the WHA was forced to look towards nontraditional sources in order to survive. The Winnipeg Jets made a splash in 1972 by signing Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull, but then proceeded to spend the next two seasons creating another stir by picking up players from Europe. In 1974 alone, the Jets signed forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, and defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg directly from Sweden. In 1975, the Jets would add forward Willy Lindstrom, they added forward Dan Labraaten in 1976 and, in 1977, forward Kent Nilsson. They also poached Thommie Bergman from the Red Wings in the midst of the 1974-75 season (as a rebel league, the WHA had no transfer agreements with the NHL and actually obtained many of its star players by poaching them from NHL clubs). Roland Eriksson joined the club after being released by the Canucks during the last season of the WHA. All told, from 1974 to 1979 (the last year of the WHA), the Jets would play 8 Swedes on their roster, with only Eriksson playing fewer than 100 WHA games.
With a roster loaded with Swedes, the Jets would proceed to win the Avco Cup (the WHA’s championship) in 1976, 1978 and 1979. Ulf Nilsson would be the WHA Playoff MVP in 1976, Hedberg and Kent Nilsson would be named rookies of the year in 1975 and 1978 respectively and Sjoberg won the league’s best defenseman award in 1978. Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson were in the top 10 in league scoring in every season they played until they left for the New York Rangers after the 1978 season. In fact, the departure of the two first liners to New York is widely considered a major factor in the demise of the WHA, as the league would last one more season after losing two of its top drawing players.
The most dominant players on the most dominant team in the league were Swedish.
Just like that, the notion that Swedes could not compete in North America was shaken.
Prior to the advent of the WHA, the NHL rarely if ever signed players who trained outside of North America. In 1964, Sweden’s Ulf Sterner joined the New York Rangers for 4 games, becoming the first Swede to play in the National Hockey League. In his brief stint, Sterner displaying a noticeable lack of physicality due to a major difference in rules between North America and Europe – at the time, the IIHF forbade checking in the offensive zone. Sterner, clearly unable to adjust to the physical play of the NHL, was returned to his minor league club and never played in the NHL again.
In 1969, the IIHF decided to adopt the same checking rules as the NHL and opened the door for European players to start moving to the NHL. However, it wasn’t until 1974 – after the advent of the WHA – that the first Swedish player was drafted into the NHL. With the 49th pick in the 1974 NHL Entry Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Per-Arne Alexandersson. Alexandersson would only play one North American season in the old Central Hockey League.
Indeed, the Maple Leafs proved to be one of the more progressive teams in the NHL in their adoption of European players, as evidenced by the signing of one Anders Borje Salming a half-year before they drafted Alexandersson.
A native of Kiruna, Sweden, Borje Salming was discovered by the Maple Leafs during a European scouting trip. The Maple Leafs had actually gone on a mission to scout and sign Inge Hammartrom of the Elitserien team Brynas IF and noticed Salming, as well, and signed both to contracts for the 1973 season. Hammarstrom was a serviceable 20-goal scorer 3 times in his 4 full seasons Toronto, but Salming became nothing short of a legend. Over the next 17 years, Salming would go on to earn a reputation as one of the greatest defensemen in the history of the NHL. Playing 16 years with Toronto and one final season with the Detroit Red Wings, Salming appeared in 1,148 games, scored 150 goals and added 650 assists. Perhaps his most important mark, however, was his 1,344 penalty minutes, which helped dissuade the notion that Swedish players were anything but “soft”. While he never won any individual postseason awards during his career, Salming appeared in 3 All Star Games (1976, 1977, 1978), was named a First All Star once (1977) and a Second Team All Star five times (1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980).
In 1996, Salming cemented his legacy on the game by becoming the first Swedish player named to the Hockey Hall of Fame. As of 2011, he remains the only one. In 2008, Salming was one of 6 players selected – and the only player who was neither Wayne Gretzky nor a member of the Soviet Red Army team – to the IIHF Centennial All-Star Team.
In the same year that Salming was signed by the Red Wings, Detroit drafted 7 defensemen in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, including a young Swede by the name of Nicklas Lidstrom. Lidstrom and Salming never played side-by-side in Detroit, but they did share a locker room together a few times in international competition.
Lidstrom went to work picking up where Salming’s legacy left off. The elder Swede never won a Norris Trophy and – more importantly – never won a Stanley Cup, as he spent the majority of his career with the notoriously-mired Maple Leafs.
In 1997, Lidstrom lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time. He tacked on 3 more after that for good measure (1998, 2002, 2008). In 2008, Lidstrom set more NHL history when he became not only the first Swede to captain a team to a Stanley Cup, he became the first non-North American player to do so.
While Salming’s style was physical, Lidstrom’s was mental. Far from a “soft” player, Lidstrom was legendary in his ability to read opposing offenses. He was named a Norris Trophy winner for the first time in 2001, then repeated in 2002 and 2003 before relinquishing the trophy to Scott Niedermayer in 2004. After the lockout, Lidstrom continued his domination of the Norris Trophy with another threepeat from 2006-2008. As icing on the cake, he added a seventh in 2011, leaving only Bobby Orr with more.
Lidstrom played for over 20 years in the NHL, becoming one of the League’s best known-players and one of the more respected figures. His retirement cemented a legacy that extended beyond mere statistics – he was widely considered a leader, a character player and the sort of player a franchise is built around.
To see Lidstrom’s impact on his countrymen, one needs to look no further than his own team’s roster. When he retired last week, he left a team which finished the season with five other Swedes on the roster – Jonathan Ericsson, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Gustav Nyquist and Henrik Zetterberg.
When he finished his first season, he was the only one.